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Lionel Bart 1930-1999

Country : Stepney, London, UK
Profession : Composer
Date of birth : 1930-08-01
Date of death : 1999-04-03
Cause of Death : Cancer

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Lionel Bart (August 1, 1930 – April 3, 1999) was a writer and composer of British pop music and musicals, best known for creating the book, music & lyrics for Oliver!

Early life

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 first gained widespread recognition through his songwriting, which 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? (by Anthony Newley and Andy Williams), Easy Going Me (Adam Faith) and Always You And Me (with Russ Conway)

Musical theatre

His 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, and has sustained its popularity to the present day. The original stage musical, which starred Ron Moody and Georgia Brown, contained such song hits as As Long As He Needs Me and Consider Yourself. In 1968 it 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) was a notorious flop and La Strada (1969), which opened on Broadway in New York City, closed after only one performance. Bart used his personal finances to try to rescue them, selling his rights to others of his works, including Oliver!, in order to generate capital. By 1972, Bart was bankrupt, with debts of £73,0000. He turned to drink, and a twenty-year period of depression ensued, from which he ultimately recovered, attending Alcoholics Anonymous.

He continued writing songs and themes for films, but his only real success in his later years was "Happy Endings", a 1989 advertising jingle for Abbey National.

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 Lionel a share of the production royalties. Lionel Bart was often publicly and romantically linked with Judy Garland or Alma Cogan.

Bart died in 1999 after a long hard 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

  • Lock Up Your Daughters (1959) - lyricist
  • Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be (1959) - composer, lyricist
  • Oliver! (1960) - composer, lyricist, writer
  • Blitz! (1962) - composer, lyricist, writer
  • Maggie May (1964) - composer, lyricist
  • Twang! (1965) - composer, lyricist
  • La Strada (1969) - co-composer, co-lyricist

Work on Broadway

  • Oliver! (1963) - musical - composer, lyricist, and bookwriter - Tony Award for Best Composer and Lyricist, Tony Nominations for Best Musical and Best Author of a Musical
    • A return engagement of the original production played in 1965, and a revival in 1984.
  • La Strada (1969) - musical - composer and lyricist

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