Musicals. An interesting genre, huh? At one point they were rife. However, these days it appears that Disney are the biggest champions of the musical. Mostly animated characters expressing themselves with their dead eyes and dramatic hand gestures, with only the odd foray into the live action motion picture world. Back in the day, it seems that every second picture was a musical. Or at least that’s how it appeared during Bank Holidays. As a youngster, enjoying those Bank Holidays, I was awfy fond of three musicals; Tom Thumb, Wizard Of Oz, and Oliver! Truth be told, I’m still awfy fond of them.
The memories attached to those three are particularly strong. Popular Festive Calendar flicks for the television companies, you could pretty much guarantee that we’d be sitting down to watch all of them over the school holidays. Every year. I never tired of them – mimicking characters and repeating lines while sharing the box of Roses or Quality Street that sat on the coffee table. “That’s one for you… and two for me…” (that scene between Terry Thomas and Peter Sellars in Tom Thumb).
Anyhoo, when I spotted the Oliver!soundtrack among a bunch of undesirable records at the Record Fayre for £1 way back in October 2013 (I think), I didn’t hesitate to pick it up. Y’see, as well as being a movie that I have a lot of attachment to, Lionel Bart’s songs here are really pretty incredible. Hardly surprising, I guess (given Bart’s pedigree and the performances of some of the cast).
I’ve tried and it’s too difficult to pick out a favourite in an album of highlights. My wife, however, still shakes her head when I reach for this LP. Think again, I can hear her thinking as she scrolls through the spines of the LPs on the shelf and focuses her stare on something like The Fabulous Johnny Cash or even Neil Young’s Harvest (I still don’t think she’s warming to this one). Anyhoo, me? I reckon this is one of the very best musicals.
The late Ron Moody is stellar as Fagin and his performances here are rich, colourful, and full of character. His tone and delivery on, say, You’ve Got To Pick A Pocket Or Two, immediately bring images of him on screen. In fact, scrap that statement about hard to pick favourites, cause it’s easy – it’s Moody’s moments (this and Reviewing The Situation). They’re just so enjoyable.
The ‘medley’ of Food, Glorious Food and Oliver! is memorable – I dare say most have whistled or sang the former while hurrying excitedly to the dining table, while Harry Secombe’s bellowed Boy For Sale is a dramatic shift in mood. The strings convey dread and resignation… perhaps cause old Mr. Bumble hates roaming the street selling young kids. Or he just doesn’t like bartering. I actually really like Harry’s tune, though thinking about the scene is pretty grim. As much as trekking the streets selling a kid probably isn’t a great deal of fun, there’s some really funny lines in there (“He’s going cheap… only seven guineas. That or thereabouts”).
While Where Is Love? isn’t a bad song or anything, Lester’s vocal chops aren’t strong and I know that Moody’s Fagin is up next and we’re in for a treat! See, it’s the introduction of Fagin and his gang that really lift proceedings and it’s at that point that the soundtrack (like the movie) comes to life.
There’s humour in the darkness of the themes throughout and, as I mentioned already, Moody’s performance as Fagin is really pretty brilliant. He’s a shifty chap for sure, but he clearly likes the kids that he mentors. While they’re obviously out stealing for him to earn a keep and what have you, they’re his family and you can see that with how he looks out for the new kid and his attachment to Dodger. And this is all part and parcel of what makes Pick A Pocket Or Two so wonderful. It’s jovial, the arrangements light and Moody’s delivery is magnificent. Full of energy and hijinx. Truly wonderful.
Mark Lester and Jack Wild’s Consider Yourself is another favourite. Right now, it’s quite relevant too – welcoming strangers and such (“there isn’t a lot to spare. Who cares!? Whatever we’ve got we share!”).
Side 2 has the big hitters. Moody’s back with Be Back Soon, which is relentless, really. Fagin telling his proteges to fill their pockets, stay out of bother, and get back up the road for some kip. Shani Wallis’ As Long As He Needs Me is a show stopper. The kind that comes along like Bill Sykes and smacks you right in the gut and leaves you breathless. I’m not talking Celine Dion (thanks, Canadialand) type emotion here, but the real heartbreak kind. Dread. Heart in mouth. I’m going to be sick or cry kind. The performance conveys the sheer devotion Nancy has to that (violent) bad bastard Bill Sykes.
I always liked Who Will Buy? It’s the uptempo cheery number. Probably the cheeriest, really. Oliver awake in his new surroundings and looking out to a brand new day. On yirself, Oli.
Anyhoo, moving on, it doesn’t get any better than Reviewing the Situation. In fact (spoiler alert) the sub-plot here is as captivating as the age old tale of orphaned-lad-finds-happiness-with-rich-family. It’s Fagin who really shines, with his insecurities and uneasiness comes to the surface a little more as he watches what’s happening around the young Oliver chap. He longs to get out and, truth be told, he’d have given up this game years ago. But the man has no family and these kids and the scoundrels (like the violent Bill Sykes) are all he has. They keep him going. They give him drive and purpose. To feel important… wanted… loved… respected. Anyhoo, Reviewing the Situation is all about that desire to get out and the insecurities that stop him.
I just realised that I don’t care too much for our lead character’s numbers. Fancy that. I don’t think they’re bad songs or anything like that, but they lack the vibrancy and the character of the others. Mark Lester (a young lad, mind) doesn’t have the vocal chops or character to compete with the likes of Wallis, Secombe, or Moody.
And you know what, all that stuff I was saying about Fagin? Well, Wallis’ wonderful Oom-Pah-Pah! is Nancy’s stand. Creating a commotion that will allow them to do the right thing. It all ends in heartache, though, but it’s rousing and joyous and it yet it’s tense.
Anyhoo, the Oliver soundtrack is a real joy.
Thanks for reading.