Wednesday, January 16, 2013

News & History: A West End Hit That Couldn't Win Broadway Audiences: Lionel Bart's OLIVER!

1965 Revival
What started out as an article on an upcoming Lionel Bart musical turned into a spotlight on the history of Bart's most famous show, Oliver! for which he wrote the music and lyrics. It morphed because I saw his name and thought, "...But isn't he dead?" Just to clear things up, he indeed died 14 years ago. Anyways, when I looked him up, I laid my eyes on his Broadway track record, which was not as good as I expected. I think of Oliver! as a big Broadway classic, and it is. But if I were a random person who knew nothing about theatre, and I looked up the stats, not only would I think Lionel Bart was basically a loser (in terms of Broadway) who never cranked out a hit, and that Oliver! was just another one of his "almost"s. Keep reading and you'll see why!

Now, just so you know, Oliver! is an old show. Quick overview: It's based on the Dickens novel of basically the same name (Though, Dickens wasn't as fond of exclamation points as Bart must have been, so his book was simply Oliver Twist) about a little boy who just wants a family, but has to go through a terrible orphanage, a gang of young pick-pockets, with some betrayal thrown in there to actually get one.

Here's a clip of "I'd Do Anything" from the original Broadway cast of Oliver!


So here's the surprising part. It premiered in London in 1960 when Bart was 30, then it started its almost 2-year run on Broadway in 1963. Subsequently, it was also revived on Broadway for a month in 1965, then less than a month in 1984 (starring stage star Patti LuPone as Nancy). Between the second and third revivals, another one of Bart's shows starring Broadway legend Bernadette Peters, La Strada, opened at the Lunt-Fontaine theatre on Broadway after twelve previews on December 14, 1969. It closed the same night. So let's just do some math: total, Lionel Bart has only had something on Broadway for 856 performances. Considering that's four shows, with an average of about six or seven performances per show, that's pretty sad.

Since Oliver! is considered a classic, I thought it would have run for much longer. After all, the 1968 movie musical version won six big Oscar awards including best picture, best director, best art direction, best achievement in sound, best musical score, and best choreography, and the original Broadway version won three Tony Awards (including Best Composer and Lyricist, and Best Conductor and Musical Director, neither of which is an actual award anymore). Somehow, it could never catch hold on the Broadway stage.

In contrast, Oliver! ran for 1,366 performances on the West End in its first installment. Besides the original run, it has also been revived multiple times on the West End. The most recent one was 2008-2011, which at some point starred Samantha Barks (now of Les Miserables movie fame) as Nancy. This begs the question: What did the Broadway people do to it? Or was it that Brits have a greater appreciation for musicals about sad little kids than Americans? We know it's not just because Americans don't like foreign musicals. Just a cursory glance at the Broadway record for Andrew Lloyd Webber (minus his recent Jesus Christ Superstar Revival among a few outliers) or the team of Boublil & Schonberg (Les Miserables and Miss Saigon) shows that Americans have loved West End shows. What was wrong with Lionel Bart? That's truly intriguing.

Stay tuned for more information about what I was originally going to write about: Lionel Bart's latest (albeit, posthumous) musical based on a story that you might be familiar with because of Disney!

Read more about everything I mentioned below:
Oliver! on the West End
Lionel Bart's Broadway career
Playbill Vault (nothing I write on this blog would be possible without this site!)

1 comment:

  1. Hmm.. very cool/interesting! Really liked this. I honestly had no idea about any of that, especially dealing with Oliver. Very cool. Keep up the great work!

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