For those who are only familiar with the iconic film version of Lionel Bart’s Oliver!, this was the most genuinely menacing of the show’s half-a-dozen Villain Songs, which establishes the character of the dreaded Bill Sykes. It’s a harsh, brutal, terrifying piece of music that reminds one that Oliver! did not soften Dickens’ original material quite as much as some people like to think. That said, even though the film version made a habit of dropping some of the most interesting songs from the show (“That’s Your Funeral”, “I Shall Scream”), I understand why this one had to be cut. For one thing, Bill Sykes is played in the film by distinguished actor Oliver Reed, and, as anyone who’s seen the film version of Tommy knows, Reed is one of the most embarrassingly terrible singers ever to appear in any kind of musical. But beyond that basic necessity, Reed’s decision to play Sykes as though he were in a straight dramatization of Charles Dickens meant that the act of singing a song, even one this harsh and abrasive, would have been uncomfortably out of place for this interpretation of the character…and since Reed’s Sykes was one of the most terrifying performances ever given in any movie, that decision was probably a wise one, even if it cost the show one of its most interesting songs.
Archives for December 2015
This song was in the original London production of the Song and Dance double bill, but was cut from the more famous Broadway version of the show, which is kind of a shame. This is the moment where the protagonist finally snaps and tells her mean-spirited, hypocritical ‘best friend’ exactly what she thinks of her. It’s an incredibly satisfying moment, all the more so because of Don Black’s deliciously venomous lyric, and it’s a moment that kind of needs to happen in the show. In the Broadway version, the show doesn’t really acknowledge the unpleasant qualities of the ‘friend’ (called Viv in that version), but it’s still abundantly clear that she richly deserves a moment like this, and the fact that the show seems to gloss over her bad qualities only makes her more unlikable. This song is the payoff to a very important running theme of the show, and I’d argue Webber’s decision to reinstate it for the 2003 revival was a wise move.
There’s a pretty obvious reason this song was cut from the 2003 Broadway revival of Nine. It’s an artifact of a subplot from an early version of the show, about a Romeo and Juliet-esque relationship between the children of German film producers and Italian spa owners. Because this subplot was abandoned early on, and the characters who were originally supposed to sing this song were deleted from the show, in the finished version this number has no relevance whatsoever and is in fact a total waste of time. That said, I can see why Maury Yeston couldn’t initially bring himself to cut it. It really is a fantastic song, a dazzling contrapuntal showcase with fiendishly clever lyrics. Then again, pretty much everything in the score of Nine is on the same level, so it’s not quite as much of a loss as it sounds.
There have been many musical settings of the traditional Catholic Requiem mass from a variety of composers ranging from Mozart to Benjamin Britten, but here I am referring to the Andrew Lloyd-Webber Requiem, which is generally billed mononymously and treated as though it were a theater piece. To be honest, as much as I love Lloyd-Webber, it’s not a particularly good example of the form. It doesn’t lack for passion…Webber wrote it as a way to cope with both the death of his father and the horrors he saw in the newspapers every day, and it reflects that spiritual anguish…but all the passion in the world can’t make up for the piece’s compositional problems.
The themes themselves, apart from the grating melody used for the Dies Irae, are interesting, haunting and at times gorgeously lyrical, but because Webber never develops or varies them, each section essentially consists of a single melodic fragment repeated endlessly, which gets old pretty fast. The only completely successful passages are the haunting opening theme (which returns periodically, making a particularly memorable appearance at the very end), the jovially bombastic Hosanna, and the famous Pie Jesu, which became a breakaway pop hit and one of the most popular Classical pieces of its era. And yes, it is indeed ravishing, especially in its rendition by the original cast…the show certainly was blessed with fine performers, with Placido Domingo and Sarah Brightman originating the tenor and soprano roles, and they each get a wonderful chance to shine in the Hosanna and Pie Jesu sections.
Ultimately, though, this work is really more interesting for its place in Webber’s career than as a composition…it was the place where he evolved his previous pop influences into a more Classical sound, and as such served as a dry run for his next few shows, particularly Phantom. That said, this piece has not really helped Webber in establishing himself as a credible composer, and many of his detractors like to point to it when espousing his failings. If you’re a Webber fanatic like myself, you need to hear this just to understand the arc of his career, since it was such a pivotal moment in developing his style, but if you’re lukewarm on Webber, you might want to just listen to the Pie Jesu on the radio or a compilation album, and leave the rest of this fascinating mess to those of us who have a personal stake in it.
This was one of two songs that were included, in the form of surprisingly well-sung demos by composer Cy Coleman, on the CD re-release of the Barnum cast album, and were so obviously lovely that fans immediately wondered why they had ever been cut. Granted, both this and “So Little Time” (the other song in question) were ballads, which are often trimmed because they tend to slow down the pace of the show, especially in large numbers. But frankly, Barnum was an unbelievably frantic and exuberant show that actually could have used a few more ballads to provide the audience with a chance to catch its breath. And like most of the ballads in the finished show, this song is actually pretty extroverted as old-style Musical-Comedy ballads go. It serves as a kind of counterpart to the explosively joyous “Out There” at the end of the first act (this song was supposed to be the second-act opener). Both are songs about risk, but “Out There” is an exhilarating anthem about how life without risks is not really living, whereas “At Least I Tried” is the ‘no regrets’ philosophy of a man who has to face the consequences of his failed gamble. And given that this was ultimately replaced by a reprise of the show’s weakest song, “Love Makes Such Fools of Us All”, it might have actually been wiser to keep it. In fact, since Barnum isn’t one of those all-time classics that it would be sacrilege to tamper with, I’d argue that the next revival should try re-inserting this one, and see what happens.