Oliver!: The real story of Britain's greatest musical

Rowan Atkinson is set to bring crowds flocking to Oliver! again. And though the show's history has its tragedies, the potent mix of fun and misery is perfect for our times, says Michael Coveney

The first big theatre event of the new year in the West End is a smash hit of 50 years ago, re-launched in a new production based on a 15-year-old revival. This may sound like a dubious recipe for success, but as the show is Lionel Bart's Oliver!, directed by hotshot Rupert Goold at Drury Lane and based on that long-running 1994 Sam Mendes version at the Palladium, the odds are that the public will turn up in droves.

For anyone over the age of 40, Bart's songs are part of the fabric of their lives: whole generations have been "Reviewing the Situation" while asking "Where Is Love?" and "Who Will Buy?" and celebrating "Food, Glorious Food". And, as for "As Long As He Needs Me" – the 28-year-old former agony aunt and weight-watcher Jodie Prenger from Blackpool, who won the role of Nancy on the I'd Do Anything BBC television audition show, needs a critical thumbs-up next week even more than she needs another black eye from Burn Gorman's abusive Bill Sikes every night on stage.

Cameron Mackintosh's huge production, using the same Palladium designs by Anthony Ward and the same (admittedly revamped) choreography by Matthew Bourne, is hedged with questions that need answering. Is Oliver! really the greatest of all 20th-century British musicals, as is often claimed? Is it not a pale, cheeky-chops copy of Charles Dickens? And is not the music, as John Gielgud remarked in a 1960 letter to one of Stephen Sondheim's future collaborators, Hugh Wheeler, "very amateur, though catchy and appropriate"?

"The stagecraft is the thing," Gielgud said. But can a show that was subject to the whim of TV viewers' telephone votes be organically conceived, let alone crafted? Both Mackintosh and Drury Lane theatre-owner Andrew Lloyd Webber – who has a vested, but non-producing, interest in the production – were visibly downcast when Jodie pipped Jessie Buckley – now in the Menier Chocolate Factory's superb Trevor Nunn revival of Sondheim's A Little Night Music – to the role.

And, perhaps most important – how Jewish is the non-Jew Rowan Atkinson prepared to be in the role of the child-procuring, double-dealing Fagin, bearing in mind that a rabbi who had not even seen David Hare's Gethsemane at the National denounced the author as anti-Semitic because one of his characters was Jewish and not very nice?

Bart died in 1999, so this will be the first time he's not been around for a major London revival. The poor fellow ended up needing to pick a pocket or two as much as Fagin himself, wrecked and destitute, even though Mackintosh generously cut the composer back into some of the stage rights he sold off in his darkest hour. Between 1957 and 1964, Bart wrote prodigiously and blazed like a cockney comet, going from rags to riches and back again, learning twice over the bitterness of Fagin's lyric, "In this world, one thing counts; in the bank, large amounts..."

That refrain will strike a new chord as we enter recession. Though much of the music does reflect the bleakness of Dickens's "murderous melodrama", with its filthy dens, riverside murk and low dives, there has always been something cheerful and uplifting amid the misery. This conflict is what audiences love and critics tend to dislike. The 1994 revival struck me as anodyne, devoid of texture, and seriously under-written in the second act (at least three songs short of a collection). Another critic complained that Oliver! was scrubbed clean of Dickens's social rage and Gothic strangeness.

This last is a valid complaint only if you think that musicals have to be accurately tied to their source material. I'm not even sure that Bart ever read Oliver Twist, Dickens's imperfect but utterly compelling second novel. Angus Wilson was surely correct in describing it as "one of the great popular works of art of all time, rightly seized upon by film, stage and television producers, rightly made the prey of pop composers." Oliver Twist holding out the begging bowl became a rosy-cheeked advertising symbol for Terry's chocolate bars, rather like the Pear's Soap girl. Bart took his direct inspiration from that sweet wrapping, not the novel.

And, as Mark Steyn once pointed out, comparing what Bart did with Dickens to what Disney did with Kipling's Jungle Book, the composer took the source material and recast it in another form, consistent in its own tone. Bart modestly told Steyn that for Oliver! he did Tom and Jerry music, thinking in terms of people's walks. So, the title song was really the Beadle's walk, a sort of "dum-de-dum" ("O-li-ver! O-li-ver!) and Fagin's music was "like a Jewish mother-hen clucking away".

Very few musical theatre writers do all three parts of the job: book, lyrics and music. With Oliver!, Bart was following the elite examples of Noël Coward and Cole Porter, both of whom admired him enormously. It's hard now to realise how thoroughly he transformed the British musical, which had anyway gone through a minor golden period in the 1950s with witty, civilised shows by Sandy Wilson (The Boy Friend) and Julian Slade (Salad Days); Wilson went to Harrow and Oxford, Slade to Eton and Cambridge.

