Oliver! is Golden
Each of us has experienced it. Life is going along merrily, and then suddenly you gasp for breath.
That’s when you remember that you’d forgotten an important anniversary. You rush to a store or e-card site to find anything that says “Happy Belated Anniversary” to send to the parties you’ve neglected.
I won’t quite be sending a card, e- or otherwise, to Oliver! But I feel bad that I’m nearly two weeks late with my congratulations to Lionel Bart’s musicalization of Dickens’ Oliver Twist. January 6, 2013 marked the 50th anniversary of the Broadway opening of the great-granddaddy of smash British musicals.
Actually, if events had played out the way that they were originally planned, I’d now be three weeks late. Producer David Merrick had originally slated Dec. 27, 1962 as the opening date for this musical that had been a London sensation for two-and-a-half years and counting. Indeed, the British production would not close until its 2,618th performance.
But a New York newspaper strike that had started on Dec. 8, 1962 was still on mid-month, and Merrick wanted New York to see the rave reviews he was certain the show would get. So he postponed by ten days, figuring that all the news would be ready to print by then.
As it turned out, if Merrick had waited for the strike to end, Oliver! wouldn’t have opened until at least April 1. So Merrick reluctantly kept to his Jan. 6 opening. Just to be helpful, he wrote his own review and read it on the radio.
Are you surprised to hear that it was very enthusiastic? What’s surprising is that this notorious and gimmick-laden showman didn’t emblazon his opinion under the marquee of the Imperial: “The greatest musical of all time! A truly great classic of the theater!” – Merrick, 246 West 44th Street.
Not that when the real critics got around to stating their opinions that they differed much. “One of the most impressive products to be imported here since the first Rolls-Royce” (Chapman, News). “Its beauty, melodiousness, humor and occasional pathos are shrewdly combined in a pattern that isn’t afraid to be good” (Watts, Post). And then there was John McClain’s opinion in the Journal American, one that we didn’t know would turn out to have greater meaning as the decades rolled on: “It represents a breakthrough for the British in a field which has been so long dominated by Americans.”
Then was then and now is now. In the decade before Oliver! opened, the British had had all of two musicals on Broadway – the hit The Boy Friend and the flop Cranks – which were on the boards for a total of 456 days or a bit more than twelve percent of the ten-year span. Conversely, now, for more than the last third of a century -- since Sept. 10, 1979, when Evita played its first preview – there has NEVER been a day when a British musical hasn’t been on Broadway.
Oliver’s run pales in comparison to the mega-musicals of today: Phantom surpassed its 774 performances more than twenty-two years ago. But Oliver! might have run longer than twenty-two months had Merrick maintained interest in it. But a bit more than a year after it had opened to mostly nice reviews, his Hello, Dolly! bowed to unanimous raves. He suddenly concentrated all his energies into that smash, so by the time I saw Oliver! at its 588th performance, it was a tired enterprise that had not been well-maintained.
Luckily, the original cast album was recorded when everyone was filled with enthusiasm. Unlike virtually all cast albums that are recorded after the Broadway opening, Oliver! went into the recording studio five months before it was to brave Broadway and eight months before Bart would win the Tony for Best Score.
We could really call it the Original Hollywood Cast Album, for it was recorded in Tinseltown during the show’s tryout stop there. This was in August, 1962 -- too soon, really, for Michael Goodman was then portraying The Artful Dodger. Merrick, on a late 1962 trip to London, saw the young actor who had assumed the role in this still-running West End production.
Goodbye, Goodman, hello, David Jones – who later became Davy Jones when he made a Monkee out of himself.
Keeping their jobs were Bruce Prochnik as Oliver; Clive Revill as Fagin, the ne’er-do-well who comes close to ruining him and Georgia Brown as Nancy, Fagin’s former “pupil” who still does the odd job for him and her beau Bill Sikes (Danny Sewell).
Of the latter, Nancy sings “As Long As He Needs Me,” the score’s most enduring hit. During late ’62 and most of ’63, one could barely turn on a TV variety show without hearing some songstress sing it – or often hearing a male singer proclaim “As Long As She Needs Me.”
It seems to be a simple but passionate declaration of love, but it’s easier to take on the album than it is in the actual musical; there, Nancy sings it after he hits her. If we can call Fagin a ne’er-do-well, we must call Bill a ne’er-under-any-circumstances-do-remotely-well. What a stinker!
On the Broadway Deluxe Collector’s Edition issued in 2003, we have quite the bonus track: Patti LuPone sings “As Long As He Needs Me” from a 1993 Los Angeles concert. This was hardly her first time singing it; she’d starred in a 1984 Broadway revival with Ron Moody, who was replicating his original London cast assignment that had resulted in an Oscar nomination. If you care to hear Moody’s original 1960 take, this disc includes “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two” and “Reviewing the Situation.” Both offer a more ethnic feel than Clive Revill’s.
How astonishing that this 1984 revival couldn’t muster more than a mere seventeen performances and didn’t leave behind a cast album. Hearing LuPone’s “As Long As He Needs Me” makes one feel that she’s letting you know, “Hey, don’t try blaming me for that flop.”
Although “That’s Your Funeral” was part of the Broadway production, it didn’t make the original cast album. Perhaps there wasn’t room; perhaps record producers Joe Linhart and Charles Gerhardt (not RCA Victor’s usual cast album gurus, who were back in New York) didn’t want to spring for an extra salary. Actors get paid a week’s wages for doing the cast album, and Barry Humphries, who played an undertaker, only had that one song.
Many might recognize the name “Barry Humphries,” for soon after Oliver! he began creating a character called Dame Edna Everage. And that brings me to the time that I interviewed her.
No, her. The Dame never meets the press as Barry Humphries; that person doesn’t exist. Every interviewer must swear in advance that, while facing the Dame, he will not mention Barry Humphries. If he does, the interview is immediately over and all one will see is the back of the Dame’s gown.
So, while I faced the Dame in his baubled, bangled and beaded dress and mauve wig, I abided by the rules – until the very end of the interview. My next question might make her walk out, but by now, I had enough material. So I said in a most reverential tone, “Dame Edna, have you ever thought of playing the great musical theater roles? Mame? Dolly?”
She started to answer, but not before I could add, “The Undertaker in Oliver! ?”
There was a sudden silence. And then, after the Dame glared at me, she said in a very low, no-nonsense voice, “The Undertaker in Oliver! is NOT a great role.”