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Wednesday, 01 December 2021

Pure Imagination!—The World of Leslie Bricusse

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Having first interviewed Leslie Bricusse via telephone in 2011, ROB MORRISON went on to form a long-distance friendship with one of Britain’s most distinguished songwriters. In this article, Rob pays tribute to Bricusse, who died in France on 19 October 2021, age 90.

Growing up in the 1960s, amongst my first picture-going memories was being taken along to various Melbourne city cinemas by my mother to see Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music and, a few years later, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Doctor Doolittle and Scrooge. The latter two films introduced me to the ‘world of pure imagination’ of Leslie Bricusse (a term coined by Leslie and his writing partner, Anthony Newley for their musical score to the 1971 film version of Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.)

Such early childhood influences fostered in me a life-long interest in Musical film and theatre, both as a subsequent collector of recordings and as an amateur performer on the musical stage (with some 28 such productions to my credit, plus numerous musical revues) and, in later years, as a broadcaster on Melbourne community radio 96.5 Inner FM.

Following some ten years of broadcasting operettas and comic operas on my monthly stint as a co-presenter of the Classical music programme ‘Concert Hall’, I was given the opportunity in mid-2011 to host my own weekly two hour programme devoted to ‘Musical Theatre Melodies’ (which celebrated its tenth anniversary in early May of this year.) The format of which allows me to feature one (or two) musicals per week, for which I outline the background history of each show (sometimes with an interview guest) and narrate the storyline to set up each song within the context of the plot, as heard from their respective original cast, revival cast or studio cast recordings.

In addition to the operettas and comic operas of old, ranging from the works of Jacques Offenbach, Johann Strauss Jnr, Franz Lehár, Gilbert and Sullivan, Rudolf Friml and Sigmund Romberg, the programme also pays tribute to the Golden Age musicals of Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, Noel Coward, Ivor Novello and others of their ilk, through to the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s and up to the present day (albeit somewhat selectively with regard to the latter period.)

In December of 2011, I decided to feature the seasonal fare of the British musical Pickwick (adapted by Wolf Mankowitz from Charles Dickens’ The Posthumous Papers of The Pickwick Club) with music by Cyril Ornadel and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse and starring the Welsh tenor (and former Goon) Harry Secombe as the titular hero of the original 1963 London production (plus its subsequent 1965 Broadway incarnation and the 1993 revival by the Chichester Festival Theatre) in which he introduced the ‘hit’ song ‘If I Ruled the World’.

In search of a decent synopsis from which to narrate the plot between each musical number, I happened upon the official website for the award-winning composer/ lyricist/ librettist and screenwriter, Leslie Bricusse (at www.lesliebricusse.com) and reasoned that if anyone could provide me with the required item, then surely the show’s actual lyricist would be a prime candidate.

Filling in my details on the ‘Contact’ page and outlining the purpose of my request, I was surprised to receive an e-mailed reply a couple of days later from Leslie’s personal assistant, Ginger Mason stating that ‘Mr Bricusse would like to help with your upcoming project’ and could I phone him at his Los Angeles office at 9am on the following Monday. Such a response was far beyond my expectations, as I merely assumed that I might receive the requested synopsis via e-mail from an obliging secretary and not that I would be given the opportunity to speak to the man himself via telephone, for which I willingly set my alarm clock and awakened some 15 minutes prior to the scheduled call at the equivalent time of 4am on a Tuesday morning in Melbourne.

My 40 minute (plus) conversation with Leslie that early morn, in which he related the background story behind his involvement with Pickwick, his memories of Harry Secombe and the original long-running West End production, plus his disappointment with the subsequent failure of the musical in New York (where it closed after a mere 56 performances, chiefly due to meddling by the show’s producer, David Merrick, who brought in other writers to provide additional songs to ‘improve’ the US production which, nonetheless, made money for Merrick on its pre-Broadway tour of the country) proved to be the first of many such conversations that I was privileged to have with Leslie over the ensuing years.

