Book, Music & Lyrics by Lionel Bart
adapted from the novel Oliver Twist, by Charles Dickens

INFO:

Opened at the New Theater (now the Noel Coward), West End   June 30, 1960   2,618 performances
The Imperial Theatre (Broadway)   January 6, 1963   774 performances (often revived)
Original Director: Peter Coe
Original Choreographer: Malcolm Clare
Original Producer: David Merrick (Broadway)
Original Leads: Fagin: Ron Moody    Nancy: Georgia Brown
Cast Size: Male: 7   Female: 4   Ensemble: Large, at least 16 plus about 10 kids minimum   Total Cast Size: 27 plus kids (at least 10)
Orchestra: 19, a variation is available for 13
Published Script: None
Production Rights: Tams Witmark
Recordings: At least five different cast albums, and two studio recordings. The score is well-documented!
Film: 1968, winner of 6 Academy Awards including Best Picture, really fun, absolutely worth a watch.
Awards: Original Broadway was nominated for 9 Tonys, winning 3 including Best Score.

WHO SHOULD DO THIS SHOW:

Large companies with experience, and access to child actors with ability. Colleges and universities, larger regional houses, perhaps even Dinner Theaters (done creatively), each working with local Elementary or Jr. High schools (Middle Schools) to secure boy actors, perhaps. (Even large High School Drama Departments could consider this show, but they will need technical support and a real orchestra.) Acting schools might be a good source for the younger performers. Too large a show, really, for most Stock or Semi-Pro companies. Great for Broadway and the West End.

Be Warned:

I doubt there are many people who would find anything offensive in Oliver!

It is a very large show, however, and takes some serious resources to produce it well. You need a lot of young boys who can sing and dance, two of them with exceptional ability, as well as a very large cast of adults. This is a large and demanding show, not for every company. The dancing is demanding, as well. A true Broadway/West End kind of show. If your company doesn’t have the sort of expertise and experience, as well as resources, to do a show of this size, I would look elsewhere.

THE STORY: (Outline from Tams Witmark with additions.)

ACT ONE: The curtain opens on the sinister interior of the workhouse with a bare dining table, center stage, where the boys will sit. These pale-faced wretches can be seen peering through the bars of a door at the back. Looming above two curving stairways glows the legend “God Is Love” in rough letters. The door is opened and the boys file to the table and sing “Food, Glorious Food”. At the end of the song, the Widow Corney, who runs the workhouse and Mr. Bumble, the parish beadle, enter and a thin gruel is served. Wolfing the meagre fare, the boys hopelessly stack their bowls, but the hapless Oliver approaches Bumble with the entreaty, “Please sir, I want some more.” He is instantly subdued. Oliver is locked behind the barred door as the rest of the boys exit upstairs.

Mr. Bumble and the widow have an ongoing romance where he makes innuendos, and she feigns to be insulted. (“I Shall Scream”) But they use each other in the harsh Victorian world to survive, and it’s Bumble who now must dispose of that trouble-maker, Oliver.

Oliver is brought forward, bag and baggage, and is led off by Bumble who sings the haunting “Boy for Sale”. Walking through the streets of London, they arrive at Mr. Sowerberry’s, the undertaker. Oliver is “sold” to the undertaker. The undertaker and his wife explain their interesting if ghoulish business to Oliver. (“That’s Your Funeral”) Night descends. Alone and frightened and surrounded by coffins on stage, the boy sings the plaintive “Where Is Love?”

Oliver runs away the very next morning, and is picked up hungry and tired in the streets by the Artful Dodger who cheers him up with “Consider Yourself”. The Dodger leads him through crowded streets to Fagin’s kitchen. The boys come in and Fagin himself appears and, with a mock solemn welcome to Oliver. Fagin also has a “profession” of sorts, and it makes able use of young, innocent-looking lads. The charismatic crook demonstrates his method of accruing funds for Oliver. (“You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two”)

Nancy, Bill Sikes’ girl and Bet arrive. The two of them, accompanied by the boys and Fagin, celebrate their somewhat nefarious and dangerous way of life in “It’s a Fine Life”. Oliver is enchanted by Nancy, and she with him, in spite of her determination to just about care for nothing. (“I’d Do Anything”)

The next morning, Fagin sends the boys off on a pocket-picking expedition (“Be Back Soon”), Oliver among them. A city scene and we witness the capture of Oliver, not for picking pockets, but for simply looking guilty.

