Lionel Bart stages the comeback of Notre Dame

With Oliver! playing to packed houses, his first 'new' musical for 25 years is waiting in the wings. Tim Minogue reports

LIONEL BART is in a hurry. Twenty tired young actors are grabbing a quick cup of tea and a fag in a cramped, windowless rehearsal room in Soho. Bart is itching for them to get back to work on a complicated fight scene from his new musical work in progress, Quasimodo.

"New" is not quite right. Bart wrote the words and music for Quasimodo, based on Victor Hugo's 1831 novel Notre Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) in 1963, or 1964 - he can't quite remember. The poignant tale, set in 15th-century Paris, of the love between the deformed bellringer and the beautiful gypsy girl Esmerelda nearly made it to Broadway, where it would undoubtedly have joined the list of Bart's stage hits: Lock Up Your Daughters, Fings Ain't Wot They Used t'Be, Oliver!, Blitz! and Maggie May. But there was a complicated wrangle about who was to direct the show, and it was put on ice.

Then there followed one of the gloomiest cliches in entertainment - 20 years of drink and drugs. But, now 65, Bart is back, booze banished, life straightened out, driving on a cast drawn from veterans of the hit musicals of the past decade: Starlight Express, Miss Saigon, Les Miserables, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Ain't Misbehavin'. A couple of minutes' walk from the London Palladium, where the revival of Oliver! is playing to full houses, he is hard at work getting Quasimodo ready for a private performance in front of anaudience of impresarios, producers and critics on 22 November, starring Ray Shelland Frances Ruffelle.

Bart says: "I've been fascinated by this story since I saw Charles Laughton as the hunchback in the 1939 film version. I was inspired by the story of this marvellous soul within a monstrous body. The simple premise of the piece, when I wrote it, was the question, 'What is ugly?' I hoped that you could realise, when you left the theatre, that the guy at the end of the row wasn't so ugly after all.

"But things dragged on ... it never got made. Since then I've looked again at the original. In his story the hunchback was only 18 - not Charles Laughton at all. Esmerelda was only 16, a street kid. With the obsession of the priest, Frollo, who is the hunchback's mentor, it suddenly came together as an involved, modern, dark subject."

Bart's decline began with Twang, a musical about the life of Robin Hood, in 1965. It seemed like a good idea at the time. He smiles at the memory of "my famous flop". The critics panned it, the public stayed away.

That's showbiz. He was only 30. But by the end of the 1960s, Bart, who had started his musical career in Soho with Tommy Steele in the mid- Fifties, had had a surfeit of showbiz. He had emerged for a time as one of the world's most successful composers and lyricists, the Andrew Lloyd Webber of his day. He partied with the Beatles and the Stones. He was romantically linked with the singers Judy Garland and Alma Cogan.

As the Sixties died, so did his friends: Cogan, Garland, and Brian Epstein, the Beatles' manager, were all gone. There was another musical flop - La Strada, in 1969 - then next to nothing for 20 years as Bart grappled with the bottle and other related demons. But now, with Quasimodo, there is renewal, and hope. "Doing this is for me. It's to get my juices going again, which it has, I'm pleased to say. I've had a long break from new work. It has been so long that it's a bit like looking at someone else's work. I have to look at that kid who was writing 30 years ago and say where is my head now in 1995?

"Surprisingly, a lot of it still works. I remember when I'd written some of the music and lyrics I sent the script to Noel Coward. He said: 'Brilliant, dear boy, but were you on drugs when you wrote it? It seems a little bit abstract here and there.' I suppose it was. It's good to look back through that haze with a new clarity."

London-based American actor Ray Shell was pleasantly surprised when he got the lead role in the workshop. "Les Mis doesn't have any black folks in it at all," he says. "I feared this would be the same.

"I didn't want to do it at first. It's about being someone that other people find ugly and repulsive and what that does to your confidence and emotions. It's about how difficult it is to know someone else's soul. Despite his physical ugliness Quasimodo has a child's heart and mind. We're all Quasimodos in a way - people judge us by the way we look, not how we are inside."

Bart says: "It's a tragic story, but about being free to change, free to renew oneself. In a way I became the hunchback. It's a great release and a catharsis for me to put it all in this work."

By now he is looking distracted. It's 4.30 on Friday afternoon, the cast want their weekend, but there is a scene to get right. There are 10 days to go before the money men come to cast their cold eyes on a show that has already been more than 30 years in the making.

If they give it the OK, it may get on the West End stage in 1997. Maybe. Lionel Bart has the look of a man who is in a hurry to make up lost time.

Voices
The Sumatran tiger, endemic to the Indonesian island of Sumatra, is an endangered species
voicesJonathon Porritt: The wild tiger population is thought to have dropped by 97 per cent since 1900
News
Gardai wait for the naked man, who had gone for a skinny dip in Belfast Lough
newsTwo skinny dippers threatened with inclusion on sex offenders’ register as naturists criminalised
Sport
Van Gaal said that his challenge in taking over Bobby Robson's Barcelona team in 1993 has been easier than the task of resurrecting the current United side
football
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him
musicIndie music promoter was was a feature at Carter gigs
Arts and Entertainment
Story line: Susanoo slays the Yamata no Orochi serpent in the Japanese version of a myth dating back 40,000 years
arts + entsApplying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
News
Performers dressed as Tunnocks chocolate teacakes, a renowned Scottish confectionary, perform during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park in Glasgow on July 23, 2014.
news
Life and Style
Popular plonk: Lambrusco is selling strong
Food + drinkNaff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
Life and Style
Shake down: Michelle and Barack Obama bump knuckles before an election night rally in Minnesota in 2008, the 'Washington Post' called it 'the fist bump heard round the world'
newsThe pound, a.k.a. the dap, greatly improves hygiene
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

PMO Manager (Portfolio Management, ExCel, Cost Benefit Analysis)

£450 - £500 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: PMO Manager - 6 month co...

Microsoft Dynamics CRM Functional Consultant

£50000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: A Microsoft Dynamics CRM...

Senior BI Engineer (BI/MI, Data Mining)

£60000 - £65000 per annum + Bonus & Benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior BI Enginee...

Retail Promotions Manager – TV and Film Catalogue

Up to £171 PAYE per day (equal to 40 – 45K ) : Sauce Recruitment: This is a te...

Day In a Page

The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on