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Lionel Bart and Oliver!

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Lionel Bart (August 1, 1930 –April 3, 1999) was a lyricist, bookwriter, and composer of British pop music and musicals, best known for creating the book, music and lyrics for Oliver!.  He was born Lionel Begleiter, the youngest of seven children of Galician Jews, Morris and Yetta (née Darumstundler) Begleiter; his father was a master tailor.  He grew up in Stepney where his father worked as a tailor in a garden shed. The family had escaped the deadly pogroms against Jews by Ukrainian cossacks in Galicia, which was then part of the Austrian Empire. The only other survivor of their seven children is Bart’s sister Renee Gold.  As a young man Lionel was an accomplished painter. When he was aged six, a teacher told his parents that he was a musical genius. His parents gave him an old violin, but he did not apply himself and the lessons stopped.

At the age of 14 Lionel obtained a Junior Art Scholarship to Saint Martin’s School of Art.  After St Martin’s he gave up his ambition to be a painter, and took jobs in silk-screen printing works and commercial art studios. He never learned to read or write musical notation; this did not stop him from becoming a significant personality in the development of British rock and pop music.  Lionel Begleiter changed his surname to Bart, said to be derived from when he passed by St. Bartholomew’s Hospital on the top deck of a bus, after he had completed his National Service with the Royal Air Force. Another explanation of Bart is from the silk-screen printing company he founded with John Gorman, G and B Arts.

Bart started his songwriting career in amateur theatre, first at The International Youth Centre in 1952 where he and a friend wrote a revue together called IYC Revue 52. The following year the pair auditioned for a production of the Leonard Irwin play The Wages of Eve at London’s Unity Theatre. Shortly afterward Bart began composing songs for Unity Theatre productions, contributing material (including the title song) to its 1953 revue Turn It Up, and songs for its 1953 pantomime, an agitprop version of Cinderella. While at the Unity he was talent-spotted by Joan Littlewood, and so joined Theatre Workshop. He also wrote comedy songs for the Sunday lunchtime BBC radio programme The Billy Cotton Band Show.

Bart first gained widespread recognition through his pop songwriting, penning numerous hits for the stable of young male singers promoted by artist manager and music publisher Larry Parnes. Bart’s pop output in this period includes the hits “Living Doll” (written for Cliff Richard) and “Rock with the Cavemen”, “Handful of Songs”, “Butterfingers” and “Little White Bull” (for Tommy Steele). During this period, Steele and Mike Pratt were his songwriting partners. He won three Ivor Novello Awards in 1957, a further four in 1958, and two in 1960. He wrote the theme song for the 1963 James Bond film From Russia with Love. His other hits include: “Do You Mind?” (recorded by both Anthony Newley and Andy Williams), “Big Time” (a 1961 cover by Jack Jones of his “Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be” show tune), “Easy Going Me” (Adam Faith) and “Always You And Me” (with Russ Conway).

Bart’s first professional musical was 1959’s Lock Up Your Daughters, based on the 18th-century play Rape Upon Rape by Henry Fielding. Following that, Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be produced by Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, was notable for encouraging the use of authentic Cockney accents on the London stage. Oliver! (1960), based on Dickens’s Oliver Twist, was a huge hit from the beginning and became the first modern British musical to be transferred successfully to Broadway, garnering Tony Award for Best Composer and Lyricist and Tony nominations for Best Musical and Best Author of a Musical in 1963.  The original stage production, which starred Ron Moody and Georgia Brown, contained such song hits as “As Long As He Needs Me” and “Consider Yourself.”  The music for Oliver! was transcribed by Eric Rogers, who wrote and composed 21 scores for the Carry On films. Bart hummed the melodies and Rogers wrote the notes on his behalf as Bart could not read or write music.

Bart’s next two musicals, Blitz! (1962, from which came the song “Far Away”, a hit for Shirley Bassey) and Maggie May (1964) had respectable West End runs.  Blitz!, at the time London’s most expensive musical ever, had a run of 568 performances.  But Twang! (1965), a musical based on the Robin Hood legend, was a flop, and La Strada (1969), which opened on Broadway in New York City, closed after only one performance.  In 1968 Oliver! was made into a film starring Ron Moody, Oliver Reed and Shani Wallis that won several Oscars, including best film. It is estimated that around this time Bart was earning 16 pounds a minute from Oliver!.  However, he rashly used his personal finances to try to rescue his last two productions, selling his past and future rights to his work, including Oliver! which he sold to the entertainer Max Bygraves for £350

By 1972, Bart was bankrupt with debts of £73,000. A twenty-year period of depression seriously damaged his health, leaving him with diabetes and impaired liver function.  In 1973, Bart contributed to the movie score of the Paramount movie Scalawag, starring Kirk Douglas, Mark Lester, Lesley-Anne Down, and Danny DeVito.  In May 1977, an autobiographical musical called Lionel! opened in the West End at the New London Theatre. It was loosely based on Bart’s early life as a child prodigy. Bart added some new songs for the show and expectations were high.   He received a special Ivor Novello Award for life achievement in 1986.  The Oliver motion picture soundtrack was issued on CD in 1988 by RCA/BMG.

Bart continued writing songs and themes for films, but during the ’80s, he became a prolific writer of commercial jingles, and his only real success in his later years was “Happy Endings”, a 30-second jingle for a 1989 Abbey National advertising campaign, which featured Bart playing the piano and singing to children.  Producer Cameron Mackintosh, who owned half the rights to Oliver!, revived the musical at the London Palladium in 1994 starring Jonathan Pryce as Fagin in a version rewritten by Lionel Bart himself. Mackintosh gave Bart a share of the production royalties, allowing the writer to receive some residual income from the play. Late in his life, Bart worked to revive an early ’60s play of his, Quasimodo, based on The Hunchback of Notre Dame.   Bart died in Hammersmith Hospital in London on April 3, 1999, at the age of 68 after a long struggle with cancer. His funeral was held at Golders Green Crematorium. Bart is credited with helping to revive the English musical.

The following work by Lionel Bart is contained in my collection:

Oliver! (1960): Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (1968).

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