Friday, March 31, 2023

Consider Yourself a Fan of “Oliver!”

The Sixties were big years for BIG musicals. In an era when television was on the rise, these costly extravaganzas showed off the pleasures of large-scale spectacle that only a movie screen could accommodate. Winners of the Best Picture Oscar during the Sixties included such dazzling and ambitious entertainments as West Side Story (1961), My Fair Lady (1964), and The Sound of Music (1965). And other nominees included Mary Poppins and Funny Girl.

  But wait! Wasn’t there another Broadway musical smash that ended up nabbing the Best Picture Oscar after the film version was released in 1968? Yes, indeed, but Oliver! was something of a horse of a different color. That is to say, Lionel Bart’s stage musical version of the Charles Dickens novel originated not in New York but in London. Musical theatre has always been considered an intensely American art form. But Oliver! showed, long before Andrew Lloyd Webber, that the forces behind British theatre could triumphantly learn from their American cousins.

 In adapting Oliver Twist, set among pickpockets and thieves on the loose in Victorian London, Bart (the talented son of Jewish immigrants from Galicia) toned down the casual anti-semitism of Dickens’ original story. He cut back on but did not eliminate the gruesome aspects of Oliver’s milieu, while making sure to keep intact the almost cloying Dickensian sweetness that shows itself in such highly sentimental songs as “Where is Love?” Though Bart’s plot contains the grimmest of murders, as well as a heart-tugging reunion, what audiences remember best is the liveliness of Fagin and his gang of young hoodlums, who certainly seem to enjoy their work snatching the  plump purses  of London’s well-heeled citizenry.

 I understand the original stage production made good use of a stylized unit set that didn’t pretend to depict a genuine London street scene. But film, of course, is a far more realistic medium, and the film’s producers aimed for a visually arresting canvas, crammed full of Victorian detail. When the Artful Dodger encourages shy young Oliver Twist to “Consider Yourself One of Us,” he leads the boy on a romp through crowded Covent Garden streets where grocers and other vendors ply their wares. (In a warehouse full of hanging sides of beef, the pair even romp straight through a large carcass that a butcher with a large cleaver has just divided in two.)

 The director in charge of all this on-screen activity is Britain’s Carol Reed, much admired for such gritty urban dramas as The Third Man and Odd Man Out. I don’t pretend to be an expert, but I believe this was his only musical. Still, he knows a thing or three about teeming cities, and there’s no one better at ratcheting up suspense. In portraying London’s seedy underbelly, he gives this Oliver! a genuine sense of looming terror that’s rare for musical entertainments.  On the flip-side, when Oliver enjoys a brief respite in the home of a wealthy man, we see (to the strains of “Who Will Buy?”) the street filled with a whole magical parade of bandsmen, milkmaids, and other handsome, healthy folk.

In the where-are-they-now? department, the adorable boy who plays Oliver is now happily retired from showbiz and working as an osteopath. Jack Wild, the impish scalawag who earned an Oscar nom as the Artful Dodger, remained an actor, but succumbed at age 53 to drink and drugs. Oliver Reed, who played the murderous Bill Sikes, similarly cut his life short through reckless behavior. But hurrah for Ron Moody, a deliciously nimble and mischievous Fagin, who survived to the ripe old age of 91.  





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