ACT TWO: In the second act the curtain rises on the “Three Cripples”-an underworld tavern-where Nancy is being encouraged to sing a music hall number, “Oom-Pah-Pah”. Fagin’s boys pour down the stairs telling of Oliver’s apprehension by the police, at the same time revealing that his innocence has been established and that he is presently ensconced in the home of a rich old gentleman. Fearful lest he give away their set-up, Fagin turns to his extremely dangerous, violent confederate, Bill Sikes (“My Name”) to retrieve the boy. Sikes and Nancy head off to get Oliver back. Nancy realizes that Sikes is a very bad man, but she can’t give him up because, unfortunately for her, she is in love with him. (“As Long As He Needs Me”)

Meanwhile, at the home of his new-found benefactor, the erstwhile ragged Oliver has become a well-tailored, well-cared for little lad. Looking out of his bedroom window he observes some passing street vendors crying their wares; he sings “Who Will Buy?” A plea that his good luck and new situation in life will be permanent. However, the moment he sets foot outside his benefactor’s house, Oliver is seized and dragged off by Nancy to Fagin’s.

Fagin occupies the empty stage and considers going straight, if half-heartedly. (“Reviewing the Situation”, a great comedy number) Subsequently, Bumble and Mrs. Corney, now uncomfortably married, discover that Oliver is the scion of a rich family. Their scheme to get him back fails and Nancy, regretting her part in the capture of Oliver, plans to return him to his benefactor at night on London Bridge. Fearful of Sikes, she reprises “As Long as He Needs Me”.

Sikes stalks Nancy and kills her. He grabs Oliver and, after a chase, is himself shot dead. Oliver is restored to his benefactor and Fagin, now without boys, home and money, reprises “Reviewing the Situation”, wondering what will his future become.

THE SONGS:

“Food, Glorious Food”, “Oliver!”, “I Shall Scream”, “Boy For Sale”, “That’s Your Funeral”, “Where Is Love?”, “Consider Yourself”, “You’ve Got To Pick A Pocket Or Two”, “It’s A Fine Life”, “I’d Do Anything”, “Be Back Soon”, “”Oom-Pah-Pah”, “My Name”, “As Long As He Needs Me”, “Who Will Buy”,“Reviewing The Situation”, “

Hits include “Food, Glorious Food”, “Where Is Love?”, “Consider Yourself”, “I’d Do Anything”, “As Long As He Needs Me”, “Who Will Buy”, and the Fagin songs are also fantastic, “You’ve Got To Pick A Pocket Or Two”, and “Reviewing The Situation”. An amazing score!

MY OPINIONS:

As always, you may choose to ignore or skip my notes and ratings. Just don’t be surprised if, when you show up at my door, bowl in hand and begging for “some more,” you get the door slammed in your face. And a “bah, humbug” to you, Sir.

It’s hard to go wrong with Dickens.

As a writer I’ve adapted his works four times. Was there ever a better story-teller than Mr. Dickens? In a very different way, Shakespeare is more than Dickens’ equal, of course, but Dickens’ tales, his sense of humor and of pathos, is irresistible, and his characters are often unforgettable. That is certainly the case with Oliver Twist.

The Musical is not as fine, as expert, or as moving as the novel. It has a book that is just a bit too loose, a bit to hodge-podgy, to work all the time. The songs, while really fun and entertaining, do not reflect well the darker, grimmer aspects of Dickens’ masterpiece. Nor does the show capture Dickens’ rare and elevated sense of irony. For that matter, Dickens’ book is about the British class system, poverty, workhouses, and Oliver!, though of course touching on these things, shies away.

The Musical errs on the side of sweetness-and-light when compared to its source material. But Oliver has as its main goal entertainment. And at that, I believe it is very much a success. The characters are clearly delineated, Fagin is a delightful (if anti-Semitic) creation, with two of the most entertaining character numbers in all of Musical Theater. Tempos tend to be on the bright side, even in the funeral home. Lyrics are clever and, at the same time, simple enough to grasp at first hearing. This is a very fun show to do and to watch.

