Tag Archives: musicals

Classic cinema review: Oliver! (1968)

Showing in a new print at the BFI Southbank as part of their Dickens on Screen anniversary season, the Lionel Bart musical, filmed by Carol Reed, is a worthy addition to the adaptations of this most quintessential English writer’s novels.

Oliver! made its stage debut in 1960, using the novel ‘Oliver Twist’ as its source material – freely adapting the complex tale of an orphan who runs away and falls amongst thieves, omitting a few peripheral characters and one subplot (you’ll find no Monks here), and generally making the major characters more sympathetic. By the time the film was released the musical had been a major hit on both sides of the Atlantic, having premiered on Broadway in 1963.

The film features Ron Moody as Fagin, Shani Wallis as Nancy, Oliver Reed as Bill Sikes, Jack Wild as the Artful Dodger, Mark Lester as Oliver, Harry Secombe as Mr Bumble, Peggy Mount as Mrs Bumble, Joseph O’Conor as Mr Brownlow, Hugh Griffith as the Magistrate, Sheila White as Bet, Leonard Rossiter and Hylda Baker as the Sowerberries, and Kenneth Cranham as Noah Claypole.

Fagin in particular is depicted as a rich comedy character with a touch of pathos (and more than a touch of the Jewishness which also distinguished Alec Guinness’s portrayal in the 1948 David Lean film), and his songs ‘You’ve Got To Pick a Pocket or Two’, ‘Be Back Soon’, and ‘Reviewing the Situation’ are undoubted highlights of both show and film. Nancy is depicted as both a survivor and a victim, a former child thief trapped in an abusive relationship she doesn’t want to leave (as highlighted in her torch song ballad ‘As Long As He Needs Me’), while she tallies each night in the tavern waiting for her man to return from his day of crime (‘It’s a Fine Life’).

Shorn of his song which worked well on stage, Oliver Reed’s Bill Sikes exudes an air of menace but clearly cracks up when he makes one fatal mistake – here the tension rachets up a notch and the mood swings of the plot are handled extremely well. In fact the handling of both serious and comic situations throughout the film should be noted with praise, as should the performances of the two child stars, Jack Wild and Mark Lester, who are both superb, especially Wild who is a cheeky chappie, a tiny toff who will always make his way in the world, but also a child who knows he cannot yet protect those who need it (the scene where Nancy is attacked by Sikes being a case in point).

Special mention to the ensemble numbers, ‘Consider Yourself’ and ‘Who Will Buy’ which look superb on the big screen, and the funny/tense ‘Oom Pah Pah’. Numbers for the Sowerberries (who are rather less comical in the stage version), and Mrs Bumble (Corney on the stage; she is not yet married to the Beadle at the start of the story) are not missed from the film and would perhaps have slowed the action down. What remains is of course superb – a song for Mr Bumble, ‘Boy for Sale’ showcasing Secombe’s gift for opera; a diverting piece for the children, Bet, and Nancy (‘I’d Do Anything’) and a plantive number for Oliver before he escapes to London (‘Where Is Love?’).

The film is perhaps one of the greatest literary adaptations even without the songs; it does not trivalise the story of Oliver Twist and, the plot omissions aside, manages to be fairly close to the book, with all the characters fully drawn and perfectly cast, from the drunken magistrate through to the kindly Mrs Bedwin (Megs Jenkins) and the jovial bookseller (James Hayter). A longtime favourite film of mine, which still looks and sounds terrific.


Classic cinema review: Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)

In 1970 a concept album appeared containing a rock opera based on the final days of the life of Jesus Christ, written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice.  It was their second musical together following the production for schools of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.  Cast as Jesus was Deep Purple’s vocalist, Ian Gillan, with actor/singer Murray Head portraying Judas Iscariot.

It came to Broadway as a fully-fledged stage show in 1971, with Jeff Fenholt as Jesus and Ben Vereen as Judas, with a British production following in 1972 featuring Paul Nicholas as Jesus and Stephen Tate as Judas.  The interesting thing about the Broadway production was that the actors who eventually took the lead roles in the film version were understudies for the roles of Jesus and Judas (Ted Neeley, and Carl Anderson, who eventually took over the role of Judas when Ben Vereen fell ill).

