<i>OLIVER!</i> A DICKENSIAN MUSICAL by Marc Napolitano, Reviewed by Jeremy Tambling
 


OLIVER! A DICKENSIAN MUSICAL
By Marc Napolitano
(Oxford University Press), xiv + 288 pp.
Reviewed by Jeremy Tambling on 2015-08-24.

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Lionel Bart's Oliver! opened at the New Theatre in London's West End, mid 1960; since then, with revivals, and the 1968 film directed by Carol Reed, and with innumerable school and other amateur productions, it may have been the most famous musical since the second World War. That in itself justifies a monograph, especially since Oliver! was English, not American, and the "musical" is considered an American form: a point central to this study by Professor Napolitano, an academic at West Point. We can agree that Guys and Dolls, West Side Story, Kiss Me Kate, and more complexly, Showboat, exemplify the form at its best, where linguistic skill in deftly handled words and rhymes are as central as the tune, and the tune must carry complex verbal rhythms that find their correlative in dance. In Oklahoma!, My Fair Lady, and A Little Night Music, which Napolitano calls "integrated musicals" (26), or "book musicals," the music comes from the words and the situation. The best English example prior to Oliver! was Salad Days (1954) by Julian Slade and Dorothy Reynolds, though here the tunefulness of the score is musically more developed than either lyrics or libretto. By contrast with the "integrated musical," the "mega-musical" has been defined as "a suspension of the book in favour of music" (Scott McMillin, The Musical as Drama [2006], qtd. 26): music running throughout, in something like the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk, the total work of art, though this term seems strained. On this basis Oliver! is a book musical moving towards further integration, and Bart wrote all three of its elements: dialogue, lyrics and music.

According to Napolitano, Bart's Oliver emulates David Lean's film of Oliver Twist (32-33) and reflects the influence of "kitchen sink drama" (epitomized by Arnold Wesker's Chicken Soup with Barley [1956]), with its focus on working-class life. Oliver!, writes Napolitano, also speaks with "The Voice of the Young": what Kenneth Tynan, the influential Observer theatre-critic, heard emanating from John Osborne's play Look Back in Anger (1956) at the Royal Court (23). Besides recalling this context, Napolitano explains how Oliver! moved from improvisation to its London production and how New Yorkers received its Jewishness on Broadway, where Ron Moody, who created Fagin for the London stage and performed the role on screen, was replaced by Clive Revill. Ironically, as Napolitano indicates, the most successful American musical of the 1960s was Fiddler on the Roof (1964), wherein Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick adapted Scholem Aleichem's stories about Tevye, the Ukrainian milkman, with claims to be authentically Jewish. Napolitano's final chapter looks at Carol Reed's film, and an epilogue treats Bart's other musicals as well as other musicals derived from Dickens.

For Oliver!'s success as an English musical Napolitano credits two things. First he points to what was happening in London theater at the end of the 1950s, at the Royal Court, as described above, and in Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East (Chaucer's Stratford atte Bowe). As a radical foe of West End commercialism and director of the first English production of Brecht's Mother Courage (1955), she strongly influenced both English theater and Bart. Second, Napolitano unearths the music-hall roots of Oliver! (111-129): Nancy's music-hall song "Oom pah-pah," which opens Act 2, has behind it Dickens's evocation of the Three Cripples inn ("establishment"), where "a young lady proceeded to entertain the company with a ballad in four verses, between each of which the accompanist played the melody, all through, as loud as he could" (Oliver Twist [Oxford 1999] ch. 26, 198). As Napolitano notes, John Osborne's The Entertainer (1957), filmed in 1960, likewise evokes music-hall song and dance routines and radiates a heavy sense of nostalgia that the form was going and taking England with it. Since Bart, Ron Moody, and Georgia Brown (who sings Nancy) were all from East European Jewish emigré families, all outsiders to West End culture, Napolitano also explains how Oliver! resonates with Jewish influences in popular song, Yiddish theatre, and music-hall (32, 43, 156-157).

