Leslie Bricusse – songwriter, lyricist, composer
Leslie Bricusse, who has died aged 90, was an Academy Award winning songwriter and composer, who brought a very English pop sensibility to musical theatre that went on to charm Broadway, Hollywood and the world. At his creative peak, this was done primarily with actor and singer Anthony Newley, his artistic partner over a series of hit shows that included Stop the World – I Want to Get Off (1961) and The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd (1965).
Songs for the former included What Kind of Fool Am I?, which became a hit for Sammie Davis Jr. The latter featured Feeling Good, recorded by Nina Simone for her 1965 album, I Put a Spell on You. Also with Newley, Bricusse penned the lyrics to Goldfinger (1964), composed by John Barry, and sung by Shirley Bassey as the melodramatic theme song for the third James Bond film of the same name. Three years later, Bricusse wrote the words for another Bond theme composed by Barry, with You Only Live Twice being sung by Nancy Sinatra.
Bricusse and Newley also wrote the soundtrack to Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971), director Mel Stuart’s big screen adaptation of Roald Dahl’s children’s novel, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Songs included The Candy Man, and Pure Imagination, with the latter going on to become the title of Bricusse’s ‘sorta-biography’ (2005).
In a decade where Dickensian musicals were all the rage, Bricusse wrote the lyrics for Pickwick (1963), with Harry Secombe in the title role. He also penned Scrooge (1970) starring Albert Finney. The film was adapted for the stage as Scrooge: The Musical in 1992, with Newley in the title role.
Bricusse won the first of two Oscars for Talk to the Animals, performed by Rex Harrison in Doctor Dolittle (1967), adapted by Bricusse from Hugh Lofting’s novels for Richard Fleischer’s expensive flop. The same year, Bricusse penned the lyrics to the title song for A Guide for the Married Man (1967). With music by John Williams, the song was a hit for The Turtles. A second Oscar came for Victor/Victoria (1982), which saw his collaboration with composer Henry Mancini for Blake Edwards’ film named best original song score.
Leslie Bricusse was born in Southfields, southwest London, youngest of two children to Ann (nee Mills), and Cedric, who worked in sales and circulation on the Sunday Chronicle. Cedric was Ann’s second husband after being widowed in World War One. The family moved to Pinner, Middlesex, where Bricusse attended Canon Lane elementary school before winning a scholarship to University College School in Hampstead.
A mix of weekly trips to the cinema with his family and what he called “obligatory piano lessons” led to him entertaining his classmates during air raids in World War Two. During his national service, he was drawn to the piano playing of a fellow soldier, and offered to write lyrics to go with the tune.
“I fell in love with the idea of writing songs as a child,” Bricusse told the Herald in 2016, prior to a revival of Scrooge: The Musical at Pitlochry Festival Theatre. “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.”
Bricusse went to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, where he studied modern and medieval languages, and became secretary and then president of the Footlights drama club in 1954. His first full musical, Lady at the Wheel, written with future novelist Frederick Raphael, attracted the attention of London producers, as did a revue, Out of the Blue. Bricusse was also spotted by veteran comic actress Beatrice Lillie, who invited a still under-graduate Bricusse to write, direct and perform in a new show with her.
Bricusse appeared in some 400 performances of An Evening with Beatrice Lillie over the next year, by which time he had been given a contract to writer screenplays for Pinewood Studios. Bricusse saw Newley sing on an Indian liner, and offered to write some songs for his next album. The two bonded instantly, striking up both a friendship and a fruitful artistic partnership.
When writing, the duo called themselves Brickman and Newburg, and together epitomised a generation of talented and successful showbiz Brits in Hollywood who developed an image of sophisticated loungecore cool. The pair collaborated on a third theatre show, The Good Old Bad Old Days (1972), and a 1976 TV musical of Peter Pan starring Mia Farrow in the title role.
Stage revivals of Scrooge: The Musical and Doctor Dolittle became hits on the UK touring circuit, and in 2013, Pure Imagination: The World of Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse, opened in California. It transferred to London two years later, showcasing a back catalogue of songs that by now had become era defining standards.
Bricusse is survived by his wife of sixty years, actress Yvonne Romain, their son, Adam, and two grandsons, Roman and Luca.
The Herald, October 25th 2021