Expresso Bongo

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Expresso Bongo
Music Monty Norman, David Heneker
Lyrics Monty Norman, Julian More
Book Julian More, Wolf Mankowitz

Expresso Bongo, a 1958 West End musical and a 1959 film, is a satire of the music industry. It was first produced on the stage at the Saville Theatre, London, on 23 April 1958. Its book was written by Wolf Mankowitz and Julian More, with music by David Heneker and Monty Norman, also the co-lyricist with Julian More. The production starred Paul Scofield with Hy Hazell, Millicent Martin and James Kenney. Musical director was Burt Rhodes and director William Chappell. The subsequent 1959 film version was directed by Val Guest and starred Laurence Harvey, Cliff Richard, and Yolande Donlan.

1958 musical[edit]

Plot of the musical[edit]

Paul Scofield played Johnny, a slimy, small-time music promoter and talent scout who notices teenage girls going crazy for the singing and bongo playing of talentless and seemingly idiotic Herbert Rudge (played by James Kenney). Johnny rechristens Rudge as "Bongo Herbert" and signs him to a contract that gives Johnny a 50% share of the profits. With Johnny's help, Bongo rockets to stardom. Bongo's success attracts a host of sleazy music industry types intent on exploiting him. Johnny quickly finds himself outclassed in the sleaze department as Bongo turns out to be the slipperiest slime of them all.

Music[edit]

The writers of the 1958 musical were inspired by songwriters such as Noël Coward.[citation needed] Their lyrics were clever, wordy and allusive: "The Gravy Train", for example, has Johnny quoting an apt line from Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, (Act 5, Scene X), while the unrepentant shopaholics in "We Bought It" describe themselves as "two eccentric socialites, dissipated sybarites". The tunes modulate all over the place and parody rock, Latin jazz, skiffle and trad. In essence, the score sounds like a warm-up for That Was the Week That Was.[citation needed] Indeed, the musical's female lead, Millicent Martin, went on to be the singer who opened each episode of TW3.

Music historian John Snelsen writes,[1]

Expresso Bongo opened in the West End in the same year as My Fair Lady. It did not run as long and has hardly been seen since, but its gritty cynicism, contemporary setting and pop score gained it many fans. It was voted Best British Musical of the Year in a Variety annual survey of shows on the London stage, with a ballot result far ahead of My Fair Lady, and was referred to in general as 'the other musical' to distinguish it from Lerner and Loewe's work.

The 1958 Original Cast Recording[2] lists the following songs and singers:

  1. Overture: Orchestra
  2. Don't Sell Me Down the River: James Kenney
  3. Expresso Party: James Kenney
  4. Nausea: Meier Tzelniker
  5. Spoil the Child: Millicent Martin
  6. Seriously: Millicent Martin
  7. I Never Had It So Good: Paul Scofield
  8. There's Nothing Wrong With British Youth Today: Ensemble
  9. The Shrine on the Second Floor
  10. He's Got Something for the Public: Hy Hazell & Principals
  11. I Am: Millicent Martin
  12. Nothing is for Nothing: Meier Tzelniker, Hy Hazell & Paul Scofield
  13. We Bought It: Hy Hazel & Elizabeth Ashley
  14. Time: Hy Hazell
  15. The Gravy Train: Paul Scofield
  16. Finale: The Company

1959 film[edit]

Expresso Bongo
Expresso Bongo FilmPoster.jpeg
Directed by Val Guest
Produced by Jon Penington
Written by Wolf Mankowitz
Julian More (play)
Starring Laurence Harvey
Cliff Richard
Sylvia Sims
Yolande Donlan
Eric Pohlmann
Hermione Baddeley
Gilbert Harding
Music by Robert Farnon
Cinematography John Wilcox
Editing by Bill Lenny
Distributed by British Lion Films
Release dates 1959
Running time 111 min.
Country United Kingdom
Language English

Fifty-five years on the film remains notable mainly as the second screen appearance by Cliff Richard and the Shadows during 1959, the first being the much darker Serious Charge. The film was made at Shepperton Studios, near London, with certain scenes shot on location in London's Soho district.

Plot of the film[edit]

Laurence Harvey plays sleazy hustler Johnny Jackson, who is always on the lookout for fresh talent to exploit, while managing his hectic life with his stripper girlfriend, Maise. Maise is looking to find a better life in singing.

Jackson discovers a teenage singer named Bert Rudge, played by Cliff Richard, in an espresso coffee shop and sets about sending him along the rocky road to fame. He changes his name to Bongo Herbert and soon gets him a record deal and a relationship with an ageing American singing sensation Dixie. Dixie, played by Yolande Donlan was Val Guest's wife and appeared in many of his films.

However, Bongo soon realises that his 50/50 contract with Johnny is not as great as he thought it was, and breaks from Johnny's contract with help from Dixie as Bongo is a minor.

Director Val Guest engaged Kenneth MacMillan to choreograph the strip-club dancers who appear in the film. Struggling at Shepperton Studios to get them to dance and sing to playback at the same time, MacMillan complained, 'It's the simplest routine. They may have looks, legs and tits, but they have no co-ordination.'

At first, Laurence Harvey was undecided on the kind of accent he would give his character, so Guest told him he was 'part Soho, part Jewish, and part middle-class' and that it might be an idea to model him on the writer Wolf Mankowitz. Harvey arranged a couple of lunches with the unsuspecting Mankowitz to study the writer at close hand, so the character Johnny Jackson in the film sounds something like the writer of the film.[3] Harvey's character sports a melange of accents including his own South African. Wolf Mankowitz appears in the film's opening credit sequence, wearing a sandwich-board bearing his writer credit.

Soundtrack[edit]

The music for the 1959 film was, with the exception of one song, entirely different from the music that was used in the 1958 musical. The music and the plot were rewritten to downplay the satire and showcase Richard and his band. In the best ironic traditions of Tin Pan Alley, a satire became a tribute. Only The Shrine on the Second Floor — a song that was intended to drive a sharpened stake into the heart of all sentimental ballads about mother – made it into the movie and Cliff Richard sang it straight.

Reception[edit]

According to Val Guest the film made "a lot of money and got us a lot of awards".[4]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Page 144, We Said We Wouldn't Look Back: British Musical Theatre, 1935–1960 in The Cambridge Companion to the Musical By William A. Everett and Paul R. Laird. c. 2008, Cambridge University Press.
  2. ^ AEI-CD 020, The Council for Musical Theatre, c. AEI Records, 1979
  3. ^ Val Guest, So You Want to Be in Pictures, p. 135
  4. ^ Tom Weaver, "Val Guest", Double Feature Creature Attack: A Monster Merger of Two More Volumes of Classic Interviews McFarland, 2003 p 114

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