Having subsequently mastered the telephone talk-back system at the Inner FM radio studios in Heidelberg, it was my pleasure to introduce Leslie as a guest on 16 of my broadcasts over the following decade, commencing with his stage adaptation of Scrooge the following December. Our conversations covered, not only his various stage and film musicals, but also his friendships with famed comedienne, Beatrice Lillie (whom he dubbed his theatrical ‘fairy godmother’, after she gave him his break both as a professional writer for the stage and as a performer—a latter career path that he ultimately decided not to continue to pursue) and with Sammy Davis Jnr. (who Leslie estimated had championed and recorded over 60 of his songs during his performing career, including his biggest-selling number one US ‘hit’, ‘The Candy Man’) plus such esoteric topics as his 1964 comedy album, ‘How to Win an Election (or Not Lose by Much)’ for which he scored the coup of reuniting the Goons—Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe and Spike Milligan—on record (which managed to be completed despite Sellers suffering a massive heart attack at the time following his marriage to Britt Eckland); and his and Anthony Newley’s satirical take on the ‘Profumo affair’ (which contributed to the downfall of the British government under Harold Macmillan in 1963) which they sent-up on the comedy album ‘Fool Britannia’ joined by Peter Sellers. Daniel Massey, Michael Lipton and Newley’s then-wife, Joan Collins (recorded at midnight in New York, before an invited studio audience that included many of the celebrities of the day, plus Broadway performers who had been appearing on stage earlier that evening.) With three homes around the world in Los Angeles, Acapulco and the South of France, such interviews were pre-recorded when Leslie was residing in the US (due to the time difference with Australia) but were conducted ‘live to air’ when Leslie was in France (since it was still the early afternoon in that part of the world at the time of my 9pm broadcasts in Melbourne.)

Needless to say all of these telephone interviews with Leslie were carefully preserved for posterity, initially on the now-outmoded Mini-Disc format (which were subsequently transcribed via computer to a suitable digital audio format) and in later years directly to computer hard-drive following an upgrade to the radio station’s studio recording facilities. A number of these may be heard as mp3 recordings on the THA webpage devoted to my Musical Theatre Melodies interviews (with many more to be added in the future). 

Earlier this year, I paid tribute to Leslie’s 90th birthday (on 29 January) with a two-hour broadcast, which featured a retrospective summation of his career to date interspersed with musical highlights from his many stage and film musicals, plus his Academy Award-nominated incidental songs, written in collaboration with Henry Mancini and John Williams, for such films as That's Life! (1986) Home Alone (1990) and Hook (1991). (Out of 10 Oscar nominations for Best Original Song or Best Original Music Score, Leslie won two Awards for ‘Talk to the Animals’ from Doctor Doolittle in the former category and Victor/ Victoria with Henry Mancini in the latter category.) I was both pleased and honoured to receive an e-mail from Leslie soon afterwards requesting an audio copy of the complete broadcast to ‘play for [his] friends’, which I happily complied with.

The last time that I spoke with Leslie was on the prior Tuesday to my scheduled broadcast on 20 July to mark the 60th anniversary of the West End premiere of his and Anthony Newley’s first collaboration on the musical Stop the WorldI Want to Get Off (an ironic title over these past years of the pandemic) when we pre-recorded an interview via telephone from his home in the South of France (where he and his wife, Evie had ‘escaped’ after spending the first six months of lock-down in LA) As we rounded off the interview with Leslie enumerating the many and various stage, film and concert projects that he had ‘in the works’ awaiting improved conditions once the pandemic had run its course (of which such a list would do credit to a person half his age, let alone a nonagenarian!) I little realised at the time that our conversation would be the last, for Leslie subsequently passed away in his sleep at his home at Saint Paul de Venice in France on 19 October following a short illness. The following Tuesday evening I paid tribute to Leslie on ‘Musical Theatre Melodies’ with a replay of the Stop the World … interview, plus excerpts from my 90th birthday broadcast.