Fast forward a year to 1973, and the film version.  The stage show had led to many protests from religious groups who felt that the treatment of Jesus as a ‘superstar’ was offensive – however, in following the story of Christ from the Bible through key scenes like the Temple, the beggars, and of course, trial and Crucifixion, the story was fairly reverent, using contemporary rock rhythms to put its message across.  It was more earthy and less of its time than Godspell, which was filmed around the same time, and which covered a wider story of Jesus choosing his disciples and eventually dying on the Cross.

The film version of Jesus Christ Superstar was directed by Norman Jewison, and retained some players from both the original concept album (Yvonne Elliman as Mary Magdelene) and Broadway (Barry Dennen as Pontius Pilate, Carl Anderson as Judas, Bob Bingham as Caiaphas).   For me, Ted Neeley is perhaps the greatest of all singers to have taken on the part – and his delicate looks and picture-perfect depiction of Jesus as seen in those Bible prints fit perfectly with the man who has ‘heaven on his mind’, according to Judas.  Anderson is also amazing in the role of Judas – and both men continued to portray the roles on stage for many years afterwards.

Filmed in Israel and other Middle Eastern locations, the film is atmospheric and offers much to believers and non-believers alike.  Perhaps it makes Judas a little too sympathetic (but it shows him as human being with a conscience, rather than a cardboard villain), and portrays Jesus as a misguided man with doubts (in his soliloquy song, Gethsemane, he asks God ‘why then am I scared to finish / what I started / what you started / I didn’t start it’), but that is all to its strength.

The music remains exceptional after all these years, although some of the period lyrics (‘what’s the buzz’, ‘cool it man’) sound rather anachronistic in the 21st century.  Elliman is touching as Mary in her big number (‘I Don’t Know How To Love Him’) and if her song with Peter (‘Could We Start Again, Please?) is a bit like a Coca-Cola advert, that is perhaps the only blip in an otherwise fine film.  Peter, by the way, is played by one Philip Toubas, who under the name of Paul Thomas followed quite a different career path as a successful porn actor and director.

Is Jesus Christ Superstar worth your time now?  Absolutely.  It opens out the stage production (which is powerful enough in its own right) and stands up as one of the last hurrahs of 1970s musical cinema.  Jewison, who had already brought Fiddler on the Roof to the screen, is a good choice for director, and the film benefits from Melvyn Bragg being involved on the screenplay, and Andre Previn on the musical scoring.

A further version was filmed for television in 2000 featuring Glenn Carter as Jesus and Jerome Pradon as Judas, which was closer to the stage production.



Road Show (Menier Chocolate Factory)

Originally published on my LiveJournal blog on 16 July 2011.

Stephen Sondheim’s newest musical for the London stage is not ‘new’ at all, really.  Although the story of the Mizner brothers is now called ‘Road Show’, it dates back to 1999 and has previously been staged in the United States as ‘Wise Guys’, ‘Gold’ and ‘Bounce’.  Every time it has tanked under critical derision and lacklustre audience interest.

David Bedella in Road Show.
David Bedella in Road Show.

With a cast of thirteen, a band of eight musicians. and a staging which has the audience on either side of the action, we first meet Addison Mitzer (Michael Jibson) on his death-bed, where his friends and relations sing about how his whole life has been a ‘Waste’.  His energetic younger brother Wilson (David Bedella) has the charm and the ‘something’ which keeps him afloat through gambling and scams, while Addison follows a more sure and steady path – only really coming into his own when he meets the young Hollis Bessemer (Jon Robyns), an artist with money who quickly becomes his lover and business partner.

The songs aren’t particularly memorable when you consider Sondheim’s major works and the major songs which have come from them – still, ‘Isn’t He Something’ (a song from Mama Mizner about Wilson) and ‘You’re The Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me’ (a love duet for Addison and Hollis), have charm.  It is just that, despite the best efforts of the cast, who clearly work hard, and the rethinking of the production as a major piece, all thrown money, furniture moving, and striding about, something is still not quite engaging enough.

I was interested to see Julia McKenzie, a talented Sondheim alumnus herself, in the audience – I wonder what her verdict on this show would be?


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