Lionel Bart (1930-1999)

Oliver! (1960) is a British musical, with music and lyrics by Lionel Bart. The 1968 film based on it aired on Channel 5 this afternoon.

From a memoir in The Independent of 31 August 2006 by Michael Coveney:

“The rise and fall of Lionel Bart, who died aged 68 in 1999, is a classic rags-to-riches-to-rags theatre story. Generally credited with being the father of the modern British musical, Bart wrote probably the best loved of all popular shows in the past century – Oliver!- yet died more or less broke, certainly washed up, living in a house in Acton and on subs from friends, notably the royalty on Oliver! which was arranged for him by the producer Cameron Mackintosh long after he had sold all the rights in his own show.

His career and creativity are celebrated this week in It’s a Fine Life! at the Queen’s Theatre in Hornchurch, Essex, a neighbourly outpost of the old Theatre Royal, Stratford East, where Bart’s songs in Joan Littlewood’s Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be in 1959 heralded a new era in British musical theatre…

Two weeks before he died, Bart was working on a revival of Fings at Hornchurch with director Bob Carlton, and the success of the revival set the theatre on a new course, renewing its roots in an Essex community which remembered the East End and Soho of the post War years.

The most important thing about Bart was that he came from a left-wing-theatre tradition of the Unity Theatre and Stratford East, as well as from Tin Pan Alley and the music hall. He was, in effect, says Carlton, “a homosexual Jewish junkie commie”, whose vigorous, idiomatic “sing-along” music is a lost element in today’s theatre…

Chris Bond, who has written the Hornchurch show around a selection of Bart songs, knew the composer for the last 10 years of his life…

…Bart’s output between 1957 and 1964 was prodigious. Born Lionel Begleiter (he changed to Bart when he went past Bart’s Hospital on a bus) in 1930, the seventh child of East End immigrant Jews (his father was a master tailor), he attended St Martin’s School of Art, where his first life-model was Quentin Crisp, and went into the printing trade after his National Service.

David Roper, Bart’s unofficial biographer, reckons that the underground homosexuality of Soho life in those pre-legalisation days was a key factor in the making of the artist. Even after the Lords passed Leo Abse’s bill in 1967, it was, says Roper, “too late for Lionel to shed his cloak of self-deception”. That cloak was the stalking horse for his art, which was more or less finished in this period anyway.

…Bart was the head honcho, the focus of activity, forging significant creative relationships with the brilliant designer Sean Kenny, the director Peter Coe and actors like Barbara Windsor, Georgia Brown, Barry Humphries and Ron Moody.

Coward, whose Sail Away in 1962 was his last musical comedy, declared that he would “rather spend five minutes in a four-ale bar chatting with Lionel Bart than a year’s yachting cruise with the Oxford debating society,” a clear indication that Bart’s sharp wit and general sassiness were as apparent in his life as in his work. Bob Carlton concurs, suggesting that Bart’s imaginative life was as important as the one he actually lived: “It therefore makes sense in our show to show the young wartime evacuee Lionel running away to London with his two new best friends, Bill Sikes and Nancy…”

(From Ekaterina Botziou’s blog entry for Huffpost of August 17, 2014:

My favourite Disney film is Beauty and the Beast; a story about Belle who is clever, brave and doesn’t glamorise her looks like most of the other princesses. When her father is captured by the Beast, Belle goes to save him and offers to take her father’s place. She goes on to win the heart of the Beast who eventually shows his more gentle side, transforms into a handsome man and they live happily ever after. While it never occurred to me that the Beast was anything other than a misunderstood animal who needed some tender loving care, I was firmly of the opinion that Belle’s other potential suitor, the vain Gaston, was a male, chauvinistic pig. Despite aggressively locking Belle in a room, refusing to give her food or water unless she dined with him, and howling so ferociously in her face that she flees the castle fearing for her life, the Beast seemed a much better choice than the superficial, egg-loving French-man.

I somehow missed the glaringly obvious examples of Stockholm Syndrome and the Beast’s violently aggressive nature and dismissed it all as his mere frustration at being cursed by an enchantress. I learnt that being kind and gentle, will surely tame even the most violent and emotionally abusive of monsters. Sadly in reality, telling someone you love them does not prompt a magical transformation accompanied by fireworks and singing teapots.

There are various example likes this across the board and children lap it up. Of course there is the danger of the slippery slope here and are we to say that women who put up with controlling relationships do so because Walt Disney told them too? Well no, but it is obvious in most childhood stories that we are taught that abuse, bullying, ostracism and criticism, whether direct or indirect, passive or impassive, can all be swept under the rug with just one kind word.

In our adolescent studies, the examples become even more confusing. Othello smothers his wife Desdemona believing that she has committed adultery; Bill Sykes beats Nancy to a pulp just after she has declared her love for him by singing ‘As long as he needs me’…)

(The lyrics include: “Who else would love him still

When they’ve been used so ill?

He knows I always will…

As long as he needs me.”)

” “He was a deeply insecure man,” adds Chris Bond, “but he had come to a reconciliation with himself by the end.” “.

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