On February 9, we’ll celebrate the 60th anniversary of what was then the most-watched event in television history.
No fewer than 73,000,000 viewers tuned in to The Ed Sullivan Show that Sunday night in 1964 to see a British sensation.
It was OLIVER! – the musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’ OLIVER TWIST.
Yes, Lionel Bart’s 1960 musical was the first big British musical to become a major New York hit.
(As time went on, there would be others.)
At this point in 1964, though, only three notable British musicals had had an impressive Broadway run. THE BOY FRIEND couldn’t quite make 500 performances; IRMA LA DOUCE, actually a French musical adapted by English writers, did pass that figure. So did the still-on-Broadway STOP THE WORLD – I WANT TO GET OFF.
None had been a particularly hot ticket, though, which OLIVER! was. At 774 performances, it would outrun all of those.
In addition, it would also be only one of the four to win a Best Score Tony. That was quite an achievement for a composer-lyricist who had never learned to read or write music and couldn’t even play an instrument. Lionel Bart’s brain solely delivered all the music and lyrics (aside from a verse to “Who Will Buy?”, which was a public domain ditty).
By the time Ed Sullivan had invited OLIVER! Onto his Sunday night show, the American cast album had also done what none of those other three hit British musicals could boast. It had climbed as high as Number Four on the charts and had stayed there for an impressive 53 weeks.
It was one of the few cast albums that was available before the Broadway opening. OLIVER! – already in its fourth year in London – had engendered such advance interest that the album was recorded during the show’s Los Angeles tryout. It was released four full months before it officially debuted at the Imperial Theatre on January 6, 1963.
However, those who tuned into Sullivan that Sunday night to witness two selections from OLIVER! May have noticed two different cast changes from the recording that they knew and loved. Such substitutions had to be expected, for OLIVER! Needed 14 pre-teen boys to play the oppressed orphans that Dickens had created in 1837.
And boys’ voices do change, don’t they?
Conductor and musical director Donald Pippin later said that during the San Francisco tryout, 13-year-old Bruce Prochnik, cast in the title role, was already experiencing a changing voice. That was especially a problem for him in the soprano-intense “Where Is Love?”
So, by the time OLIVER! made it to Sullivan’s show, Prochnik had given way to Ronnie Kroll.
As for The Artful Dodger – the orphan who lures Oliver to the lair of the nefarious Fagin who’ll encourage him to steal – Michael Goodman, originally cast and on the recording, also fell victim to a deeper voice. By Broadway, he’d been replaced by David Jones. That had to rankle Goodman, who must have felt that the 1962-1963 Tony nomination as Best Featured Actor in a Musical that Jones received could have been his.
In 1965, David Jones became Davy Jones, a linchpin of the pop group The Monkees. He never returned to Broadway, but YouTube clips of his Sullivan appearance prove that he possessed a fine musical theater ability before he made a Monkee of himself.
Still appearing in OLIVER! by that famous February night were Tony nominees Clive Revill as Fagin and Georgia Brown as Nancy, a character who may have supplemented her income with prostitution. That occupation doesn’t bring a woman in contact with the crème de la crème, so she wound up with robber and murderer Bill Sikes, who only qualified as the merde de la merde.
Ed Sullivan obviously admired Brown, for the two numbers that he chose centered on her. First came “I’d Do Anything.” Although Brown shared it with Kroll, Jones and Revill, she got most of the charm song in which Nancy gets Oliver to loosen up. The lad delightfully does, even daring to kiss the cheek of a young girl.
One could also say, however, that “I’d Do Anything” anticipates the score’s most famous song, which Nancy also sings, for “As Long as He Needs Me” proves that she’d do anything – anything for Bill.
By 1964, “As Long as He Needs Me” had received many cover recordings, most notably Shirley Bassey’s rendition that had stayed on the British charts for six full months. As a result, many who hadn’t seen OLIVER! – or hadn’t purchased either the British or American cast album – weren’t aware of the song’s sad context in the musical.
Throughout the show, Nancy is Sikes’ victim. When he demands that she help him kidnap Oliver, she agrees. In “As Long as He Needs Me” she rationalizes her passionate devotion to someone who doesn’t deserve it. With a skunk like this, why sing “Who else would love him still when they’ve been used so ill? He knows I always will”?
However, after Nancy and Bill abduct Oliver, she has second thoughts and will surreptitiously take the boy from him. She sings a reprise, but now the “he” in “As Long as He Needs Me” is Oliver.
Ed Sullivan may have asked that Brown do the shorter reprise rather than the song as a whole, because he did, after all, have five other acts to whom he’d promised airtime. However, one of his policies that had kept the show running for more than 15 years was “Keep it clean.” So as Brown was singing, the camera also showed Oliver talking to a young girl, lest anyone assume that it was the despicable Bill to whom she was referring.
Incidentally, OLIVER! wasn’t the only reason that inspired all those millions of Americans to tune into CBS on February 9, 1964. Another import from the United Kingdom spurred their intense interest, too.
Yes, Tessie O’Shea, the Wales native who had scored big in Noël Coward’s Broadway musical THE GIRL WHO CAME TO SUPPER – and would soon win a Tony as Best Featured Actress in a Musical – also appeared. With two Broadway musicals so well represented, no wonder that 146 million eyes and ears watched THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW that night.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. His new book – BRAINTEASERS FOR BROADWAY GENIUSES – is now available on Amazon and at The Drama Book Shop.