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Lionel Bart

August 1, 1930 - April 3, 1999
born in London, England, composed during the Modern period
The composer/lyricist of one of the most popular of all English musicals, Oliver!, Lionel Bart enjoyed early promise, but suffered quick decline. He studied at St. Martin's School of Art, but was mainly self-taught as a musician; his early theater work was as a scene painter, and as a composer, he would later need assistants to transcribe his tunes and sort out his harmonic instructions. He began writing pop songs in the mid-'50s for the Cavemen, a group of which he was a member, as well as for Cliff Richard and Billy Fury. His work for Richard and Tommy Steele, lead singer of the Cavemen, helped Bart break into film when Richard and Steele started making movies; among his hits was "Living Doll." Around this time, he also started writing musicals for Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop at Stratford East. One of his earliest efforts, 1958's Wally Pone, King of the Underworld, established Bart's personal precedent for pillaging earlier and unlikely literary sources for his musicals -- in this case, Ben Jonson's Volpone. The following year, Fings Ain't Wot They Used t'Be was Bart's first West End success. Bart reached his peak in 1960, at age 30, with Oliver!, based on Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist and the first of a string of Bart titles to end with at least one exclamation point. For this show, Bart produced some undeniably catchy songs -- even an homage to food -- and drew on his Jewish heritage in the modal songs for the character Fagin. Among Bart's later exclamatory efforts were 1962's Blitz!, set during the London blitzkrieg, and the notorious 1965 flop Twang!!, a Robin Hood spoof that missed its mark. His only notable musical after this was 1969's La Strada, based on the Fellini film; it closed after a single night on Broadway. Bart continued writing songs and themes for films, but it's telling that his only real success later in life was "Happy Endings," a 1989 advertising jingle. This helped spur a few 1990s revivals of his earlier works, but nothing new found success remotely comparable to that of Oliver! or Bart's theme song for the 1963 James Bond movie From Russia With Love. ~ James Reel, Rovi
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