The self-taught musical genius Lionel Bart was the Londoner who first successfully challenged the long-established dominance of Broadway shows. When he launched Oliver! on the West End in 1960 it took first Britain and then America by storm, breaking records and becoming a classic of musical theatre and then a beloved film. But Bart never reached such commercial heights again, despite his talent.
Now music from the lost show once set to relaunch Bart’s career as he struggled with ill health and debt is to be performed for the public for the first time.
Next month Dame Maureen Lipman will sing one of the songs Bart wrote with his collaborator, Roger Cook, for a musical the two composed in the mid-1970s about the extraordinary life of Golda Meir, the Israeli stateswoman and prime minister. The song’s debut performance is to be staged online as part of Jewish Music Institute’s upcoming World Tour of Jewish Music, and it comes as Cook makes a fresh attempt to finally bring the full musical into theatrical production.
Bart and Cook’s show, Next Year in Jerusalem, is billed as a kind of precursor to Evita, the Andrew Lloyd Webber show that shares its themes of political ambition and power.
“Hers is an extraordinary story. Meir went from pogroms in Minsk, out to Milwaukee and then to Palestine and the songs and lyrics are as good as anything Lionel ever did,” said Cook, 80, himself the composer of a string of hits, including I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony).
Speaking from his home in Nashville, Tennessee, Cook said that he believed the time was now right to let the world see and hear the musical once theatres can reopen. “I wish Lionel was alive and kicking, as he would be crazy proud that finally after all these years this lost musical is going to be heard and have a life,” he said.
Lipman is to sing the title song from the show, a lullaby sung by Meir’s mother, Blume Mabovitch, to her young daughter, who is frightened by the imminent pogrom in their Russian village.
“The song is gorgeous,” Lipman, who was honoured by the Queen late last year, said. She was a “huge admirer” of Bart and of Alma Cogan, the late singer who was Bart’s confidante. “When I was young my first performances at home included impersonations of Alma Cogan, and ever since music has played a huge part in my life.
“I was seriously delighted when the Jewish Music Institute, which I have supported for many years, asked me to introduce to the world his lost musical Next Year In Jerusalem and sing the title song.”
Bart, who died in 1999, became close friends with Cook when they were introduced in 1974. By then the renowned West End playboy, a friend to the Beatles as well as the late Barbara Windsor, was an alcoholic recovering from bankruptcy, yet the show he created with Cook about Meir represented a realistic chance of a comeback.
In 1975 Bart and Cook worked together for six months in a Soho attic to write the first songs. “Next Year In Jerusalem was the second song we wrote together for the show. I came up with the melody which Lionel wanted to change; but he came round to liking it and wrote some great lyrics.”
The duo went to see Meir give a speech at the Albert Hall. “We were blown away and by the end of the evening we were quite sure that we were going to get the show on,” remembers Cook. “We even went off on a ‘research’ trip to Israel together, although we didn’t do much work there. His health was going downhill pretty fast even then, but Lionel loved the fast life; it was part of his personality.”
The musical quickly gained the attention of producers and of the influential film producer Menahem Golan. But just as the two completed the score together, disaster struck.
“Lionel rang me to say he had just had a legal letter telling him to cease and desist because Golda Meir had sold the rights to her autobiography for stage and film,” said Cook. “We discovered we would’ve had to wait seven years for the next chance, so sadly we just moved on.
“He came to see me in the last six months of his life. He knew he wasn’t going to live much longer. Although he could be naughty, he was a kind and gentle soul.”