In past years Leslie had provided me with an introduction to his collaborator on the stage musical versions of Jekyll & Hyde and Cyrano de Bergerac, the multi-Grammy and Tony Award-nominated composer, Frank Wildhorn and I had subsequently interviewed Frank about both shows, as well as his own productions of The Scarlet Pimpernel and Wonderland (to mark the 10th anniversary of its Broadway premiere in April of this year.)  When notified of my broadcast tribute to Leslie, Frank subsequently contacted me to volunteer to speak of the man whom he regarded not only as a friend and collaborator, but also as a mentor and father figure. I subsequently pre-recorded an interview with Frank giving his personal tribute to Leslie, which was broadcast the following week, preceded by a recording of Leslie’s song ‘Fill the World with Love’ (written for the 1969 film musical version of Goodbye, Mr. Chips) a goal which Leslie fully achieved during his many years as a songwriter and librettist/screenwriter on this planet.

Audio

Stop the World—I Want to Get Off 60th anniversary interview with Leslie Bricusse—broadcast on 20 July 2021 on 96.5 Inner FM (Melbourne) at 9pm. Leslie Bricusse “Stop the World” interview

A personal tribute to Leslie Bricusse by Frank Wildhorn— broadcast on 2 November 2021 on 96.5 Inner FM (Melbourne) at 9pm. Leslie Bricusse Tribute

Postscript: Leslie Bricusse in Australia

Leslie first visited Australia in late 1958 on honeymoon with his wife, ‘Evie’ (one-time screen actress, Yvonne Warren aka Yvonne Romain) at Point Piper in Sydney with the intention of also gathering material for a projected musical with an Australian setting (which in the event, didn’t come to fruition) however his time spent Downunder did result in a specialty number written for Max Bygraves entitled ‘Tumbarumba’ for which the lyrics consisted of a syncopated recitation of off-beat Australian place-names (which is apparently one of Max’s more elusive recordings—there isn’t even a copy of it to be found posted on YouTube.)

Lollo's double coming here

CHRISTMAS arrivals in Australia include a girl who is frequently billed as Gina Lollobrigida’s double, 20-year-old London actress Yvonne Warren.

On a business honeymoon with her songwriter husband, Leslie Bricusse, she says: ‘We've only got single tickets because we couldn't afford returns.’

Yvonne made the headlines when she lost her £600 engagement ring on the night she announced her engagement

Later she acquired a family heirloom as a gift from Bea Lillie (Lady Peel) when Leslie was Miss Lillie's leading man in ‘An Evening with Beatrice Lillie.’ It's a heart-shaped crystal pendant with a diamond and pearl crown and it once belonged to Sir Robert Peel, who founded the famous London ‘bobbies.’

Yvonne hopes to do some TV work in Australia, while Leslie is planning a musical with an Australian background.

(The Australian Women's Weekly, Wednesday 31 December 1958, p.42, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/48517702

During his visit Leslie also wrote an article for publication in The Australian Women’s Weekly (on 1 April 1959—April Fool’s Day) giving his impressions of the NSW capital—‘This is Sydney’ (with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek) which opened with the paragraph:

‘THE composite picture of Australia in the mind of an averagely stupid Englishman is of 10,000,000 sheep being driven across Sydney Harbor Bridge by Chips Rafferty and Smiley, while a crowd—made up entirely of Test cricketers, Bondi Beach Iifesavers, aborigines, convicts, and kangaroos—look approvingly on, singing “Waltzing Matilda”.’

… and continued in the same comic vein throughout. (The article, which may be read in full at https://nla.gov.au/nla.news-page4935168 raised the ire of numerous Sydney-siders who responded to The Weekly’s invitation to pen a rejoinder for publication the following week, which in turn may be read at https://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article48077375).

