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Lionel Bart

(b. August 1, 1930 - d. April 3, 1999)

The youngest of twelve children. Lionel Bart (real name Lionel Begleiter) was born in 1930. His father was an immigrant tailor who, like so many before and after, arrived in London's East End and set up shop. Bart's ambition was to be an artist and he won a Lionel Bartscholarship to St. Martin's School of Art. After completing National Service with the RAF, he joined the Unity, a left-wing theatre club, in 1952. "There he began a stage career as understudy, scenic painter and poster designer. His first project was a play called The Wages of Sin about equal pay for men and women.

Learning the Ropes

Changing his name to Bart (after the famous London hospital), he contributed to four Unity Theatre productions. The first was the political revue Turn It Up, which was directed by character actor Alfie Bass. In the Unity's version of Cinderella, not only did he play one of the ugly sisters but he also wrote some of the show's lyrics. By the time he was involved with the revue Peacemeal, he was considered a writer. Wally Pone, a contemporary story set in London's Fast End, was entirely his work. It was his last show at the Unity.

Between Peacemeal and Wally Pone, Bart became a major player in the pop scene. He was an original member of the skiffle group the Cavemen (so named because they played in the Cave cafe under the arches near the Embankment, London). The other members were Tommy Steele and fellow songwriter Mike Pratt. The group, and especially Steele. was seen as a possible British alternative to the onslaught of rock from America. In 1956, Bart's 'Rock with the Cavemen' was Tommy Steele's first hit and it helped establish him as England's first pop star.

Lionel Bart never learned to read or write music properly and could hardly tap out a melody on the piano. Instead, he hummed compositions into a tape recorder.

Top of the Pops

Bart's pop-writing career took off. in fact, for three years not a week went by without one of his songs reaching the top 20. During the same period, he won more Ivor Novello Song Awards than any previous songwriter. His more notable offerings from this period included 'A Handful of Songs' and 'Butterfingers' for Tommy Steele and 'Living Doll' for Cliff Richard. He also worked in film, and during the late: Fifties these included The Tommy Steele Story,. Tommy the Toreador and The Duke Wore Jeans.

Bart's successful pop career enabled him to continue with his first love, the theatre. The Theatre Royal, Stratford East, London, had a political connection with the Unity, and Bart went there to write a few songs for Joan Littlewood's production of Fings Ain't Wot They Used t'Be. He spent just two weeks writing the songs for this much improvised show. Fings was first produced in February 1959 and its success prompted a West End revival later in the year. It was an immediate hit which was followed up with an invitation from actor Bernard Miles to work on Lock Up Your Daughters, the opening production of his newly-established Mermaid Theatre, London. Laurie Johnson had already been commissioned to write the music, so was Bart's task to provide the lyrics. Again, this turned out to be a huge hit.

In the early sixties Bart's career went from strength to strength. In 1960, Anthony Newley had a number one hit with Bart's 'Do You Mind', but the same year saw the more extraordinary success of Oliver! This was followed in 1962 with Blitz! a spectacular production telling of life in London during the Second World. When it opened, Bart had more than one show running in the West End, a feat matched by the likes of' Andrew Lloyd Webber and Alan Ayckbourn. His last hit show was Maggie (1964), which was set against a dock strike in Liverpool. Bart's personal life was equally successful, and he could he seen about town with the likes of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

Hard Times

Good fortune seemed to end with Twang!! based on the life of Robin Hood, which was crucified by the critics when it made its brief London appearance in 1965. Four years later, La Strada closed on its opening night in New York. Bart invested his own money in Twang!! and consequently lost much of what he had strived for. He had bought homes in London and Jamaica, but extravagant times were over. Worse still, he had sold the rights to Oliver! prior to its West End opening has never financially benefitted from his masterpiece. With producers unwilling to take on new productions, Bart finished the decade increasingly dependent on drugs and drink

Like many other British composers of his era. his work is now ignored, but Oliver! is a testament to his genius.