MANCHESTER, NH – It’s been 46 years since my theatrical debut at age 16 which began and ended with my high school’s production of “Bye Bye Birdie back in 1976. I played the role of Doris MacAfee, mother of Kim MacAfee, the lucky teenager from Sweet Apple, Ohio, selected to kiss musical heartthrob Conrad Birdie on national TV before he was drafted into the Army.
More on that in a minute.
But you can probably imagine how it felt for me to sit in on a dress rehearsal last week as the Palace Theatre professional players prepared for opening night of the nostalgic musical production. I was among about two dozen people who braved the snowy weather and accepted an invitation to get a peek behind the scenes, a perk extended to season ticket-holders.
Before I explain why a song about high school sweethearts getting pinned gave me goosebumps, let me fill you in on what goes into mounting a musical these days.
Palace Theatre President and CEO Peter Ramsey says this is the first time in two years that they’ve been able to offer regulars at the Palace a chance to see a show in progress. The last time was in February of 2020 as the sold-out “Mama Mia” was taking shape. The plug was pulled on the show abruptly, and the footlights went dark.
So this particular return to “normalcy” was almost as exhilarating as an opening night for Ramsey.
“This wouldn’t happen on Broadway,” Ramsey says. “The actors take great pride in their work and we’re still 24-hours away from opening night.” It was the first time the cast, which includes many professional actors from New York – as well as the Palace Theatre stage debut of Bedford’s own Emma Flynn as Kim MacAfee – were putting all the pieces of the play together. “Anything can happen – the shoes might be wrong or the lighting isn’t right, or a costume malfunctions. Normally, they would want to work out all the kinks before anyone sees the show.”
But that’s part of the charm of the Palace. The backstage experience is a rare window into all that goes into producing eight annual professional productions.
One big shift since COVID is that actors everywhere are struggling to find stage work. Auditioning for a show at the Palace for many professional actors is a bright spot in what has been a complete theatrical “lights out” since early 2020. Nevermind Broadway. Of the 2,000 historic theaters across the country like the Palace, 40 percent of them are still closed, Ramsey says, that according to the League of Historic American Theatres, of which New Hampshire has four: Park Theatre in Jaffrey, Colonial Theatre in Keene and The Music Hall in Portsmouth, in addition to the Palace.
Artistic Director Carl Rajotte explained that because no one auditions in person anymore, casting a show requires sifting through “hundreds and hundreds of videos.” Not only a daunting task, but the process removes one of the key components for directors: the gut feeling you get when someone hits the stage to belt out a song and your jaw drops.
“We’re hoping in September to get back to New York City for casting calls and back to normal,” Rajotte says.
The cost to produce a show like “Bye Bye Birdie” can be in the ballpark of $130,000, including an 11-15 percent royalty that goes to whoever owns the rights to the show. There are other costs, including the 27 delicate lavalier mics required for actors that cost $2,000 each and, ideally, last about two years depending on wear and tear, and the technology that goes into programming the lights, the high-tech backdrop screen, paying for staff and, for this show, the five-piece live band. Fortunately, the Palace has a solid system for building sets off-site and access to more than 10,000 costumes.
“We try to do a little bit of everything when we plan out our season. We’re almost ready to announce next season’s shows, and there will be some surprises,” Ramsey says. Generally, he tries to mix it up between “golden oldies” like “Bye Bye Birdie,” which is a first-time showing for the Palace, and shows that appeal more to a younger crowd, such as “Mama Mia” or “Rent”
“But ‘Rent is hard to get,” says Ramsey, explaining that securing the rights to a show is one of the many challenges to this aspect of show biz and building a season’s worth of shows with consumer appeal that the public doesn’t always understand.
COVID has made everything that much harder and more challenging, Ramsey says. But thanks to New Hampshire’s managing of the pandemic, things are bouncing back better here than many other parts of the country.
“These actors came from all over the country for a chance to get back to work, and we’ve been doing all the required testing as mandated by the Actors Guild,” Rajotte says. So far everyone is healthy, but understudies are prepped and ready to go, as needed.
As for weathering the COVID storm over these two production seasons, Ramsey reports that the Palace “is doing financially fine” thanks to some federal and local relief grants and memberships, and a wise decision by their board to retain 15 employees when other theaters shut down completely. The goal is only to break even on a show, and despite the pandemic dip in ticket sales, there has been plenty of community support. He expects memberships – down about 50 percent from pre-COVID numbers – to continue to rise with the goal of complete recovery – including finding new supporters who hadn’t found their way to the Palace before.
