“OLIVER!” (with an exclamation point)

Whenever I think about the musical Oliver!, I’m struck by how over the years its exclamation point feels so earned due to its worldwide success. After wowing audiences in 1960 with its tryout in Wimbledon, England, it moved quickly to the West End where it became the longest running British musical with a record-breaking 2,618 performances. American producer David Merrick, then ubiquitous for bringing shows across the pond to Broadway, quickly nabbed the rights and gave it a near year-long U.S. tour before finally arriving on Broadway January 6, 1963, fifty-nine years ago tonight. A solid hit, it ran for close to two years, then became even more famous by its Academy Award winning film adaptation in 1968 (Best Picture and five other Oscars, including a rare special award to choreographer Onna White for her brilliant dances). Forever beloved in its native England, the stage show has probably been revived there more times than any other homegrown musical.

There’s a history of titles with an exclamation point to be sure, though they were few and far between prior to 1943’s Oklahoma!, which even had one when the show’s out of town Boston marquee read Away We Go! The Gershwins’ Oh, Kay! (1926) had one, as did Cole Porter with Let’s Face It! (1941), and as far back as 1918, Jerome Kern’s Oh, Lady! Lady!! utilized not one, but three. And even if Oklahoma!’s exclamation point didn’t exactly inspire a trend, by the time of Oh, Captain! (1958) and Fiorello! (1959), there was “an era exploding” (as mentioned in the title tune from Ragtime — no exclamation point). Among others, the 1960s brought forth Carnival!, Hello, Dolly!, Sherry! and Hallelujah, Baby!, as well as those boasting two exclamation points like I Do! I Do!, Drat! The Cat! and Oh! Calcutta!. Clearly the “!” was here to stay. At the start of the 2000s, the habit continued with the long-running Mamma Mia!, and the more recent Something Rotten!, On Your Feet! and Moulin Rouge!

Mark Zablow, a branding specialist at Cogent Entertainment, has weighed in on the subject by saying that exclamation points “bring urgency, excitement and humor. It makes you expect the show to be lively and have a lot going on.”

Oliver! had all that — and a bunch of kids on stage to boot. This musical version of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist was the brainchild of composer-lyricist Lionel Bart, who also took on the book writing chores himself. Much like Mel Brooks, Bart could not read, write, or play music. Instead, and in just the way Brooks came up with the score for The Producers, Bart would sing his tunes and lyrics into a tape recorder then leave the rest to skilled musical arrangers.

As the youngest of seven surviving children (there were eleven), Bart was born Lionel Begleiter in 1930 to poor Jewish refugees in London’s West End. He found early joy in music and became obsessed with all that he could find by way of Salvation Army bands as well as cheap admission to Yiddish theatre and East End music halls. With grit and determination, he began writing songs and found almost immediate success with pop singles and with a couple of shows he wrote prior to Oliver! By the time of its opening, Bart was thirty-two years-old and the world was his (for a moment). According to reports, “at the height of his success he was netting the then staggering sum of £8,000 a week — equivalent to nearly £120,000 today — and was richer by far than The Beatles.”

It was said of Bart that “success and excess went hand in hand.” Upon becoming wealthy beyond his wildest dreams, he partied in what was then mod London society, mingling with everyone from Noel Coward to the Beatles, who were among the visitors to his flat where, as legend has it, “a glass bowl stuffed with cash was on a table by the front door, to which his guests could help themselves. A second bowl, it was said, contained cocaine, to which they were equally welcome.”

And that pretty much was the beginning of the sad end of things for Bart. Though his next two musicals Blitz (1962) and Maggie May (1964) were respectable, they had no life beyond England. And in 1965, his Robin Hood musical opened to a disastrous opening in Manchester. Backers withdrew, the star and the director quit, and Bart took over the direction, financing it all himself which ended in a complete loss, not only in terms of financial ruin, but prestige as well. The title of this doomed show? Twang!!

