Apr 7, 2018
This is ANTIC, the Atari 8-bit podcast. I’m Kevin
I love old computers. If you’ve been listening to this podcast
for a while, you knew that already. I also love musical theater. So
when I found out about Bits & Bytes, a 1983 musical about
computers — well, that’s right in my wheelhouse.
Bits & Bytes was an educational touring production,
created by South Coast Repertory Theater, a professional theatre
company located in Costa Mesa, California. It was a 45-minute
musical show, aimed at school kids, that was performed at
elementary schools across Southern California from January through
June of 1983. More than 60,000 children saw the show.
The story is about Happy, a naive girl who goes into a
computer store for the first time, wondering if a computer can
“solve all her problems and make her truly happy.” Morton B.
Norton, a pushy, overzealous computer salesman, tries to sell her a
computer, with the help of wacky sidekicks, Bits and Bytes. Through
speech and song, the team teaches Happy about computers — what they
can and can’t do. A computer could help her be more organized, get
her homework done, and play games. But Happy learns that a computer
cannot really think, and is not a substitute for real, human
The goal of the play was to “show the realistic capabilities
of computers as distinguished from commercial hypes and science
fiction fantasy.” Another goal was to emphasize the “talents unique
to human beings — what makes us different from
South Coast Repertory Theater’s educational touring
productions took short original plays into area primary schools.
The topic of computers was chosen for the 1983 production because
surveyed teachers, parents, and principals overwhelmingly chose
“computer literacy” as a topic they wanted to see covered.
(Previous educational touring shows included Tomato Surprise, about
nutrition; The Fitness Game, about physical fitness; and The Energy
Show, about conserving energy.)
The play was written by Michael Bigelow Dixon and Jerry Patch,
with music by Diane King. It was directed by John-David Keller,
with set design by Dwight Richard Odle. The assistant
director/choreographer was Diane dePriest.
An ensemble of five played all the roles, with one doubling as
stage manager. The cast was Robert Crow, Sam Hamann, James Le
Gros, Laura Leyva, and Deborah Nisimura.
Bits & Bytes won the 1983 Pioneer Drama Service award for
best new play. It ran for 246 performances, breaking the booking
record for South Coast Repertory.
The January 29, 1983 issue of the Los Angeles Times
“...in some respects the current show is the most impressive
so far. Now that computer technology has entered the home and
workplace—as well as the shopping mall—it’s noteworthy that a play
can tell us how much more computers can do than launch missiles
gobble up space villains. … Diane King composed such a fine
score—which includes evocations of different eras in pop music—that
it almost has commercial possibilities of its own.
“Laura Leyva plays Happy, the girl who, for a very long time,
is led to believe—along with the rest of us—that the computer will
solve all our problems. That’s a dangerous and depressingly facile
notion whose emphasis, early on, far outweighs the authors’
concluding moral that ‘computers can only deal with facts, not
“But Bits & Bytes humorously shows its audience of kids
how advanced and widespread the computer revolution has become and
that they stand well ahead of their parents at its ramparts.”
Texas Instruments donated a computer to the production: a TI
99/4A with monitor, peripheral expansion box, speech synthesizer,
disk drives, and software. The computer was used as part of the
I interviewed three people who helped create Bits & Bytes:
first, Michael Bigelow Dixon, who is co-author of the play. Next
we’ll hear from Diane King, the composer. Finally we’ll hear from
Laura Leyva, the actress who played the roll of Happy.
The interview with Michael Bigelow Dixon took place on March
9, 2018, with Diane King on March 6, and with Laura Leyva on March
Look at the show notes, where you’ll find several photographs
of the Bits & Bytes cast, reviews of the play, and articles
about it. If you’d like to read the play or the score, that’s
trickier. They are not online due to copyright. I borrowed copies
via interlibrary loan.
If you saw this play, I would love to hear your memories of
it. You can always email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Special thanks to Tania Thompson at South Coast Repertory for
providing background information about this production, to Laura
Leyva for providing photographs, to Michael Bigelow Dixon for
providing articles from his archive, and to Diane King for
digitizing her recordings from tape and allowing me to use them for