Bart went to the left-wing Unity Theatre and Soho. The seventh child of East End immigrant Austrian Jews (his father was a master tailor), he had studied at St Martin's School of Art, where his first life model was Quentin Crisp, and entered the printing trade after National Service. Coward said he would "rather spend five minutes in a four-ale bar chatting with Lionel Bart than a year's yachting cruise with the Oxford Debating Society," a sure sign that Bart's roguish wit and sassiness were as salient in his life as in his work.

His cultural context wasn't other musicals or West End revues, but Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop in the East End and the first stirrings of British rock'n'roll. He played washboard in a skiffle band with Tommy Steele, for whom he wrote some of his first songs ("Rock With the Caveman" and "Little White Bull"), and then, for Cliff Richard, one of the great pop songs of the period, "Living Doll" ("I got myself a crying, talking, sleeping, walking living doll; got to do my best to please her just 'cos she's a living doll"); it remains one of Cliff's best hits.

Amazingly, he could not read, write or play music. He always said he couldn't tell the difference between A flat and "a council flat". He was a complete natural. He sang his tunes and lyrics into a tape recorder, his constant companion. He mined an entire semi-submerged territory of music hall, parlour songs and cockney anthems and filtered them through an idiosyncratic gift for rhythm, phrase-making and song construction. He didn't have to discover "political commitment", coming from his background, and he caught the first big post-war wave of the celebrity culture and enjoyed every fleeting second of his fame.

It all happened so quickly. In the two years before Oliver!, Bart wrote Wally Pone, a musical play based on Ben Jonson's Volpone, at the Unity; jaunty music and lyrics for Frank Norman's Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be ("They've turned our local palais into a bowling alley, and fings ain't..." etc) for his mentor Joan Littlewood at Stratford East (Bart agreed that you could describe this nostalgic hymn to pimps, ponces and tarts as Guys and Dolls with its flies undone); and brilliant lyrics for Lock Up Your Daughters for a Mermaid Theatre musical version of Henry Fielding's Rape upon Rape.

He was definitely the new kid on the block, but still 12 managements turned down the idea for Oliver! as impracticable and too morbid. According to Bart's unauthorised biographer David Roper, the producer Donald Albery took an option on the strength of a few tape-recorded songs and bought and staged it for just £15,000. The director was Peter Coe and the designer Sean Kenny, whose labyrinthine timbered setting, cunningly lit in blues and ambers, was a wonder of the West End.

In rehearsal, and during the try-out in Wimbledon, Bart composed frantically, adding to the original six songs – for Barry Humphries as Sowerberry, he came up with "That's Your Funeral" – and writing music for the visible scene-changes; Kenny convinced Bart that the show should flow without actors or scenery ever coming to a stop. In banishing trucks, painted canvas, standing flats and pseudo-marbled wallpaper, Kenny was effecting a design revolution that would pave the way for the newly formed RSC and, eventually, a "son of Oliver!" design style by John Napier for Cats and Les Misérables.

Two of the best numbers, the irresistibly cheery "Consider Yourself" and the blazing torch song "As Long As V C He Needs Me" were released before the opening on recordings by Max Bygraves and Shirley Bassey. The critics (mostly) raved and the show ran for more than six years, the longest-running British musical until Jesus Christ Superstar came along in 1970. Everyone went to see it. The only theatre show recording we had in the house when I was an Essex teenager, apart from Gilbert and Sullivan, was Oliver!.

Cameron Mackintosh saw the show within a few months of its opening at the New Theatre (later the Albery and now the Noël Coward, which he owns). Already set on becoming a producer, he joined a national tour of the show soon after leaving drama school and in 1977 he revived that original production in the same theatre with Roy Hudd as Fagin. His dedication to Oliver! is as strong as his grip on its theatrical life. He is similarly engaged with My Fair Lady, another unabashed appropriation of a masterpiece, Shaw's Pygmalion.

Mackintosh puts the show's appeal down to its rich, entertaining characters and its heart, a quality it shares with Bart, who never felt sorry for himself despite his tribulations. Mackintosh brought the same production back again in 1983 for a Christmas season at the Aldwych, and Ron Moody's Fagin, long enshrined in the 1968 movie, flickered back to electrifying life, eyes burning like live coals for one critic, and his capering, tattered cloak outstretched in all directions delighting another.

The movie version, bursting with jollity, is often dismissively compared with David Lean's wonderful 1948 black and white non-musical Oliver Twist, which starred Alec Guinness as Fagin, Robert Newton as Sikes and a young Anthony Newley as the Dodger. Markedly Dickens-lite in comparison, Carol Reed's film nonetheless won six Oscars and boasts a fascinating gallery of great British character actors, apart from Moody: Oliver Reed as Sikes, Leonard Rossiter and Hylda Baker as the Sowerberrys, Harry Secombe as Bumble, Peggy Mount as Mrs Corney.

A beguiling small-scale version by the National Youth Music Theatre in 1991 suggested that the time might be right for another approach. But instead of taking a fresh look at the close-up mechanics and emotional content of the piece – the New/Albery was always an intimate house, after all, and the show is a "musical play", not a blockbuster – Mackintosh decided to go large at the Palladium. The "spectacular" elements of Anthony Ward's design did not really earn their keep and a lot of the songs seemed swamped.

