August 1, 1930– Lionel Bart:
”Must I travel far and wide? ‘Til I am beside the someone who I can mean something to … Where? Where is love?”
Lionel Bart hosted some of the most fabulous parties in the Swinging Mod London of the 1960s. His guests included: Princess Margaret, members of The Rolling Stones, Noël Coward, Rudolf Nureyev, all four Beatles and their gay manager Brian Epstein, Joan Collins, Tom Jones, Muhammad Ali and random groups of hippies and hanger-on-ers. Bart’s London pad was known as ”The Fun Palace”.
Sometimes Bart would join his 500+ guests as they danced, drank and drugged. Sometimes he preferred to lie in his sound-proofed bedroom behind a two-way mirror, watching the party. On a table by the front door was a glass bowl stuffed with cash and guests were welcome help themselves. Another bowl contained cocaine to which his guests were also welcome. Bart’s generosity knew no bounds and his extravagance no limits.
He was diminutive, Jewish and gay. He made millions from his songwriting. In the early 1960s, Bart was the epitome of cool. His songs were at the top of the pop charts and he was responsible for the book, lyrics and music for the hit musical Oliver! Yet, Bart would end up a broke drug addict living in shabby obscurity.
Bart was born to Jewish refugees in London’s East End. Growing up short, skinny, with jug-ears and a big nose, he survived by entertaining with his quick wit, making up dirty lyrics to well-known pop songs for the neighborhood toughs.
He won a scholarship to the prestigious St Martin’s School Of Art and he became part of London’s wild Soho crowd when he was just 16-years-old.
When he was 18, he was called up for service with the Royal Air Force. On an outing from his airbase, he went to see David Lean‘s film adaptation of Charles Dickens‘ great novel Oliver Twist (1948), an event that would change his life.
Bart went into showbiz and discovered, groomed, and wrote top hits for British pop singers Tommy Steele and Cliff Richard. He had no training and couldn’t read or write music; he sang into a tape recorder and someone else would transcribe. He believed in keeping melodies and lyrics simple. Bart:
”I never spent more than an hour on a tune. Songs should be like sneezes: spontaneous.”
Despite his artists’ success on the pop charts, Bart dreamed of having his songs performed in the theatre. He got that chance when he provided the songs for a 1959 play called Fings Ain’t What They Used T’Be, a Cockney comedy at a small theatre. The show was a hit and transferred to The West End after a year. The British Royal Family attended, despite the show’s risqué scenes and dirty jokes.
The same year, Bart began work on Oliver!, his masterpiece. The tale of poverty-stricken orphans was a hard sell to producers. Eventually, a single producer agreed to stage it on a tiny budget. On opening night there were 23 curtain calls. The reviews were ecstatic. Oliver! ran for six years, a record for a British musical.
Bart became phenomenally wealthy. He spent his dough on tailored suits, custom shirts, and leather boots. He had his nose fixed. He collected cars: a Mercedes-Benz convertible with a built-in telephone (this was in the 1960s), Bentley Continental, and a Facel Vega. Bart mixed with the old showbiz: Judy Garland was a good friend, and with the new stars: Michael Caine, Mick Jagger and Terence Stamp hung out with him.
Oliver! was produced on Broadway in 1963 to tremendous acclaim and terrific box office. Bart wrote the theme song for the second James Bond film From Russia With Love the same year.
All that success and all that money, yet personal happiness eluded Bart. He had just one steady boyfriend, then a series of hook-ups, but he did not publicly come out of the closet until 1971, four years after homosexuality was decriminalized in England.
In 1962, he wrote another musical Blitz!, based on his own wartime childhood in London. It had an 18-month run, but Blitz! And his next musical Maggie May (1964) never came close to the success of Oliver!.
Oliver! was made in to a hit film in 1967, winning six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director for Carol Reed and Best Score for Bart. Hollywood was impressed, and he began to compose music for films, but in Los Angeles his inspiration deserted him. Bart gained a bad reputation, making ridiculous demands like having a giant teddy bear travel in the front seat of his chauffeur-driven automobile.
He returned to London to discover that his new 21-year-old boyfriend had stolen his all possessions including clocks, paintings and antiques. Bart was devastated by the betrayal. He sold the Fun Palace and moved to a small house.
He wrote another musical, La Strada, based on the Federico Fellini film. It opened on Broadway in December 1969 and closed after a single performance.
In the 1970s Bart became unhinged by drugs and insecurities. In January 1970, he was arrested for drunk driving. When his mother, to whom he was devoted, passed away, Bart, heartbroken, began drinking and drugging more heavily.
Broken and bankrupt, Bart sold the rights to his published music and the stage rights to Oliver!. Haunted by failure, Bart and his buddy Keith Moon started finishing several bottles of vodka a day and ingested every illegal substance brought to them. In February 1971, he was arrested for possession.
In 1977, openly gay producer Cameron Mackintosh revived Oliver! on The West End. Again, the show was a huge hit. It was revived again in 1983 and considered a triumph once more. This time Mackintosh paid Bart to be an adviser, but it was not enough to save him financially or emotionally. Having sold most of his possessions, he moved to a modest flat and fell further into addiction.
In 1994, Mackintosh produced another revival of Oliver! directed by young Sam Mendes. It was a giant hit again. It made millions and Mackintosh shared the royalties with Bart.
The years of drugs and drinking finally caught up with Bart, and in 1999, he had his final curtain call, gone from liver cancer. What money he had left went to his friends and charities. But, it was a fraction of the millions he had been worth at his apex in the 1960s. Bart:
”It’s the kicks that matter, nothing else. I just want to write musicals. I want to stand up and shout to the biggest audience I can get.”
At one point in my own life, depression and disappointment drove me to drink and drugs, but I hope I learned a lesson from a skinny little Jewish gay boy from rough East London who couldn’t even read music: Money can’t buy happiness, but it sure would be fun to spend.
Three years ago, it was announced that Oscar winner Geoffrey Rush was playing Bart in Consider Yourself, a new musical biopic. I read that the project was completed, but it now seems to have disappeared.
In a tiny footnote, I played Fagin in a stage production of Oliver! in 1978. It remains my most favorite role.