For all its virtues, however, for all its detail on the circumstances of the musical's production and revivals, this book approaches Oliver! from an American perspective, which--aside from mistaking the first name of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan (20)-- limits its account of the London stage in the 1960s. In the spring of 1961, when I was thirteen, I saw the original production of Oliver! in London a few days after catching an adaptation of Great Expectations at the new Mermaid theatre (built in 1959). Housed in an old converted warehouse lapped by the Thames and now fallen to "developers," the Mermaid stage was a fifty-foot wide open space at the foot of a highly raked auditorium, lacking proscenium arch and wings. The Mermaid was created by Bernard Miles, who was not then "Lord," as Napolitano calls him (41), but rather working-class and ready to make the bourgeois jump. The Mermaid's opening production, a musical called Lock Up Your Daughters, sprang from Henry Fielding's Rape Upon Rape and featured music by Laurie Johnson, lyrics by Lionel Bart, direction by Peter Coe (who directed Oliver!), and scenery by Sean Kenny (1929-1973), who also designed Great Expectations and Oliver! Kenny's sets for these Dickens plays were similar: wooden stairways ran up to a centerbridge and down to low platforms right and left which could be acting areas in their own right; but in Oliver! the stairs curved and revolved, so that a constant turning created new spaces:

Sean Kenny, stage set for Oliver! (National Library of Australia)

As Napolitano recognizes, these sets were the indispensable supplement to the musical and what was exceptional in it. They permitted continuous movement, with no breaks at all. Who could forget Mr Bumble (Paul Whitsun-Jones) climbing the stairs of the slowly revolving darkened stage, changing from workhouse to street, with snow falling, and singing "Boy for Sale," concluding with his arrival at Sowerberry's funeral-parlour?

But apart from their functionalism, three qualities marked Kenny's sets. First, they suggested improvisation, nothing finished, everything in process, a world where people could and should make a space for themselves, as Fagin's den turned out to be able to accommodate a stage (a low platform on the right, to which the stairs descended). Since they allowed for the sense of creativity which compensated for the miserable lives depicted, it is not surprising to discover that Moody used to improvise the part of Fagin. Second, they were unpretentious: open, showing everything of the machinery, yet at the same time suggesting infinite Piranesi-like recesses and steps leading to other places, places to hide: London as labyrinth. Third, the back wall was painted, as Napolitano says (89), with a view of London's East End. Brick walls were painted onto brick. The effect may be seen by comparing the front cover of Napolitano's book, which shows the Cameron Macintosh 1990's revival, with another photograph inside (205). The backdrop pictured on the book cover shows London centered by St Paul's, and the backdrop in the other photo shows a London more appropriate to a camp version of My Fair Lady. Displacing the reality of the city, both backdrops represent "heritage" London for tourists, where everything is established, glamorized, and known.

Like Dickens, Bart rejects this London, and the brilliance of Kenny's set was to be no identifiable place at all, but the site of where something new could happen. This was the root of the work's optimism, which caused the Broadway production to be spanked for its euphoria: "the audience knows that nothing painful, nothing honest, nothing real will be imposed upon it ... the Thieves' Kitchen becomes an urban Sherwood Forest with Robin Hood Fagin teaching his pickpockets to rob from the rich and give to the deserving poor " ( Time, qtd. 174). The reviewer is right in the abstract, but not true to the performance I saw, though I remember thinking that the musical form could handle the first act but not the second, that neither the cutting of the plot nor the murder of Nancy worked, and that Bart's dialogue could not replace Dickens's (it was not sharp enough). Another photograph of Macintosh's revival (10) shows Oliver centered, asking for more, and watched by people on other levels: it has all the clichés of the opera-house, with the chorus behind and the audience being told where to look. By contrast, the anonymity in Kenny's London set corresponds to the city of Dickens, who does not identify the workhouse and whose London in Oliver Twist is not the tourist's. Yet for all that, it is precise in both Dickens and Kenny.