Mackintosh and Mendes cast two RSC Macbeths – Jonathan Pryce and Miles Anderson – as Fagin and Sikes. Pryce was a dark, malevolent Fagin, but he missed (deliberately?) the Jewishness and the glee. Still, what do critics know? The production ran for three years, grossing more than £40m at the box office and travelled the world, Pryce followed in his beard and gabardine by Jim Dale, Robert Lindsay, Barry Humphries and Russ Abbot.

This time round, Mackintosh confesses he had initial misgivings about Jodie Prenger's generous curves, but the biggest success in 1994 was Sally Dexter's Nancy, and she's no role model for size zero. She blasted her way through the score, and her innate voluptuousness was no bar to turning "As Long As He Needs Me" into the sad valedictory of a (literally) beaten woman. So Prenger needn't necessarily stint on the sauce and mayo if the performance is in good order, as Mackintosh now thinks it is.

Still, Prenger's comparative inexperience is acknowledged in the cover Mackintosh has provided, with Tamsin Carroll, an award-winning Nancy in Australia, playing Wednesday and Thursday evenings, and Sarah Lark, another I'd Do Anything reject, understudying the role while filling in as one of the street sellers. Atkinson only agreed to play Fagin – Mackintosh says he's been pestering him for 15 years – after playing the part in his daughter's school production. He's signed up for six months, risking the boredom he dreads of repeating himself each night.

The danger – and possible deterrent to an evaluation of Oliver!'s true worth – is that Mackintosh has now gone even larger. One envisages hordes of grubby infants marching in military unison in search of bowls of gruel all over Ward's sets, and Atkinson muttering into his beard in search of acting "truth" – or perhaps, after all, he will caper maliciously, and Jewish-joyfully, like Moody? The stage at Drury Lane is 80ft deep and has, says Mackintosh, given the production team tremendous scope to enlarge the "original concept".

Two years ago, the Queen's Theatre in Hornchurch, Essex, on the margins of Bart's East End patch, presented a biographical songbook in his memory. The greatest impression, apart from the warmth and humanity of the material, was the easy colloquialism of the writing. After Oliver!, Bart wrote an East End war-time idyll Blitz!, which contains some beautiful songs and, with Alun Owen, Maggie May, a rumbustious musical drama about a tart with a heart of gold on the Liverpool docks.

But then, in 1965, everything went belly up with his doomed Robin Hood musical Twang!! (one exclamation mark too far, said Mark Steyn) and a catastrophic opening in Manchester led to the withdrawal of the show's backers. Littlewood left, Bart took over the direction and footed the whole bill himself; he lost the lot. Despite a cast including Barbara Windsor, James Booth, Ronnie Corbett and Bernard Bresslaw, Twang!! sank after 43 performances in London. Another botched project, a Broadway stab at Fellini's La Strada, closed on its second night in 1969.

Littlewood left Britain for good in 1972 (she died 30 years later) and Bart provided a few painfully unmemorable songs for her last show at Stratford East, Costa Packet, a fairly predictable take on the new tourist package industry. Bart, the darling of the Sixties who hobnobbed with Princess Margaret, Judy Garland and Liberace, and whose house was Kubla Khan in Kensington (with two huge glass urns on permanent offer to guests, one full of cocaine, the other full of money), simply withdrew from the fray, like some modern-day Timon of Athens. He was bankrupt, diabetic and alcoholic. All he had left were his few close friends.

In the Hornchurch memorial, one or two songs from Twang!! and "Unseen Hands" from La Strada slipped their moorings to remind us of Bart's unfussy genius and the fact that he stirs our hearts when he speaks most directly to them, with a wink and a smile and the sort of natural communal knees-up an older generation enjoyed in skiffle clubs or sitting rooms. That quality is strong enough to be scented by a new young audience every 10 years or so, and it will be fascinating to see whether Oliver!, with its rousing choruses and perfectly wrought ballads, can work the magic all over again.

Victims of a success story

* Lionel Bart never recovered from Oliver!'s success, living a life of luxury, drink and drugs and losing everything on the ill-fated Robin Hood musical Twang!! (1965). He sold all rights in Oliver! and died in a spartan flat above a café in Acton, west London, in 1999 after years of writer's block.

* Georgia Brown, the first Nancy, remained associated with the role as a cabaret artiste on both sides of the Atlantic. She died aged 58 in 1992 during emergency surgery.

* Michael Caine auditioned for the role of Bill Sikes in 1960 and cried for days when he was rejected. Now probably relieved not to be caught up in endless West End runs.

* Jack Wild was a take-over Oliver in the first stage production and the Artful Dodger in the 1968 Carol Reed movie. He died of oral cancer caused by smoking and alcoholism in 2006, aged 53.

* Mark Lester was an angelic 10-year-old Oliver in the movie. His film career petered out, and at the age of 28 he took school exams and became an osteopath. Now 50, he is filming again.

'Oliver!', previewing now at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London WC2 (0844 412 2955; www.oliverthemusical.com), opens on Wednesday, booking to 18 July

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