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Bart in 1973, by Allan Warren
1 August 1930
Stepney, London, England
3 April 1999 (aged 68)|
Hammersmith, London, England
Lionel Bart (1 August 1930 – 3 April 1999) was a writer and composer of British pop music and musicals. He wrote Tommy Steele's hit "Rock with the Caveman", which became the first British pop song to break into the American Top 40 and was the sole creator of the internationally acclaimed musical OLIVER! (1960). With Oliver! and his work alongside revolutionary theatre director Joan Littlewood at Theatre Royal, Stratford East, he played an instrumental role in the 1960s birth of the British musical theatre scene after an era when American musicals had dominated the West End. Best known for creating the book, music and lyrics for the musical Oliver!, he was described by Andrew Lloyd Webber as "the father of the modern British musical". In 1963 he won the Tony Award for Best Original Score for Oliver!, and the 1968 film version of the musical won a total of 6 Academy Awards including the Academy Award for Best Picture. His other notable compositions include the theme song to the James Bond film From Russia with Love, and the hit songs "Living Doll" by Cliff Richard, "Far Away" by Shirley Bassey, "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" by Adam Faith, "Always You And Me" by Russ Conway, and several songs recorded by Tommy Steele ("Handful of Songs", "Butterfingers" and "Little White Bull"). By the mid 1960s he was as well known for his outlandish lifestyle, his celebrity friends, his excesses and his parties as he was for his work.
He was born Lionel Begleiter, the youngest of seven surviving children of Galician Jews, Yetta (née Darumstundler) and Morris Begleiter, a master tailor. He grew up in Stepney; his father worked in the area 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.
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. A more likely derivation of Bart is from the silk-screen printing company he founded with John Gorman, G and B Arts.
As a young man he was an accomplished painter. When Bart 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 he obtained a Junior Art Scholarship to Saint Martin's School of Art. One Friday afternoon he was suspended for "mischievousness" along with another student, John Groom, for making a noise with the rest of the class, involving set squares and other paraphernalia. On the following Monday, he returned to the School with a long explanation of his peripheral involvement in the disturbance, and was reinstated. 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.
He 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.
He 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 was also responsible for the discovery of two of Parnes' biggest stars. It was on his recommendation that Parnes went to see singer Tommy Hicks, whom he signed and renamed Tommy Steele, and Bart also suggested that Parnes see singer Reg Smith, who was then performing at the Condor Club. Although Parnes missed his performance, he went round to Smith's house and signed him up on the basis of Bart's recommendation. Smith went on to score a number of UK hits under his new stage name Marty Wilde.
Bart is also credited as being the first manager of The Rolling Stones, and at one stage was Judy Garland's manager.
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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 a landmark in British theatre, noted for encouraging the use of authentic Cockney accents on the London stage and bringing an end to censorship of British theatre. 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.
It has sustained its popularity to the present day, and for many years was the standard musical performed by schools in the UK. 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"; it is also notable for featuring Australian satirist Barry Humphries in his first major stage role as Mr Sowerberry, and future rock stars Steve Marriott (later the lead singer of the Small Faces and Humble Pie), Davy Jones (pre-Monkees) and Phil Collins (of Genesis fame) as The Artful Dodger.
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.
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!.
Bart's next two musicals, Blitz! (1962) (from which came the song "Far Away", a hit for Shirley Bassey) and Maggie May (1964) had successful and 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 after the removal of most of Bart's songs, closed after only one performance. By this time Bart was taking LSD and other drugs and was drinking heavily, and this may have affected both his work and his business judgement.
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 (Bygraves later[when?] sold them on for £250,000) to realise capital to finance the shows; Bart himself later estimated that this action lost him over £1 million. By 1972, Bart was bankrupt with debts of £73,000. A twenty-year period of depression and alcoholism ensued. He eventually stopped drinking, although the years of substance abuse seriously damaged his health, leaving him with diabetes and impaired liver function.
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. The cast included Clarke Peters, Marion Montgomery and Adrienne Posta. The role of Lionel was shared by a young Todd Carty and theatre unknown Chris Nieto. The show closed after six weeks, losing £250,000.
Bart continued writing songs and themes for films, but his only real success in his later years was "Happy Endings", a song he wrote for a 1989 Abbey National advertising campaign, which featured Bart playing the piano and singing to children.
He received a special Ivor Novello Award for life achievement in 1986. In 1987, encouraged by long time friend Barry Humphries, he travelled to Australia to attend the opening of a new production of "Blitz!", which was then revived in London's West End in 1990 by the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the London blitz. Cameron Mackintosh, who owned half the rights to Oliver!, revived the musical at the London Palladium in 1994 in a version featuring rewrites by Lionel Bart himself. Mackintosh gave Bart a share of the production royalties. At the peak of his career, Bart was romantically linked in the media with singers Judy Garland and Alma Cogan, though he was in fact gay. His sexuality was known to friends and colleagues but he did not "come out" until a few years before his death.