But it is a very large production. I’ll suggest some ways to scale it down, but really, it’s just a big show, and it needs to be because of the way it is written.

MY RATING: ** (An excellent show, well worth considering.)

 

PRODUCTION CONCERNS AND IDEAS:

DIFFICULTY OF MUSIC:

The music to Oliver! is not complex. Like other Brit Musicals of the period, such as those by Newely and Bricuss (Stop The World – I Want To Get Off”, “The Roar Of The Greasepaint – The Smell Of The Crwod”), the author was going for easily remembered, infectious songs. With this show, Bart accomplished exactly that. It is not a hard score to teach or learn. Your Musical Director will need to play well, and with a lot of commitment and energy. There are a lot of vamps in this show, so the M.D. Or rehearsal pianist will need to be fairly inexhaustible.

The show makes extensive use of reprises, in the Rodgers & Hammerstein school of writing, which certainly helps establish all those catchy melodies! Make sure the tempo changes for each reprise, to help indicate emotional changes in the story-telling.

Your cast should be experienced Broadway hams…er babies. They will almost all of them need belts, and a sense of the showy.

Oliver Twist – Male soprano, beautiful pure voice that will carry well. Must sing very well.

Fagin – Baritone, character-driven vocals, expressive, able to sing with accent. Must sing well, almost an operetta role.

Nancy – Alto, good belt, great energy singing. Strong emotional expression. Must sing well.

The Artful Dodger – Tenor, great energy, clarity, able to sing with strong accent. Must sing well.

Bill Sikes – Baritone, rumbling low notes, expressive voice filled with anger.

Mr. Bumble – Baritone with some very serious high notes, a trained voice operatic in nature. Must sing very well.

Mr. Brownlow – Non-Singing.

Widow Corney – Soprano.

Mr. Sowerberry – Baritone, comic character voice.

Mrs. Sowerberry – Soprano, comic character voice.

Bet – Alto, good belt. Good at harmonizing.

Workhouse Boys – All male sopranos or tenors, good belt voices, good at harmonizing, clear lyric expression.

Ensemble – All with good belt voices and strong high notes, good at harmonizing.

DIFFICULTY OF DANCE, CHOREOGRAPHIC CONCERNS:

Oliver! has a fair amount of dance. The show requires an experienced Broadway-type Choreographer who knows when to throw movement at a number, and when to lay low and let the character drive the number. This is no small skill, since many Choreographers (understandably) want to throw movement at almost everything. Numbers in this show easily can get carried away with movement for movement’s sake. This is a complaint some critics have with the show – that its construction is loose, allowing numbers that seem to have little to do with the story to go on and on.

Also, by the way, it would be a good thing if this show’s Choreographer had an easy time working with kids.

Numbers a Choreographer is likely to work on include “Food, Glorious Food”, “Oliver!”, “I Shall Scream”,“That’s Your Funeral”, “Consider Yourself”, “You’ve Got To Pick A Pocket Or Two”, “It’s A Fine Life”, “I’d Do Anything”, “Be Back Soon”, “”Oom-Pah-Pah”, and “Who Will Buy”. That’s a large percentage of the score.

“Food, Glorious Food” is a large opening number featuring all the boys in the workhouse. It is driven by the fact that they are not just amusingly hungry, a thing most productions seem to forget. The boys are desperately underfed, and are desperately hungry. Their dream of food in it’s varied and many forms is vital and alive for them, as a mirage would be for a dehydrated man in a desert. The poverty described in the novel is no laughing matter, and not the makings of bright, bouncy Musical Comedy. That said, here, that’s exactly what it is, with a memorable melody to boot. And it could be argued rather easily that these boys, given their long day of work and constant hunger, wouldn’t have the energy for this number. I won’t argue along these directions, since you clearly will be using this song, but I would suggest that you allow their hunger to remain ever the driving force of the number.

