Born as Lionel Begleiter in London, Lionel Bart was an English writer and composer. He grew up in London’s East End and was declared to be a musical genius while still at school. However, he never learned to read or write music and initially started his career as a painter. He enrolled at St Martin’s School of Art and started work as a set painter in the theatre. He began writing songs as a young man and he soon gained notoriety for his pop hits, including Cliff Richard’s “Living Doll” and Tommy Steele’s “Rock With the Caveman” and “Little White Bull”.
Steele began composing music for productions at Unity Theatre, where he was spotted by Joan Littlewood. He soon joined her Theatre Workshop and made his first foray into musical theatre with Lock Up Your Daughters (1959). In the same year, he wrote the music and lyrics for Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be, which was the first production to use authentic cockney accents on stage. In 1960, Bart wrote the book, music, and lyrics for Oliver!. The musical was a huge success, and transferred to Broadway where it ran for 4 years. Bart won the Tony Award for Best Original Score for his work on the musical and it was made into an Academy Award-winning film in 1968.
Bart followed Oliver! with Blitz! (1962) and Maggie May (1964), both of which achieved moderate success. However, his last two musicals, Twang!! (1965) and La Strada (1969) were huge flops and landed Bart in debt. He signed away his rights to Oliver! to finance the shows and was forced to file for bankruptcy in 1972. Bart continued to write songs and film themes, but did not revive the success of his earlier career. However, in 1986 he received a special Ivor Novello Award for life achievement.
After a twenty-year battle with depression and alcoholism, Bart died in 1999 of liver cancer. In 2015, the Theatre Royal Stratford East staged More!, a concert musical based on Bart’s life and featuring his songs.
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