Bye Bye Birdie

As spring rolls around, so does North’s annual school musical! This year the huskies have decided to perform the production of Bye Bye Birdie! The musical tells the story of rock ‘n’ roll singer Conrad Birdie, who is drafted into the army and as a publicity stunt, his agent arranges for him to give “one last kiss” to a teenage fan on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” This sets off a chain of events that involves a love triangle, small-town gossip, and plenty of teenage angst.

The main character, Kim McAfee, is a 15-year-old former fangirl of Conrad Birdie and believes she’s old enough to experience “grown-up love”. This year, Ms. McAfee is played by Lilia Tomoff, a junior here at North. Tomoff has much to say about her experience in not only playing the character but also receiving the role itself.

“Well, when the musical was selected, I actually had fought against it really hard because I didn’t like the sexism in it. And I almost auditioned saying I’ll accept any role except Kim McAfee. But the more I familiarized myself with the show and learned the music, the more I realized I really loved her singing style and I realized that her character was not genuine, she was supposed to be a caricature of misogynist portrayal of women in musicals and movies. And so when I realized I got the role, I was very excited, but it was a while getting there,” explained Tomoff.

As Tomoff mentions, Bye Bye Birdie has faced criticism for its portrayal of gender roles. Some have argued that the female characters are depicted as shallow and passive, while the male characters are more dynamic and assertive. In the cast’s attempt to combat this, they made efforts to make it obvious that the sexist or racist jokes they made were not genuine and aligned with ideas and prejudices held by those in the 1960s, not by the students and cast themselves.

Before the musical’s premiere, Lilia Tomoff posted an Instagram story saying “MY CHARACTER IS RIDICULOUS. PLEASE DON’T TAKE ME SERIOUSLY!!!” Her response and reasoning for the interesting post is, “My character made a lot of bad choices in the musical. She spends a lot of time sort of reveling in a very stereotyped idea of what womanhood looks like and has a very limited idea of her future. Her big song, ‘How Lovely to Be a Woman’ is sort of celebrating even though she’s only 15 years old, because she has a boyfriend, she has accomplished all she has set out to do in life. […] When I first watched the movie I did not realize that that was satirical, and so when portraying the character I was very careful to attempt to convey that, but I also wanted everyone to know just in case.”

Another starring role in the musical is Conrad Birdie, America’s dream boy, played by Steen Harris-Pham. From his amazing acting, it was clear that he gained many fans in the audience. 

“So, Conrad Birdie is based off of Elvis, and of course, Elvis is the king of rock. He just exudes charm and confidence on stage. Making that comparison to yourself, trying to emulate Elvis, that’s not really fair, so I had to separate myself from ‘Hey, I’ve got to be Elvis on stage’ to ‘I gotta be my own Rockstar on stage,’ because otherwise, I can’t compete,” says Senior Harris-Pham. 

From a viewer’s perspective, I believe the cast, especially Steen Harris-Pham’s Conrad Birdie, perfectly displayed the stereotypical characters. I found that Harris-Pham’s role was incredible, the scene in the Ice House with Kim McAfee made me highly uncomfortable, which was the whole point of the scene. The ability to separate yourself from the character to fully emulate the character and make the audience feel that kind of disgust, to the end of being physically sick to the stomach, is an incredible feat for a young actor.

North’s rendition of Bye Bye Birdie was very enjoyable to watch! There were many ensemble features throughout the duration, many of which were filled with comedic relief. Watching this year’s performance did not disappoint and I’m excited to see what they have in store for next year!