“Oliver!” is Bumble’s angered, despairing, shocked cry at the boy’s famous request, “please, Sir, I want some more.” It has a galumphing march-like quality that matches Bumble’s girth and anger. The man can’t run, he just doesn’t have it in him, but he can walk to the beat and with force. When he moves, others move from his path. The boys are generally afraid of the cruel man, and with reason. The movement, then, will largely consist of his dragging Oliver by the ear to the beat, as others move aside. Keep it simple.

“I Shall Scream” is a bizarrely amorous duet between Bumble and the Widow Corney. The man rather ineptly tries to have his way, to her delight, poorly masked by the fact that the lady doth protest too much. He spouts out squishy endearments while chasing the woman around the room, encouraged by her plainly halfhearted complaints and less than halfhearted encouragements. The number should be character driven, and should get laughs, or at least tolerant smiles. Is this harassment in the workplace? Just remember, it’s Dickensian England and not today. Also, watching too marginally ambulatory characters chase each other about is intended to be amusing, here. You’ll need to use their innate liabilities in movement to help get laughs. He bends over, can’t straighten, gets winded, carries on, that sort of thing.

“That’s Your Funeral” takes place in a room filled with empty caskets and is sung by a sepulchral funeral director and his wife. Yet another character number which should leave Oliver terrified and more alone than ever at the end, when he’s left to sleep in a coffin. The number should epitomize claustrophobia, the room feel like a coffin, the movement of the two adults choking off Oliver’s escape.

“Consider Yourself” is a release, and should be filled with a sense of air, the outdoors, and freedom being celebrated. It is a full-company number, with lots of dance. And it’s intent is to welcome Oliver into at least one aspect of London willing to take him in. The focus is not the Dodger, though he’s going to perform the piece – it’s Oliver and his delighted reaction that the audience should care about, and which sets up the story points to come. Use street and workers paraphernalia to dance – brooms (chimney sweeps), flower girls buckets and flowers, anything you can think of. Get creative, this is an opportunity to show off as a Choreographer – but keep bringing it all back to Oliver and his growing joy.

“You’ve Got To Pick A Pocket Or Two” unveils one of the great characters to the audience in Fagin. It is a fun and wonderful number, but again, it’s cheery attitude is a little puzzling is one stops a moment to really look at it. So don’t allow your audience to stop and look at it! What Fagin is doing is teaching young Oliver how to steal from strangers on the street. Fagin is very professional at this, and he’s a good, clever teacher who knows when to reward and encourage his student, while keeping the lesson light, like a game. Together, they “steal” items like handkerchiefs from the other “unsuspecting” boys who are in on the lesson, having survived it once themselves. The movements can be ornate, slippery, fun to watch created. The number is entirely character driven, but has a secondary object of teaching Oliver a trick while embracing him into a group that the audience should be wishing Oliver never met. Oliver does not belong here. It is a dangerous thing that Fagin does. Even as the audience laughs, they should be hearing alarm bells going off. And please don’t feel the need to emphasize Fagin’s “Jewish-ness.”

“It’s A Fine Life”, like all of Nancy’s material, is British Music Hall. That’s a school of song writing and performing from the late 1800s-early 1900s, that you’ll need to acquaint yourself with. The moves are a touch bawdy, energetic, theatrical, showy. There is real commitment on Nancy’s part to the thesis promoted, and the song. Another chance to get some dance into the show, but remember Nancy has to sing.

“I’d Do Anything” is a duet between Oliver and Nancy, and is one of the most beloved numbers in the show. Oliver is instantly entranced with Nancy (who probably reminds him of the mother he can scarce recall), and he awakes in her a maternal instinct which will later contribute to her death. Keep the number focused on their developing relationship and on these two characters.

“Be Back Soon” ends Act I, effectively, and is Fagin’s wishing his boys success at their nefarious dealings as they file out onto the streets for the day. Getting boys up and out is an art unto itself, as you know if you have kids and have had to get them up for school. There is humor to be found in his methods of getting them up and out.

“Oom-Pah-Pah” is straight British Music Hall, and full company, and it opens Act II noisily and with energy. Another chance to show off, as the number basically has nothing to do with the story, so go for it. It’s a drinking song, which should provide some focus.

