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Lionel Bart's "Oliver" Remembered

53rd And 3rd

53rd And 3rd

Not mentioned in Charles Dickens’ 1839 serial novel “Oliver Twist” and not mentioned in Lionel Bart’s 1960 musical adaption for the West End “Oliver!”, but certainly somewhere in the netherworld between orphany, infamy and pedagogy, lies pederasty. Pickpockets yes, and Nancy has always been a borderline prostitute, plus house breaking, murder, and the wholesale slavery of children: that’s all in the text. But the sexual exploitation of young boys? You have to search it out.

It is much closer to the service of the homosexual Lionel Bart, who began his career writing songs for Cliff Richards and discovering Tommy Steele, as part of the Pink Mafia wherein well to do managers exploited willing to do anything to make it teenage boys.

It is an undertow of “Oliver”, in the movie both Mark Lester and Jack West are imminently molestable in their torn and ragged, filth and sauce bad boy “shut up and drink your gin” chicken hawk trade. On the West End Davy Jones had the role.

The connect the dots for Lionel Bart is interesting enough and for Dickens, I am pretty certain at least on some level society was, much like 2014, aware but indifferent to the plight of poor children. But they are not central to “Oliver” the musical, one of the greatest musicals of all time.

The movie I mean, though the theatre production was pretty good as well  I hear.

The 1968 “Oliver!” held as tight as it could to the original material while turning Fagin from a figure of menace to a figure of black humor, and Jack Wild’s Artful Dodger into a children’s delightful rapscallion who would graduate from the movie to the NBC Network’s children program “H.R. Pufnstuff”.

If “Oliver Twist” was moral indignation as bloody bloody cliff hanger, “Oliver!” was 19th century hell as widescreen happy happy. It moves from the dark underbelly of poverty to the bright lights of prosperity, with the grand middle only around during the bigger numbers.

Like “David Copperfield” and “Nicholas Nickleby”, it places an orphaned Charles Dickens, being worked to death, amongst forces all of which are out to destroy him. “Oliver!” opens with a set piece about starvation, and follows it up quickly with Oliver Twist (Mark Lester) being savagely beaten, the selling off of the child into servitude, and the child’s escape walking to London where he falls in with the rancid Fagin (the excellent Ron Moody) and the pickpocketing clan of preteen boys.

While there he comes to the attention of the hooker with a heart of gold Nancy (Shani Wallis) and her lover,  the former pickpocket who has graduated to breaking and entering , the truly scary Bill Sykes . After Oliver getting arrested for pickpocketing, a series of wildly improbable coincidences (long a Dickens forte) leads to a uniting with his Uncle Brownslow and an unlikely happy ending for the boy.

This is dark stuff for a musical but it isn’t a dark musical as such, there is a lightness of touch and changing of heroes –from one father figure to another until Oliver gets the right one, his natural Uncle.

I have yet to see “Oliver!” in the theatre. Back in 1994, there was a very popular  revival on the West End but it never made it to Broadway. So my opinion is based on the 1960 soundtrack and the 1968 movie. The movie, directed by Carol “The Third Man” Reed, is a multi-colored swinging London, techniocolor dream world, a huge, Oscar winner treat. Well acted, Ron Moody is a great Fagin, Oliver Reed a gruff to the point of terror bad man, Shani Wallis has a gentleness that seems so filled with missed opportunities, and there are some great actors, Harry Secombe and Peggy Mount, Larry Rossiter, Sheila White and Mark Lester and Jack Wild.

Only two songs are cut from the musical but they are smart pruning, minor songs “I Shall Scream” and “That’s Your Funeral”, both of them slow the transition to London and are weaker stuff.

Of course, it is all about the songs and the songs are superb: a sort of 1920s dancehall with modern (for 1960) arrangements and orchestration, built to blow up into widescreen song and dance, especially on “Food Glorious Food” , “Consider Yourself” and “Who Will Buy” –a song operative in its widening of the vocal palate.

The smaller set pieces are their equal , the drink drunk banger prelude to another shows “Cabaret” “Oom Pah Pah”, “Be Back Soon” and “I’d Do Anything” and “It’s A Fine Life” –humanizing the brutal world they are living in. Paradise postponed was a coupla years past in the UK, amd  there was something else, 20 years after the death of the British Empire the “if you don’t mind having to like or lump it” resonates on a power past its prime.

Finally two full-fledged ballads “Where Is Love?” and the asking for it and she’ll get it too “As Long As He Needs Me”.

The songs are shockingly good, the entire score sings and buzzes, there are no minor songs and everything moves the plot forward: it is all forward motion through a story filled with Dickens Characters. Have you ever wondered about the Uncle’s name? Brownlow? Why the negative connotation? Because it is implicitly Brownslow fault that Oliver was left in an orphanage. The name places the blame.

Lionel Bart wound up broke, having sold the rights to “Oliver!” and lost a fortune, dogged by alcoholism and closeted in a world that would jail you for being gay, he never had another hit. Anywhere. Just kept on financing his own disastrous musicals till he died. Maybe he didn’t have some more, but what he had lives on.

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