Lionel Bart (1 August 1930 – 3 April 1999) was a writer and composer of British pop music and musicals, best known for creating the book, music and lyrics for Oliver!
Bart was born Lionel Begleiter the youngest of seven surviving children in East London to Galician Jews, and grew up in Stepney. His father worked as a tailor in a garden shed in London E1. The family had escaped the pogroms in Galicia which was then part of the Austrian Empire.
Lionel later changed his name to Bart derived from the name of the silk screen printing firm he and John Gorman created ("G & B Arts", for Gorman and Begleiter) after he had completed his National Service with the Royal Air Force.
As a young man he was quite an accomplished painter. When Lionel Bart was six years old 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 16 he obtained a scholarship to St Martin's School of Art but he was expelled for "mischievousness", and he gave up his ambition to be a painter. However, he took jobs in silk-screen printing works and commercial art studios. He never learned to read or write musical notation; this did not stop him from becoming a significant personality in the development of British rock and pop music.
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 Unity Theatre, London. Shortly after Bart began composing songs for Unity Theatre, contributing material (including the title song) to their 1953 revue Turn It Up, and songs for their 1953 pantomime, an agit prop version of Cinderella. While at 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, Mike Pratt as well as Steele were his songwriting partners. In 1957, he won three Ivor Novello Awards, 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 of his "Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be" show tune by Jack Jones), "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's first professional musical was the 1959 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 notable for encouraging the use of authentic Cockney accents on the London stage. Oliver! (1960), based on Dickens's Oliver Twist was a huge hit from the beginning, became the first modern British musical to transfer successfully to Broadway. It has sustained its popularity to the present day, and for many years was the standard musical performed by UK schools. 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" and 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) and Phil Collins (of Genesis fame) as The Artful Dodger.
In 1968 Oliver! was made into a film starring Ron Moody, Oliver Reed and Shani Wallis which 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) (the song Far Away produced another hit for Shirley Bassey) and Maggie May (1964), had 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 notorious flop and La Strada (1969), which opened on Broadway in New York City, closed after only one performance. By this time Bart was taking LSD and other drugs and was drinking heavily, and this evidently 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! – in order to realise capital to finance the shows; Bart himself later estimated that this action lost him over UK£1 million. By 1972, Bart was bankrupt with debts of £73,000. He turned to drink, and a twenty-year period of depression and alcoholism ensued. He eventually stopped drinking and attended Alcoholics Anonymous, although the years of substance abuse seriously damaged his health, leaving him with diabetes and impaired liver function.
He continued writing songs and themes for films, but his only real success in his later years was "Happy Endings", a 30-second jingle for a 1989 Abbey National advertising campaign which featured Bart playing the piano and singing to children.
In 1986 Bart received a special Ivor Novello Award for his life's achievement. Cameron Mackintosh, who owned half the rights to Oliver!, revived the musical at the London Palladium in 1994 in a version rewritten by Lionel Bart. 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 although he was gay. His sexuality was known to friends and colleagues but he did not "come out" until a few years before his death.
Bart died in 1999 after a long struggle with cancer and his funeral took place at Golders Green Crematorium.
A musical play based on Bart's life and using his songs, It's a Fine Life was staged at the Queen's Theatre, Hornchurch in 2006.
West End theatrical credits
Work on Broadway
Notes and references
- 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, June 18, 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
Category:songs written by Lionel Bart