LESLIE BRICUSSE’S BEST BROADWAY OUTING By Peter Filichia
I was on a telephone call last week when the news flashed on my computer screen.
“Oh!” I suddenly said. “Leslie Bricusse died.”
Not all my friends know such things as The 54th Street Theatre didn’t have loges or even that Richard Rodgers once collaborated with Stephen Sondheim (which is probably the way Sondheim would prefer it).
“Leslie Bricusse,” I replied. “Co-wrote two great Broadway scores: STOP THE WORLD – I WANT TO GET OFF.”
“I’ve heard of that,” my friend said in a voice that suggested he wasn’t sure that he had.
“And an even better one: THE ROAR OF THE GREASEPAINT – THE SMELL OF THE CROWD.”
My pal chuckled. “You mean THE ROAR OF THE CROWD – THE SMELL OF THE GREASEPAINT.”
Over the decades, many have made this mistake. But indeed, THE ROAR OF THE GREASEPAINT – THE SMELL OF THE CROWD is the title of the 1965 show. It wanted to suggest a topsy-turvy musical that wouldn’t be Broadway business-as-usual.
It was advertised as “The new Leslie Bricusse-Anthony Newley musical.” That may seem odd, considering that Newley was the more famous; he’d been in the public eye since he was seventeen, when moviegoers saw him as The Artful Dodger in the 1948 film of OLIVER TWIST.
Newley then appeared in a few revues in the fifties, but his career really skyrocketed in 1961 when he dazzled London by being the star, director, co-librettist, co-composer and co-lyricist of STOP THE WORLD – I WANT TO GET OFF.
The “co-” label came courtesy of Bricusse. The show did so well in London that it came to Broadway where it ran even longer (555 performances to the West End’s 485). Newley’s recordings of “Gonna Build a Mountain,” “Once in a Lifetime” and especially “What Kind of Fool Am I?” were much heard even as the rock era was taking hold.
(They weren’t enough to win the Tony for Best Score; that went to OLIVER! – the musical version of the property that had been so important to Newley in his youth. Wonder how he felt about it?)
Now of course the billing could simply be alphabetical. However, considering that Bricusse did much more writing in his career than Newley did, we can infer that he did more of it when collaborating with the star. (The cast album of STOP THE WORLD too proclaims “Book, music and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley.”)
The music AND lyrics that Bricusse solely wrote for DOCTOR DOLITTLE represent one of the best scores of a film, despite the movie itself.
Each of these Bricusse-Newley musicals had very little plot. Many of ROAR/SMELL’s reviews mentioned its similarities to WAITING FOR GODOT, which is certainly not plot-driven. That the ROAR/SMELL’s leads were dressed in ragged tramp’s clothes supported the theory.
As for that negligible plot, Sir, as he’s simply called, has a luggage-toting servant named Cocky, whom he berates and bullies. The writers seemed to be indicting the British class system where the haves look down on the have-nots to a more intense level than we did at least in the sixties.
Buttressing them would be a chorus of fifteen young girls that would comment on the action. When the show was announced for London, seventeen-year-old Elaine Bickerstaff decided to audition. She was then a student at London’s much acclaimed Aida Taylor Theater School. Among its alumni is Jean Simmons, whom we know as Desiree in the London A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC.
Bickerstaff auditioned just around the time when another graduate, Shirley Eaton, was gilded head-to-toe for her small but memorable role in GOLDFINGER. Why mention that, you ask? Because the smash-hit film had a most successful title song partly in thanks to its lyricists: Bricusse-Newley, as they were billed on the label.
Alas, Bickerstaff was rejected, but Taylor so believed in her young pupil that she told her to change her name and try again; she was certain that the powers-that-be were so inundated with kids, they wouldn’t remember her. Bickerstaff thought it an odd suggestion, but felt Teacher Knows Best.
What name to choose? For inspiration, Bickerstaff started looking in the phone book (then a staple in every home), but couldn’t find a name she liked. She went through page after page after – wait! What about Page – or even better, with an “I” in the middle? An “I” would catch the eye.
And that’s how future London musical theater legend Elaine Paige was born.
Not so fast, though; Paige and ROAR/SMELL closed in Manchester without playing a single performance in London. Willoughby Goddard (Mr. Bumble in OLIVER!) had played the sadistic Sir to Norman Wisdom’s Cocky (which, when you think of it, was an odd name for a character who was meek, mild and victimized).
Still, David Merrick – the premier producer of the day who’d not only imported STOP THE WORLD but also IRMA LA DOUCE and OLIVER! from London – attended a Manchester performance and told Newley “If you play the Wisdom role, I’ll take it to Broadway.” Newley saw the wisdom of this. And wouldn’t Cyril Ritchard, everyone’s favorite Captain Hook, be oh-so-right for Sir?
Indeed both were terrific, partly because they had marvelous songs to sing. Newley sang in four of the best. During the late sixties, “Who Can I Turn To? emerged as a Top-40 hit. A group called Sergio Mendes & Brasil ‘66 put “The Joker” on its album and got a gold record out of it. “Nothing Can Stop Me Now” and “A Wonderful Day like Today” (which was mostly sung by Ritchard) were often heard on TV variety shows of the day. Listen and you’ll understand why.
And then there was “Feeling Good,” recorded at the time by Lena Horne and Nina Simone. It wasn’t heard nearly as much as the others – then. However, Simone’s recording came to enjoy a fascinating history. In 1994, Volkswagen decided to use it in a London TV commercial, and so many called the company to say “What’s that song? I like it!” that it was re-released as a single record and became a Top 40 hit.
(All right, it finished in fortieth place. But that still qualifies it as a Top 40 hit.)
Forty may also be the number of times it’s been used in commercials before or since. After all, what product doesn’t want to leave its customers feeling good?
Simone meant it first and foremost as a rallying cry for Civil Rights, and her recording played a role there, too. That was its purpose in the show: a Black man sings it to express his joy at emerging victorious over his oppressor played by Anthony Newley.
Not Ritchard in this case: Newley. That scrawny guy a bully? Yes: part of the point of the show was that if you give an oppressed person power, not much time will pass before he or she becomes as bad as the person who’d oppressed him or her.
Where was the love story? Cocky is enamored of The Girl, as she was simply known. She was played by Joyce Jillson, who later abandoned acting for astrology. (Seriously.)
Sir steals The Girl from Cocky. But in the end, the two reach peaceful coexistence in what may be the score’s most beautiful song: “Sweet Beginning.” But it does have a great deal of competition from the other seventeen.
Oh, perhaps “Put it in the Book” (where Sir’s rules were catalogued) isn’t a highlight, but listen to the Dixieland dance music in the middle, and you’ll be glad it’s there.
Of course it’s good; it was written by Peter Howard, who did similar wonders for the songs “He Played the Violin” (1776), “Hot Honey Rag” (CHICAGO) and “Hello, Dolly!”
Despite STOP THE WORLD’s running more than twice as long as ROAR/SMELL, the later score is the better one. Taking into consideration the hit songs from both shows, “Feeling Good” has proved to be the one with the most staying power. Nice that Leslie Bricusse living to ninety allowed him to witness and feel good about its surprising, long-running success.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. He’s a contributor to the new magazine Encore Monthly.