It was to be another 18 years before Leslie and Evie returned to Australia when he was invited to take part in the International Music Theatre Forum held at the NSW Conservatorium in Sydney from 16 to 22 January 1977, together with fellow invited guests Stephen Sondheim, Alan Jay Lerner, Hal Prince and London music publisher, Teddy Holmes. In an interview for The Australian Women’s Weekly published on 12 January, journalist, Marlene Daly reported:

Both Leslie and Evie are excited about their second trip to Australia; 18 years ago they spent part of their honeymoon there. He recalled: ‘While I was there, I had one idea that appealed to me, but it never came to anything. It all had to do with the Snowy River Scheme, the story of how it all happened, and I still think it would be a good story to tell.’

(An idea which still didn’t come to fruition—the complete interview may be read at https://nla.gov.au/nla.news-page5846528 , together with that with Sondheim, while interviews with Prince and Holmes continue on the following page at https://nla.gov.au/nla.news-page5846529).

Of his last visit to Australia in 1993 to attend the Antipodean premiere of his stage adaptation of his 1970 movie musical Scrooge, Leslie wrote the following paragraph for his 2015 ‘sorta-biography’ Pure Imagination!:

‘Evie and I … flew to Melbourne for the Christmas premiere at the gorgeous Princess Theatre. I don't know whether it had occurred to the Australian producer, David Marriner, that Christmas in Oz is in midsummer, but the temperature was edging up around a hundred degrees when Santa Claus led the Scrooge Christmas Parade through the streets of the city. Keith Michell was splendid in the title role, and the production was first rate, but I think the Australian government is seriously going to have to consider moving its Christmas to June, their midwinter, if Scrooge is going to continue appearing there, so that the show won't have to continue competing unnaturally with the Australian Open Tennis Championships taking place just down the street in the sizzling hot midsummer sunshine.’

A long-anticipated return to Australia by Leslie and Evie to attend a fully-staged professional premiere of Jekyll & Hyde (which almost came to pass at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne in October, 1997, before the creditors ‘pulled the plug’ on producers, Stewart and Tricia Macpherson, who had over-stretched their resources, and again in 2015 when Opera Australia’s projected production starring Teddy Tahu Rhodes was ‘indefinitely postponed’) will—alas!—remain unfulfilled.

Read 328 times Last modified on Sunday, 19 December 2021
Robert Morrison

With a background in science and biophysics, Rob is equally at home in the Performing Arts having performed in over 70 stage productions since 1975, including plays, revues and musicals for a number of amateur theatre companies based in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs.

As a broadcaster, Rob has been heard on Melbourne community radio 96.5 Inner FM since 1992 contributing to the Local Theatre programme and as the host of the weekly light-music Kaleidoscope and Musical Theatre Melodies programmes. (A selection of Rob’s past interviews from the latter with noted theatre composers and/or lyricists, Leslie Bricusse, Frank Wildhorn and Sheldon Harnick, plus musical theatre historian and author, Miles Kreuger can be accessed on the THA website under Digital Collections – audio.)

Rob has also contributed information and articles to the on-line Gilbert and Sullivan Archive, Gilbert and Sullivan Discography and Edward German Discography websites.

Past articles published in the print editions of On Stage include:-

  • ‘Are There Any More at Home Like You?’ (Summer 2009, p.30)
  • ‘W.S. Gilbert Makes the Music’ (Autumn 2009, p.7)
  • ‘Sir Seymour Remembers Dame Nellie’ (Autumn 2010, p.8)
  • ‘Remembering Nichols Remembering Melba’ (Spring 2011, p.9)

In addition Rob collaborated on the research into the background of local Music Hall singer, ‘Syria Lamonte’ (Summer 2010, p.5), as outlined in ‘The Search for Syria’ (Autumn 2010, p. 17); provided the footnotes to ‘Richard Watson: “a molasses of a bass”’ (Spring 2009, p.35 & Summer 2010, p.40.) and researched the discography for ‘Richard Watson’s Recorded Legacy’ (Spring 2011, p.18.)