From Robin Hood to Golda Meir: why the lost works of Lionel Bart need reappraising

Poison arrow: James Booth and Barbara Windsor in Bart's Twang!! - Shutterstock
Poison arrow: James Booth and Barbara Windsor in Bart's Twang!! - Shutterstock

What did Lionel Bart, the composer who gave the world Oliver!, have to say – or, perhaps more to the point, want people to sing – about Golda Meir, the Israeli prime minister between 1969 and 1974?

The question arises because Thursday evening sees Maureen Lipman sing the title number of a “lost” musical by Bart, Next Year in Jerusalem. The song is a soothing lullaby – childlike melody and lyrics mingling sorrow at a life fraught with danger with a yearning for freedom (think Hamilton’s Dear Theodosia or a weepie by Abba) – imparted by Meir’s mother as she contemplates the threat of a pogrom in Kiev.

While there’ll be plenty of talking points in the accompanying mixed bill – a streamed charity gala mounted by the Jewish Music Institute – this world premiere is a major coup.

Lionel Bart in 1961 - Hulton Archive/Keystone
Lionel Bart in 1961 - Hulton Archive/Keystone

Unbeknown to many, Bart and Roger Cook (the songwriter best known for the golden oldie I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing) spent six months working on the project in London in 1975, and continued to mull it over before the rights to Meir’s life story were sold off elsewhere, after which Bart’s interest waned.

That he was capable of producing anything of distinction in the mid-Seventies, though, is in itself a valuable corrective to the notion that the composer was all washed up, a notorious casualty of drink, drugs and high-profile bankruptcy.

Few rags to riches to rags stories are more riveting. Born Lionel Begleiter, the youngest son of a Stepney tailor, he was one of the kingpins of the early hit parade, responsible for many of Tommy Steele’s early successes and the top-selling single of 1959, Living Doll, as crooned by Cliff Richard. He later became the titan of British musical theatre, the Lloyd Webber of his day.

The phenomenally successful Oliver! was followed by Blitz! and Maggie May. All three were portraits of communal life, the working class centre stage, splashes of music hall mingling with dashes of Broadway, and, in the case of Maggie May, set in Liverpool, a Mersey sound.

Bart’s theme tune for the 1963 Bond classic From Russia With Love confirmed his rise: he had money to burn, his parties went on for days. Guests at his Chelsea “fun palace” (known for its punch bowls of cash and cocaine) included the Beatles, Stones, Princess Margaret and Muhammad Ali.

Twang!!, though, a 1965 spoofy musical comedy about Robin Hood, fatally struck at the heart of this devil-may-care lifestyle. Hailed at the time as the “most expensive flop” in West End history, it saw frantic rewriting up to its shambolic, critically mauled first night (by which point Joan Littlewood, its director, had walked and its cast, including Barbara Windsor and Ronnie Corbett, were in despair). Bart sank his own money into it but it closed after a month.

The failure of his musical version of Fellini’s La Strada, which closed on its Broadway opening night in 1969, compounded the agony, sealed by his selling off the stage and film rights to Oliver! to pay off his debts at the start of Seventies. “He was always better at show than business,” quipped the critic Mark Steyn.

The composer Elliot Davis was befriended and mentored by Bart as a young man in the mid-Nineties, in turn helping this spontaneous talent, who couldn’t read or write music, set down his compositions. As he explains, Bart coped with failure by “doing an ostrich”, as he called it. He put his head in the sand and disconnected with drink and drugs for years.

Though reduced to a little flat above an off-licence in Acton, his liver wrecked by hard living, he was a far happier figure in this later stage of his life, says Davis, who has a biopic of Bart in development (with Geoffrey Rush slated to star). He helped him to set down the music for a big Warner Bros’ pirate animation; it didn’t see the light of day, but Davis recalls one never-heard number in particular, Today’s the Day. “I remember him leaning out of a window singing it... He was taking something that you already knew, giving it to you again and saying ‘Here it is, like you’ve never heard it before’. It was genius.”

The existence of this gem, together with the imminent unveiling of Next Year in Jerusalem (eight original songs of which survive, and which Cook hopes to see staged in full), throws into sharp relief the fact that the eclipsing success of Oliver! combined with the mess of Bart’s later years has narrowed an appreciation of his legacy. The producer Neil Marcus, who knew Bart too, and made the crucial contact with Cook while preparing the gala, believes that some of the Jerusalem songs stand comparison with the composer’s best work.

“They’re very well crafted. One – called Nobody in Particular – is about Golda’s husband. Like Bill in Showboat, it’s another great song declaring love for someone other people would hardly notice. The script,” he adds, “services the songs but needs developing to match the material.”

For Davis, this will help to re-evaluate Bart’s substantial musical bequest. “If you can make coherent sense of the book with Lionel’s later stuff, in every show, you’ll find a ballad that touches your heart.” He cites a raft of lesser-known Bart beauties, including one from the long-gestated Quasimodo. “There’s Don’t Look at Me, Just Listen – lyrically it falls on the ear so easily and melodically it feels like you’ve known it all your life.”

Phil Willmott directed a fringe revival of Blitz!, Bart’s successful autobiographical evocation of the East End in the war, just before the pandemic, and thinks it might have found its time anew. “After we were hit with the virus, the Queen was saying ‘We’ll meet again’, and people were singing it, and we had Captain Tom. If it were staged as we are coming out of lockdown, I think it would really capture what we’ve all been through.”

Might even the dreaded Twang!! merit another look? Bryan Hodgson, who directed the first professional staging for 50 years in 2018, at the Union in Southwark, oversaw a revised version, with added jokes and songs. But he maintains the original could still work.

“I think it absolutely would be stageable if you had the right people working on it. Without Twang!! I doubt we would have had Spamalot.” He points us in the direction of a number called Roger the Ugly. “It’s a vaudevillian evil-guy song and the lyrics are hilarious. Bart used stock characters to make us laugh and people will be just itching to be entertained now.”

Bart used to say: “Songs should be like sneezes – spontaneous”. Davis sums up his seemingly effortless way with words and music – which, despite his travails, never left him. “He had an innate ability for melody, and a love of language, and he had it all with the common touch.”

It might seem a long way from Oliver! to Twang!! to Next Year in Jerusalem but, reviewing the situation of Bart’s treasure trove, it may well transpire that they’re joined at the hip by a spirit of gutsy defiance and the stamp of brilliance.

JMI’s WORLD TOUR Gala live online Thursday 7.30pm donations welcome