Napolitano himself could be more precise on Bart's contexts, with more detail on his place of birth and background (30). He barely mentions Bart's homosexuality (208), which surely inspired his way of representing the boys, such as the Artful Dodger, and vitally animated the work's sense of its own exceptionalism and heterogeneity. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography gives Bart's birthplace as 24 Underwood Road. As field research for this review, I visited this street as well as Gibraltar Walk for the ex-home of Alfie Bass, who took over the Zero Mostel/Topol role in Fiddler on the Roof and acted at the Unity Theatre, a Marxist collective which started in the 1930s and which, like Bass, gave Bart theatrical encouragement in the early 1950s. While separated from each other, both Underwood Road and Gibraltar Walk are a couple of blocks to the east of the seventeenth-century Brick Lane in London's East End, now a Bangladeshi area. The streets running down to Brick Lane from the west contain old Huguenot houses. Refugees from the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1685) came here then, just as the massive Jewish emigration to the area followed the Russian pogroms of 1881-84. Underwood Road was almost entirely blitzed (hence Bart's musical Blitz), but the street's now absent Jewishness is confirmed by a memorial to a Jewish lying-in hospital that was opened in 1911 adjacent to the old no. 24, and by the trace of a Jewish community center in the next street (between lies a school built in 1895, which helps define the area's age). When this area is mapped onto the topography of Oliver Twist, as explained in my Going Astray: Dickens and London (2008, 59-78), something interesting emerges. Bart was born in the square half-mile that Dickens describes in chapter 19 of Oliver Twist, and from his description of the house of Oliver's incarceration (chapter 18), it could be an old Huguenot property. Fagin walks from there to Bethnal Green, where Sikes lives and Nancy is killed: at the northern end of Brick Lane, it has pockets of poverty as acute as any other known to Dickens or Bart. Dickens's London is Bart's, a world now partly erased by bombs and developers, and the musical recalls London's working-class. Given that context, how could Bart not have written a musical about Oliver Twist?

This point confirms the well-known radical politics of the East End. It is unsurprising that Bart joined the Communist Party as well as Unity theatre (33) , which had informal links with Theatre Workshop and which encouraged him, specifically by staging Frank Norman's Fings Ain't Wot they Used to Be (1959), with Bart's music and lyrics. (Incidentally, I don't care for "debuted," the verb Napolitano uses frequently [e.g. 31], especially without its accent; I am even unsure how to pronounce it). Norman, who had written a memoir about prison life (Bang to Rights [1958]), lived then in the East End; Fings logically led to Oliver! and deserves more attention than Napolitano gives it (39-41). His account of this part of the 1950s, while adequate, short-changes it and thus diminishes what was radical about Oliver!. Though he notes the significance of Theatre Workshop's collective work, Oh What a Lovely War (1963) (39), he seems grudging: why does he say that Littlewood had a "1950s fixation on the cockney" (38)? "Fixation" is a technical Freudian term presumably used to mean "attention"; attention to "the cockney," a term which needs more of it, is synonymous with attention to the East End and the extraordinary culture associated with it, which produced Wolf Mankowitz, of Russian-Jewish descent, librettist for the other big Dickens musical of the 1960s: Pickwick (1963), more bland than Oliver!. A less uneasy attitude to this political theater could have opened up Napolitano's text to study of what Brecht, for instance, meant for Oliver!, which was surely inspired in part by The Threepenny Opera.

According to Napolitano, Bart was uneasy with Moody's Fagin because Moody stressed Fagin's stage-Jewishness. But Bart created that problem himself by using such creations as Bumble, Mrs Corney, Sowerberry, and the Artful Dodger to build up to Fagin. In so stressing him, Bart consciously or not made the character utterly indeterminate. In this and his Dickensian form, Fagin returns, via Shylock (played as a clown until Edmund Kean) to the excess of the old demonic Jew who was standard in the medieval dramas featuring Judas Iscariot. Fagin points to an equal autobiographical unease in Dickens, as a reminder of when he had lost caste and become the twelve-year old factory worker (see Stephen Marcus, "Who is Fagin" in Dickens from Pickwick to Dombey [1963], 358-378). Dickens's Fagin gains his momentum from the comic devil's ambiguity: he has a diabolical toasting-fork in George Cruikshank's first picture of him. Bart's work respects that Dickensian complexity, though towards the end of the musical he softens the portrayal and makes Fagin less ambiguous-- as Dickens does in the opposite direction, emphasizing his role in the killing of Nancy.

Napolitano could have said more about Dickens's novel and Bart's response to it, which is both reverential and surgical: he cuts the complex plot and many characters who make the text so expansive. In foreshortening the plot, he fails to motivate the characters' actions and makes the musical form too light for the deaths of Nancy and Sikes. But Napolitano excellently explains the implications of "Where is Love," which he sees as the musical's centerpiece (65-66). If it is argued that Bart softens everything, making the Artful Dodger and Fagin too generous to Oliver, the point may be conceded, but not too damagingly. Such a song as "Consider Yourself" is utopian in its invitation to the marginal to "join in" (Nancy's words). Like others in that East End, Bart must have been one of those marginalized; in some ways the musical reads as an allegorical autobiography of the person who yearns for acceptance. Perhaps Bart's tragedy was that the conditions of marginality remain those of creativity: they are what he lost.

Jeremy Tambling, formerly Professor of Literature at the University of Manchester, is now an independent scholar.


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