Among those members who came out on a snowy March evening to catch the first few scenes of dress rehearsal was Frank Splitt. He says becoming a season ticket holder is probably the best decision he’s made when it comes to enhancing his life as a city dweller.
“I grew up in Pennsylvania so we were pretty close to New York City and in all those years I might have seen two Broadway shows,” Splitt says. Although he’s lived in Manchester for 35 years, he finally decided to attend a Palace show a few years ago, and was blown away.
“Honestly, I had no idea how professional the productions were. I didn’t expect the shows to be so high-quality. I decided right away to support the Palace with a membership,” Splitt says. “I don’t know why it took me so long.”
Like Splitt, I also grew up in Pennsylvania and made it to Broadway a few times with my star-struck daughter, who has the voice of an angel and aspired to be on Broadway one day. Like me, she got a taste of the theater life in high school and has gone on to enjoy performing in local community theatre, including during the short time she lived in New Hampshire. I have to assume she inherited her creative skillset from me, or maybe it was by osmosis as, unbeknownst to me in February of 1976, I was actually due to become a mother that September while ironically portraying mom Doris MacAfee during my junior year at Woodrow Wilson High.
Despite the stigma factor of my circumstance at that juncture in my life, I wouldn’t change a thing; my life played out perfectly and I wouldn’t be who I am today without all of it.
Which brings me full circle.
As I waited with the others for our cue to file into the designated visitor section, I was having flashbacks, reliving the joy of this particular production. Some of you may remember the movie version, starring an A-list of bygone actors including Dick Van Dyke, Janet Leigh, Paul Lynde, Bobby Rydell, Ann-Margret and even a cameo by Ed Sullivan himself.
The storyline is loosely based on the actual 1958 draft of teen idol Elvis Presley into the Army to the horror of fans around the world. Kim MacAfee is president of Conrad Birdie’s fan club (a character whose name is a play on another singing sensation of the time, Conrad Twitty). As a publicity stunt, someone decides to send Birdie to Sweet Apple for “one last kiss” before shipping off. However, Kim MacAfee has just been “pinned” by her sweetheart, Hugo Peabody, which is the talk of the small town – tying up the phone lines just long enough for a lively production number before Kim gets the call that turns her life upside down.
The rest of the show follows all the characters who have a stake in how things go with Birdie and Kim, to be televised nationally on the Ed Sullivan Show. I won’t give it all away, but I can tell you that there’s nothing like the nostalgia of a simpler time – the show’s mid-century setting and my own teenage life – to transport you out of the current state of affairs and into a retro world where a small-town drama can come to a perfect resolution in about two hours.
As the young cast members belted out the lively and funny “Telephone Hour” number, I got chills – the kind of chills you get when something long lost comes back to you in a sensory way. In the next scene, when Kim sings about how it feels to be a woman now that she’s “pinned” and then realizes how much she needs her mother, I recalled how it felt to be Doris MacAfee, mustering all the maternal love and support I could muster as a 16-year-old.
*Note 1: Bernadette Dasconia, who played Kim to my Doris, is still one of my best friends; we started off at the first rehearsal as acquaintances and came out the other side as friends for life, a testament to the value and vitality of high school drama programs.
**Note 2: Wilson’s drama program was nationally acclaimed due to the one and only Louis T. Volpe, who was the inspiration for the book, “Drama High” by Michael Sokolove, which became the basis for the short-lived 2018 TV show, “Rise.” “Bye Bye Birdie” was only his second production at Woodrow Wilson, predating his many national awards and accolades. He’s still around, and he was also one of my high school honors English teachers who helped me discover my knack for writing. I owe him many debts and he is one of a handful of teachers who literally helped me figure out where my life was leading me.
I plan to attend the show, and I will bring a wad of tissues because I already know it will hit me in the heart, causing my memory banks to leak, uncontrollably. In speaking with Palace Theatre’s David Rousseau, who handles marketing, he says he isn’t sure how the public will receive this show.
It’s definitely dated. And, outside of those who remember the movie version – which also launched the career of “sex-kitten” Ann-Margret – or who actually played a part in high school, as I did, maybe it seems like a hard-sell.
But trust me on this: A musical about teenage love, rock-n-roll idols, family dynamics, adults who need a push to get on with the rest of their lives, and the way we find out what really matters in our lives when things get turned upside-down are universal truths that never get old.
The Palace Theatre is located at 80 Hanover Street. Catch the show which runs March 10-April 3. Click here show dates and times, tickets link and more info or call the box office at 603-668-5588.
Virtual Robidoux is an occasional column by Ink Link Publisher Carol Robidoux, who mainly writes the column as an excuse to post her 1992 mall glamour photo on the Internet whenever the spirit moves her.