“Who Will Buy” is Oliver’s introduction to a new world, the world of a clean, affluent Victorian London he has had no concourse with. The contrast between this song and everything the preceded it should be significant. The people are clean, less aggressive, more genuine and less suspect. It is another large number using much of the company, takes place on a wide London street, and is a chance to show off again. BUT Oliver and his reaction to this golden world should remain the focus, rather than the number becoming a runaway train of Londoners dancing madly on a street.

Get some dancers into your ensemble! You’ll need them.

CASTING CONCERNS:

Oliver Twist – A young orphan boy, played by age 8-12 or so, but must look about 6-7. Innocent, fragile, but with some small amount steel in his spine, some innate ability to survive. A large role for a young boy. Cast for type, acting, voice, but all must be there.

Fagin – 50-65 or so. A scallywag, a liar, a petty thief, a con artist, slippery and resourceful. A role with great dramatic range, from a sly comic number about his profession, to a world-weary re-examination of his life, from energized wide-eyed greed to a carefully-hidden subtle concern for a few others “in his care,” this is a great role. And I would ignore, de-emphasize the “Jewish” aspect of the character. Cast for acting, type, voice, some movement, but must get all right. A star.

Nancy – 20s. An appealing, sexy woman who works in a low-class bar, singing and serving drinks. From the wrong side of the tracks, she has fallen for exactly the wrong man. But she is driven by her emotions, by strong feelings of love and affection that she has little control over. Filled with energy and life, almost fearless, does the right thing at the end, regardless of personal cost. Finally, a good person. Cast for type, acting, voice, movement, must do all. A star.

The Artful Dodger – Mid-teens to play young teen. Clever, sly, a survivor, fun-loving, inherently dishonest. Plays with lots of vitality and commitment. The character can get puffed-up with his “importance.” Cast for type, acting, voice, dance. Must do all well.

Bill Sikes – 30s-40s. A big, violent, dangerous man only concerned with his own survival. At heart a miserable coward and an abuser of women and children, shouting at everyone and at the dark to try to scare away anyone who might discover his secret. Cast for type, acting, voice.

Mr. Bumble – Mid 40s-60s. A large, somewhat corpulent man bursting with self-importance, though he is none-too-bright. Like so many of the characters in this piece, a survivor. Cast for type, voice, then acting, some movement.

Mr. Brownlow – Age 50-70, Oliver’s grandfather. A kind man, of the upper class. A loving man who misses his daughter greatly. Cast for acting, type.

Widow Corney – 40s-50s, a humorless, self-involved, uncaring, essentially cruel woman. Cast for acting, type, voice, some movement.

Mr. Sowerberry – Age 40-60, funeral, skeletal man. Perhaps tall and thin, with a somewhat gruesome but subservient grin. Cast for type, acting, voice, movement.

Mrs. Sowerberry – Sowerberry’s age. Perhaps the same rough type, or completely opposite, large and well-fed, cold and unfeeling. Cast for voice, acting, type, some movement.

Bet – Late teens-20s. A fun-loving girl working at an Inn, appealing, reasonably bright. Cast for type, acting, voice, dance.

Workhouse Boys – Ages 6-16 or so, all belters, able to sing with an accent, able to do some movement. They should all look somewhat underfed.

Ensemble – Various Londoners of all classes. All must sing with a belt, harmonize well, and dance well.

SETS:

Dicken’s Victorian London was a real place, of course, with actual and terrible poverty among the working class and lower. There were workhouses and they did imprison children for poor families in them. Though Victoria’s England was the largest Empire in history, and one of the wealthiest, there were plenty of completely impoverished people, even in the homeland. Dickens wrote, in part, as an effort to reform a corrupt system that took advantage of the poor, and which brutalized them.

In fact, many observers at the time said Dickens didn’t paint as dark a picture as he might have. The slums of London at that time were rat traps, and Fagin and his young charges inhabit the attic of one such deteriorated building.

As you can see, the materials your set will be built of (or at least look like) will be rotted wood, crumbling brick, broken and filthy windows. Walls may be crawling with algae and moss of some sort. The dampness of London has taken its tole on older buildings, which is where much of the action will take place.

