Born in 1930, Lionel Bart did have one enormous success on both stage and on screen with 'Oliver!' before dying in 1999, having been rescued from penury a few years earlier in a daze of alcohol and drugs which had blighted his life and practically destroyed him back in the 1960s. Even as the film of the musical was up for numerous Oscars in 1968 he had sunk so low that he wasn't even invited to attend the ceremony, remaining at home alone in his small, dingy apartment. (The film won 'Best picture' Oscar as well as 'Best Director' for Carol Reed.)
But it all could have been so much better. If he'd made more sound judgments he could well have ended up as the British answer to Irving Berlin, who, like Bart, couldn't read music, but who also had a great talent for both melody and words. Just look at the internal rhymes and half-rhymes of one of the lesser-known songs from 'Oliver!' - 'Oom-pah-pah'. Aren't they just so brilliantly clever?
There's a little ditty they're singin' in the city
Especially when they've been on the gin or the beer.
If you've got the patience your own imaginations will tell you just exactly what you want to hear.
Oom pah pah, Oom pah pah, that's how it goes.
Oom pah pah, Oom pah pah, everyone knows,
They all suppose what they want to suppose, when they hear 'Oom pah pah'.
Mister Percy Snodgrass would often have the odd glass
But never when he thought anybody could see.
Secretly he'd buy it and drink it on the quiet and dream he was an earl with a girl on his knee.
Oom pah pah, Oom pah pah etc
What is the cause of his red shiny nose?
Could it be 'Oom pah pah'?
Pretty little Sally goes walking down the alley
Displays her pretty ankles to all of the men.
They could see her garters but not for free and gratis.
An inch or two and then she knows when to say when.
Oom pah pah etc
Whether it's hidden or whether it shows,
It's the same Oom pah pah.
She was from the country but now she's up a gumtree.
She let a fellow beat her and lead her along.
What's the use of cryin'? She made her bed to lie in.
She's glad to bring a coin in and join in this song.
Oom pah pah etc
She is no longer the same blushing rose,
Ever since Oom pah pah.
Bart's troubles began soon after his first successes, penning big hits for the likes of Cliff Richard and Tommy Steele. Apart from 'Oliver!' he had success (at least in Great Britain) with other musicals, notably 'Blitz' and 'Maggie May'. His sudden wealth in the 1960s when drugs were just about de rigueur for any successful person, coupled with his alcoholism, led him to throw parties for the rich and famous, where his habitual generosity accelerated his downfall. It was reported that at the door he'd leave bowls full of money (and drugs), telling all to help themselves to what they wanted. The bubble was destined to burst soon anyway but the ultimate crushing blow came with his ill-fated comedy-musical 'Twang!', based on the Robin Hood legend, which cost an absolute fortune to stage and bombed immediately, creating a mountain of debt for him, from which he never ever recovered. As part of the bankruptcy arrangements he was required to sign away the rights of any future royalties for 'Oliver!' in perpetuity (both stage and film). So while this show in particular was being feted around the world (I saw a really fine production in German at the Munich Opera House) he was living in poverty in a basement flat in London, just eking the humblest of existences. But a belated salvation of sorts came in the early 1990s when the theatre impresario Cameron Mackintosh discovered the state Bart was living in and managed to negotiate an arrangement with his debtors to allow him a modest share of future royalties of 'Oliver!'. Although he was only to survive a few more years a slightly more comfortable life was thus secured for him before he finally died in 1999.
Lionel Bart was Jewish and gay, the latter at a time when all homosexuality was criminal. It's said that he wanted to marry one of England's biggest singing stars of the late 1950s and early 60s, Alma Cogan, as a 'cover', but nothing came of it. (She was also Jewish, also never married and died from cancer at the tragically young age of 34.)
It's a very sad tale of how things could have been so much better for Lionel Bart. To those of us who love musicals, he passed through our lives as brilliantly but as short-lived as a meteor. We were deprived of a formidable talent, though such tragic tales are not an uncommon story. What we can do is to cherish and enjoy what he did leave us and toast his memory and achievements.
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