Clearly, those two successive exclamation points were not enough.

His only other show to make it to Broadway was a 1969 musical based on Frederico Fellini’s tragic love story La Strada. Featuring a twenty-one-year-old Bernadette Peters in her first starring role, it opened and closed on the same night (I saw it as a teenager at the matinee the day before and it deserved its fate). Not only was the show a mess, but most of Bart’s songs were removed and replaced with ones by Elliot Lawrence and Martin Charnin. The truth was that at this point in his life, Bart’s drug and alcohol abuse was so bad that he couldn’t come to New York to work on the troubled show.

Sounding a bit like Oscar Wilde, Bart was quoted to have stated: “Do you know why I never committed suicide? Because I would simply hate to be found in any condition other than utter splendor.”

At his most destitute, he sold off his music publishing rights, which meant that he ceased to receive royalties whenever his songs were recorded or whenever Oliver! was performed, which was practically daily somewhere in the world. In 1994, producer Cameron Mackintosh (Les Mis, Phantom, Cats), whose first professional job in the theatre was as a chorus member and assistant stage manager for a touring company of Oliver!, was planning a revival. He sought out Bart who, at the time, was hospitalized with heart failure. Visiting him in a public ward, Mackintosh told the composer he wanted him to write some new material for Jonathan Pryce, who was to play Fagin.

To his everlasting credit, whether contractual or not, Mackintosh made sure Bart received royalties from this production. It helped the poor man get back on his feet, but Bart then went back to drinking and died five years later at sixty-eight.

If Bart will only be remembered for Oliver!, it’s still an accomplishment for which other musical theatre writers would be envious. Its original Broadway production received three Tony Awards, including Best Score, which Bart won over Stephen Sondheim for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (who wasn’t even nominated though Forumgarnered six Tonys). It starred Clive Revill as Fagin and Georgia Brown as Nancy, who had been with it since its inception. If you’ve never seen her sing “As Long As He Needs Me,” here she is on The Ed Sullivan Show in all her histrionic glory.

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Consistently revived in the U.K., Oliver!’s appeal to such fine British directors as Rupert Goold and Sam Mendes might perhaps be due to its effect on them in their childhoods. And even though the show’s one and only Broadway revival in 1984 was a failure, it wasn’t so much critical as financial (its most vociferous pan came from the then-powerful Frank Rich of the New York Times). Even with its original West End and film star Ron Moody as Fagin, in addition to Patti LuPone as Nancy (not long after her triumph as Evita), there was little to no interest or support from audiences. It closed after 17 performances.

I’m very sorry I missed it (honestly, it was shocking it came and went so quickly). But a year later, Ron Moody performed his tremendous solo “Reviewing the Situation” on British television, making clear (at least to me) that by all rights, he owned the role of Fagin.

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A couple of fun facts about Oliver!

* By the time the show opened on Broadway in 1963, the young boy who played the Artful Dodger had outgrown the part. His replacement was eighteen-year-old David Jones, who three years later (as Davy Jones), would be a full-out heartthrob, part of the quartet that made up The Monkees.

* One of the finalists for Bill Sykes in the original London production was a twenty-seven-year-old Michael Caine. In interviews, he has said he cried for days when he was rejected.

* The actor Barry Humphries played Mr. Sowerberry in the 1960, 1962 and 1963 productions of Oliver! and also understudied as Fagin. Later, he would develop the character of Dame Edna Everage and become famous the world over. In 2000, he was voted a special Tony Award for Outstanding Live Theatrical Event for Dame Edna: The Royal Tour.

If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also, follow me here on Medium and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.

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Author, playwright, director, actor, theatre critic and historian, his book, “Up in the Cheap Seats,” is available at Amazon.com.

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Ron Fassler

Author, playwright, director, actor, theatre critic and historian, his book, “Up in the Cheap Seats,” is available at Amazon.com.

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