Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Leslie Bricusse - Scrooge! The Musical

It's a sunny morning in Los Angeles,and Leslie Bricusse is working on his latest musical.

“It's always sunny here,” says the man who co-wrote Goldfinger for Shirley Bassey with Anthony Newley and John Barry, and penned the score for Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. “It hasn't rained here for about for years, so it's beautiful.”

While there hasn't been anything resembling a drought regarding Bricusse's output, the sunny climate is perhaps a reflection of the now eighty-five year old writer and composer's outlook. This is evident from the fact that his new work will see him putting lyrics to Tchaikovsky's score for an animated version of The Nutcracker, the ever-green ballet drawn from Alexander Dumas' story, which was adapted from E.T.A. Hoffman's short story about a little boy's favourite Christmas toy coming to life.

“Imagine,” says Bricusse. “My latest collaborator is Tchaikovsky. He's even older than Dickens.”

The novels of Charles Dickens have looked large in Bricusse's own working life, as audiences at Pitlochry Festival Theatre will find out when they attend the Perthshire based theatre's Scottish premiere of Bricuse's version of A Christmas Carol, Scrooge! - The Musical.

“The story lends itself so well to being a musical,” says Bricusse, “because it's so beautifully structured. “It was the first of Dickens' Christmas books, which he wrote to pay off some bills, but because it has the ghosts of the past, present and future, it's a gift to write songs for.”

Bricusse's take on Scrooge was first seen as a film in 1970 with Albert Finney in the title role, and was later adapted into a stage play by Bricusse in 1993, when his long-term collaborator Anthony Newley played Scrooge. Finney and Newley weren't the only household names to have been involved in Scrooge!

“My original Scrooge was going to be Richard Harris,” Bricusse remembers, “but we had to get the film made by a certain date so it could open in time, and Richard Harris got delayed on a film. Then we approached Rex Harrison, but he got sick, so Albert Finney came in at two days notice and did it. But I loved his performance. The great thing about Alby was that he was only thirty-two years old when we started on it, so he could play Scrooge when he was a young man as well as when he was old. Some productions have two actors playing him at different ages, but I think it works better just having one.”

When Bricusse eventually adapted Scrooge for the stage, Newley was an obvious choice to play Dickens' miser across the generations. As a child actor, he had played the Artful Dodger in David Lean's big-screen version of Oliver Twist, and in 1975 had played the title role in Quilp, a musical film based on The Old Curiosity Shop, which, as well as a score by Elmer Bernstein, featured Newley's song, Love Has the Longest Memory of All. Even with such a pedigree to hand, Bricuse initially wasn't convinced.

“I didn't think it could be done onstage,” Bricusse says, “but then Anthony Newley came in, and he was an old friend, and he ended up playing it for six or seven years, and then we sadly lost him.”

Bricusse and Newley's work together dates back to their 1961 musical, Stop the World – I Want to Get Off, which scored a hit for Sammy Davis Junior with his version of the show's closing number,

What Kind of Fool Am I? While the show went on to be a Broadway hit, like Scrooge!, it was pulled together quickly, and very nearly didn't happen at all.

“Bernard Delfont, the impresario, had given Tony a theatre to do something,” Bricusse says, “and he was just going to do a variety show. We were friends and were both the same age, and I said that if we wrote a musical then we could own it. Then my wife Yve (actress Yvonne Romain) and I were going to New York, and I said to Tony that I couldn't do it. Yve said to tell him to come with us, and I was working on something else as well, but we wrote the entire score for Stop the World – I Want to Get Off in eight days. You can do anything when you have to.”

When Bricusse and Newley collaborated, they referred to themselves as Brickman and Newburg, with Bricusse concentrating largely on the lyrics and Newley on the music. The pair went on to write The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd, which sired Feeling Good, a song picked up by Nina Simone. The pair worked with John Barry on the iconic theme song to Goldfinger, and in 1971 composed the score for Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, the film adaptation of Roald Dahl's novel, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Songs written for the film included The Candy Man and Pure Imagination, the latter of which became the title of Bricusse's auto-biography.

“That's what this business is about,” he says of the phrase. “I fell in love with the idea of writing songs when I was a child. I thought I was going to be a journalist at first, but I gradually fell in love with all these great writers like Irving Berlin and Cole Porter, who were at the peak of their powers then. The great thing about them as well was that they were literate, and wrote story songs. It's much easier to write a song for a musical than just writing a song, because writing for a musical, you know what the story is about so you know what the songs have got to say.”

Scrooge wasn't the first time that Bricusse had made a song and dance of one of Dickens' novels. In 1963 he had written the lyrics for Pickwick, a collaboration with composer Cyril Ornadel based on The Pickwick Papers which made Harry Secombe a musical theatre star.

“Harry Secombe was more famous then for being in The Goons,” says Bricusse, “but Wolf Mankowitz, who wrote the book for the stage, went to Barbados to see Harry and told he'd be perfect for the part, even though he'd never put his voice to much use before.”

Secombe's rendition of Bricusse's song, If I Ruled the World, helped it win an Ivor Novello award.

“Harry was so good we've never been able to cast it again.”

This hasn't been the case with Scrooge!, which saw producer Bill Kenwright cast Tommy Steele in a role he has played many times since. In Pitlochry, Philip Rham will play Scrooge in a production directed by Richard Baron, who recently oversaw Alan Ayckbourn's Damsels in Distress trilogy of plays.

Bricusse regrets not being able to make it across the pond to see Baron's production, but deadlines mean he must remain in the L.A. Sunshine. A forthcoming social engagement, meanwhile, will see Bricuse and Romain hook up with Anthony Newley's former wife and a superstar in her own right, Joan Collins.

“We're still friends after all these years,” say Bricusse. “That's why Anthony Newley and I worked so well together. Friendship means more than anything.”

Such generosity shines through all of Bricusse's work, with Scrooge! in particular capturing its spirit.

“I think Scrooge is the best of the Christmas stories,” he says. “Every child warms to it, because it's about one man's transformation. It's saying that it's never too late to change, and that's a good feeling to have at Christmas.”

Scrooge! The Musical, Pitlochry Festival Theatre,December 2-23.

The Herald, November 29th 2016


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