Bart died at the Hammersmith Hospital, 150 DuCane Road, Shepherd's Bush, West London on 3 April 1999, of liver cancer. His funeral was held at Golders Green Crematorium. A memorial bench is dedicated to him in Kew Gardens.
2013 saw the publication of David and Caroline Stafford's detailed biography "The Lionel Bart Story: Fings Ain't Wot THey Used T'Be".
A first workshop of a musical play based on Bart's life and using his songs, It's a Fine Life, was staged in 2006 at the Queen's Theatre, Hornchurch.. The play, after substantial development and now titled "More!" was presented 'in concert' at Theatre Royal Stratford East in 2015 featuring Neil McDermott as Lionel Bart, Jessica Hynes as Joan Littlewood and Sonny Jay as Charlene as well as a special appearance by 60s pop-star Grazina Frame who was an original cast member from Bart's 1962 "BLITZ!". The play, and playwright Christopher Bond received overwhelming praise, in particular from Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page and Dame Barbara Windsor. It is currently in pre-production and scheduled for a West End opening in 2018/19.
West End theatrical credits
- Lock Up Your Daughters (1959) – lyricist
- Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be (1959) – composer, lyricist
- Oliver! (1960) – composer, lyricist, writer
- Blitz! (1962) – composer, lyricist, writer
- Maggie May (1964) – composer, lyricist
- Twang!! (1965) – composer, lyricist
- La Strada (1969) – co-composer, co-lyricist
- Lionel! (1977) – composer, lyricist
Work on Broadway
- Oliver! (1963) – musical – composer, lyricist, and bookwriter – Tony Award for Best Composer and Lyricist, Tony nominations for Best Musical and Best Author of a Musical
- A return engagement of the original production played in 1965, and a revival in 1984.
- La Strada (1969) – musical – composer and lyricist
Notes and references
- Eric Pace (April 5, 1999). Lionel Bart, 68, Songwriter; Created the Musical 'Oliver!'. The New York Times.
- "Lionel Bart".
- "BFI Screenonline: Bart, Lionel (1930-1999) Biography". www.screenonline.org.uk.
- "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 3 April 2015. Retrieved 2015-01-30.
- By Stafford, David. and Stafford, Caroline.Fings Ain't Wot They Used T' Be: The Lionel Bart Story at Google Books
- "From bowls of cocaine in his Fun Palace... to cheap vodka in a shabby flat: How Oliver! creator Lionel Bart's greatest success ended up destroying him".
- This is detailed mainly in David Roper's book, and some of it in Colin Chambers'
- "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 29 June 2004. Retrieved 2009-06-10.
- "Larry Parnes". Rockabilly.nl. Retrieved 19 February 2013.
- Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be, The Lionel Bart Story, by David and Caroline Stafford, Omnibus Press, 2011.
- "Small Faces Story Part 1- Room for Ravers". Makingtime.co.uk. Retrieved 2 May 2012.
- "Eric Rogers | Scores | Themes | Music from the classic movies". British Cinema Greats. Retrieved 2012-05-02.
- Nosheen Iqbal (19 January 2009). "Consider yourself an expert on Oliver!'s Lionel Bart?". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 2013-02-19.
- "Broadway Buzz | Videos, Interviews, Photos, News and Tickets". Broadway.com. Retrieved 19 February 2013.
- "Tom Vallance: Lionel Bart obituary, The Independent, 5 April 1999". The Independent. Retrieved 2014-09-22.
- "Max Bygraves – Obituaries". The Stage. Retrieved 2013-02-19.
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y7qV9EEpgao[permanent dead link]
- "1960s Britrock: 1900-1934". www.skidmore.edu.
- "The genius destroyed by Oliver: The success of Lionel Bart's masterpiece sent him into a spiral of drug-fuelled hedonism".
- "The Lionel Bart Story: Fings Ain't Wot They Used T' Be - Books - Books About Music". Musicroom.
- "Lionel Bart (1930-1999) - Find A Grave Memorial". www.findagrave.com.
- "London's Famous Bench Dedications". Londonist.com. 21 October 2016. Archived from the original on 6 March 2018. Retrieved 12 October 2018.
- "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 1 September 2006. Retrieved 2006-08-16.
- Bart! The Unauthorized Life & Times, Ins and Outs, Ups and Downs of Lionel Bart by David Roper ISBN 1-85793-330-3
- Samantha Ellis, "Lionel Bart's Oliver!", June 1960 The Guardian, 18 June 2003.
- Michael Coveney, Lionel Bart: Appetite for destruction, The Independent, 31 August 2006.
- Lionel Begleiter (Bart), Icons Gallery, circa-club.com.
- Lionel Bart, a composer of songs and musicals, The Queens Theatre (Hornchurch).
- Gerald Mahlowe, Songwriter Profile Lionel Bart, Songwriter magazine, International Songwriters Association (undated interview some time after 1985)
- The Story of Unity Theatre, by Colin Chambers, ISBN 0-85315-587-9
- Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be – The Lionel Bart Story, by David and Caroline Stafford, Omnibus Press, 2011, ISBN 978-1-84938-661-6
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