Victorian wealthy, like Mr. Browlow, had their own lifestyle.

The rich lived comfortable lives in well-built houses, with many creature comforts, colorful decorations, and elaborate furniture. Of course., Mr. Brownlow would fall on the conservative side of this spectrum, but he has genuine wealth that needs to serve as a contrast to all the surrounding poverty.

Act I starts in the large workhouse room, with its long dining tables. A backdrop of brick and dirt and pipes may serve, if you’re keeping your budget down. The small office or room where Bumble locks Oliver away can be a part of this set.

London streets can be signified by free standing (or dropped) lamp posts, and a few props brought in, depending on the part of town.

The funeral home is dark, dank, filled with coffins, and a front door that locks. Again, a backdrop of sorts, or cut-away sets might work, rep[resenting many coffins, and then perhaps just one or two of the actual items (not painted onto the drop).

The attic where Fagin and the boy’s “live” is deteriorated, falling apart, rat-infested, ill-lit, unhealthy. And you just know that if a boy became ill, Fagin would express his contrived regret before cutting the lad loose on the heartless streets of London. Mattresses and blankets line much of the floor. A stove, perhaps, warms the room. But no one eats in this place, they steal their food on the streets.

The Three Cripples will require a bar, tables, chairs, the ambiance of a rowdy, somewhat dangerous pub in London. This is a major set, it can only be minimized to a slight degree.

The Brownlow home is affluent, tasteful, a complete contrast to Fagin’s rat hole. Again, backdrops, a cutaway may do the job, with appropriate furniture. This set can be somewhat contained in space, so long as Oliver has a way to watch “Who Will Buy.”

This is a huge job, most likely, unless a Director can come up with a unit set approach, which isn’t likely with a show this size, and which may not even be desirable. Not for a beginner!

COSTUMES:

All Victorian. The differences in the condition, color and type of clothing worn by Brownlow and his household, and say Sikes and Fagin, are enormous and telling. You’ll need access to a good costume shop or two, it’s a lot of period dress. If you haven’t done the period before, then you’ll need to do research. The period and types must be served, and they all have to sing and dance, so they have to breathe. Give Fagin a long, dark coat to hide things in. London streets are cold, dress everyone accordingly. Get the shoes right.

A big job for an experienced Costumer.

PROPS:

Plates for all that gruel the boys eat. The bar glasses and bottles. Things for Fagin to steal in demonstration to Oliver. Fagin’s treasure, composed of stolen items like watches and jewelry, the cream of the crop. Sikes gun and other weapons and tools of robbery. The dressings of Brownlow’s house. There will be many props and they must feel period. A rather large job for an experienced prop master.

LIGHTING:

This is a Musical Comedy. It passes through moods, and the lighting must reflect them. You’re likely to have a lot of cues o design, and will need a lot of lamps, it’s a big show. No job for a beginner.

Light the dungeon-like interiors (the workhouse, funeral parlor, Oliver’s little lock-up, Fagin’s place) with a feel for very limited natural light sources like candles, and some moonlight or sunlight. Allow shadows to exist side by side with limited light sources. The lighting can lack warmth for these scenes. There are, however, big numbers that take place in these settings, which must be seen and enjoyed.

The street should be open and lit with more warmth. The Thee Cripples should also be a warmer environ, if degraded. A big job for an experienced Lighting Designer.

MAKE-UP:

Remain unobtrusive, generally. Nancy and Bet can be a bit gaudy in make-up. Dirt will be a necessary part of most of the character’s make-up, which will help set apart the bright cleanliness of Brownlow and household. Not too tough a job. And try not to succumb to the building of a grand putty nose for Fagin, he’s not Cyrano.

KEY PERSONNEL (The ones you MUST get right.):

Director, Musical Director, Choreographer, Set Designer, Costume Designer, Lighting Designer, Oliver, Fagin, Nancy, Dodger

MY THOUGHTS:
A big, loud, aggressive, emotional Musical Comedy in the grand tradition. Your leads need to be very capable, as do your designers. This is a show for an experienced and well-funded company with access to good costume shops and large budgets. But it’s a very entertaining show, and certainly deserves productions!