Talk About Lionel [Bart]

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BBC Radio 4, 17 February 2009
The story of Lionel Bart, composer of Oliver!, is a classic rags-to-riches-to rags story. Born in a depressed area of Whitechapel, London, he began his theatrical career writing for the Unity Theatre. Always an ambitious personality, he soon graduated to the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, under Joan Littlewood, as well as writing hit records for Cliff Richard and Tommy Steele. His first musical success, Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be (1959) captured the atmosphere of late 1950s Soho wih a combination of folk tunes and Brechtian-style recitatives. Miriam Karlin, one of the stars of the original production, fondly recalled how audiences at the time welcomed Bart's musical as a radical new departure in the direction of social realism. Oliver!, produced a year later, continued this trend while resurrecting the spectacular qualities associated with American musicals such as those of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Tim Rice suggested that Bart knew how to create hit songs within the musical form - witness, for instance, the way songs such as "As Long as He Needs Me" helped to make Shirley Bassey's name. This trend would be continued in the late 1970s by Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber in shows like Evita (1978).
Throughout the early 1960s Bart enjoyed an unbroken run of successes. Oliver! was followed by Blitz! and Maggie May, which, although not monster hits, nonetheless enjoyed healthy London runs. Then came Twang! (1966), a misguided attempt to musicalize the Robin Hood story, which Bart financed himself after other producers had withdrawn (in the belief that the show was doomed from the start). In spite of a cast including James Booth and Barbara Windsor, the show ran for only six weeks and then closed abruptly, leaving Bart considerably out of pocket.
Within a decade he went from being one of the highest-earning artistes in British show-business to bankruptcy, most of his fortune being frittered away on drugs, alcohol and ill-advised business ventures. Bart never did much during the last three decades of his life (he died in 1999), even though producer Cameron Mackintosh generously agreed to provide him wth a royalty when Oliver! was revived during the mid-1990s.
Presented by Eddie Mair, Talk About Lionel recounted Bart's life in a fair yet cool-heade manner. We were never asked to sympathize with him; he enjoyed great success but also tasted failure. Nevertheless he did create one of Britain's best-loved musicals, which is currently playing to packed houses with Rowan Atkinson as Fagin. As Mair observed, Bart had chutzpah - something that emerges in all of his tunes. The producer of this entertaining documentary was Stuart Hanson.