by Linda Lombardi, Artistic Associate and Literary Manager
While serving with the Royal Air Force in 1948, Lionel Bart saw David Lean’s film of Oliver Twist and is reported to have said, ‘One day I’m going to write a musical based on that story and it will be better than any American musical.’ And Oliver! was born — and became one of the most popular titles in musical theater. During rehearsals I sat down with Music Director Paul Sportelli over lunch to discuss his approach to Oliver! and the contemporary sound he’s bringing to this beloved classic. Below is an excerpt of our conversation.
What attracted you to this project?
The chance to work with Artistic Director Molly Smith again and the chance to work at Arena Stage again. I’ve never done Oliver! It’s a classic musical. I was excited to dive in and see what makes it run. It’s a very strong score and the songs have incredibly strong melodies. They really make an impression and stick in your head and the songs have a very robust, for lack of a better word, profile. It would be hard to interpret them incorrectly because they’re so solid in their point of view and their personality.
The melodies and harmonic structures are pretty timeless in this show and so they support a contemporary telling of the story. They would also support a Victorian telling of the story but, because there’s a universality about the music, it translates well to the modern period. We got permission to make some changes to the music that gives it a more contemporary sound. For instance, in “Consider Yourself,” the melody is exactly as written but, for part of the song, the chords, time signature and musical texture is quite different. And in “It's a Fine Life,” the original melody is riffed upon improvisationally by actress Eleasha Gamble, and by using more complex chords from jazz and the blues and a different, more active bass line, a funkier R&B sound is achieved. It was a fun challenge to find ways to rework the material that respected the essential qualities of Lionel Bart's music while breathing a contemporary freshness into it that suits our production.
What surprises did you come across during the rehearsal process?
How varied the score is tonally. Molly noticed that as well. To be able to go from very comedic numbers to very sincere, serious, deeply felt numbers — sometimes very quickly — is hard to achieve tonally. But Lionel Bart does it.
Why do you think Oliver! has stood the test of time?
Even though Oliver! is dark, it has a lot of heart. In following the story of Oliver, there is a happy ending. The songs are so classic and irresistible that people think, “I want to hear ‘Where is Love;’ I want to hear ‘Food, Glorious Food;’ I want to hear ‘Consider Yourself;’ I want to hear ‘As Long As He Needs Me.’”
Molly says that musicals are the most subversive form of theater because you can get away with doing things in a song that you couldn’t if it were a scene. There are certain things you can cover in a musical and the songs take the edge off the darkness so it is more palatable for the audience. Because of the music, the audience doesn’t back away. They are actually more involved in the story because of the score, whereas if it were just the ideas — the idea of poverty, the idea of being an orphan — people might want to stand back a little bit from that. The music makes people more empathetic.
Dickens was a social critic, but the way in which he wrote and the humor that he used brought people inside the story, whereas if he were writing a treatise on social justice and social inequality and the dark side of the Industrial Revolution, people would stand back from that. In the same way that Dickens was able to draw people into the story and to think about those issues, the musical form does the same thing. Through the appeal and the lure of the music, it is able to draw people in.
How unusual is it to have one person, like Lionel Bart, write the book, the music, and the lyrics
Very unusual. Off the top of my head, the only other musicals I can think of where one person wrote the book, music and lyrics are The Music Man by Meredith Willson, Rent by Jonathan Larson, and now Lin-Manuel Miranda with Hamilton.
You have worked with Molly, Choreographer Parker Esse and Fight Choreographer David Leong a number of times. How would you describe your collaborative process?
Molly sets a great tone off the top and gives you permission to do your job. She assembles a team with a great sense of collaboration. Because Molly chooses people who are good collaborators, there is a sense of working together and a sense of respect. For instance, David wanted to hear the music that we were going to use for the fights because it was going to inform his fight choreography. Similarly, Parker always really respects the musical score, and then adjustments are made. Parker is great at capitalizing on the rhythms and accents in the music, and then we will often work together to add more accents that further marry choreography and music. Once Parker has staged something, I may say to him, “That’s perhaps a little too busy or athletic right there given they all have to sing. Could you simplify that?” or “For that actor singing a solo, they’re going to be winded there,” and he’s great at adapting the choreography. The other day we were talking about “Food, Glorious Food,” and I love what he’s done. It’s a great team.
What three words would you use to describe this production of Oliver!?
Bold, imaginative, muscular.
(Photo: Jake Heston Miller as Oliver and Kyle Coffman as Artful Dodger in Oliver! at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Margot Schulman.)