Before Elton John, Duncan Sheik and Green Day created original stage scores, before all those jukebox musicals featuring songs by Abba, Four Seasons, Carole King and more, even before Rent, Grease, Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar, there was Lionel Bart — a pop songwriter who never learned to read or write music and yet composed some of Britain’s biggest pop hits of the 1950s for Cliff Richard and other stars.
But Bart’s biggest smash came in 1960 when his Oliver! became the first British musical to successfully make it to Broadway, and one of the most produced ever. The musical landed Tony and Olivier awards, and the 1968 movie version won the Oscar for best picture.
In those pre-Beatles days, the show’s Cockney accents and sympathetic portrayals of working-class people made an impact in class-conscious Britain comparable to Mozart’s staging of operas in the language of the people who were watching them.
Ironically, later productions of Oliver! vaulted then-unknown singers Phil Collins (Genesis), Davy Jones (Monkees) and Steve Marriott (Small Faces) to rock stardom.
This weekend, The Shedd opens its own production of the ever-popular musical based on Charles Dickens’s novel Oliver Twist, featuring Victorian London’s homeless young pickpockets, petty thieves and corrupt officials as well as many memorable songs (“Who Will Buy?” “Consider Yourself,” “Food, Glorious Food,” “Boy For Sale” and the rest). Running Sept. 16 through Oct. 2, it’s a happier take on grim realities than, say, Gus Van Sant might create — Oliver! is an entertaining, family friendly song-and-dance show that still works. The Shedd team of director Peg Major and music director Robert Ashens leads a group of Shedd regulars, with choreography by Caitlin Christopher.
Breaking news! The Eugene Symphony just announced the finalists to succeed music director Danail Rachev after his final season this year. Chosen from a pool of 250 applicants from 44 countries, each will lead an ESO concert this season as part of their audition. Assistant conductor of the great Orchestre symphonique de Montréal Dina Gilbert will conduct the Dec. 8 concert; Brooklyn’s Ryan McAdams, who’s won rave reviews for conducting orchestras in Europe and Israel, tries his baton Jan. 26; Boulder native Francesco Lecce-Chong, assistant conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, takes his turn on the Hult podium March 16.
Amid their starry fellowships, awards, big-name mentors and glowing reviews, all three young conductors have worked with contemporary composers and new music — an essential quality for a 21st-century conductor, especially one who aspires to join a line of renowned new music advocates that includes Marin Alsop and Giancarlo Guerrero.
The success of conductors like Alsop and Guerrero in Eugene surely contributed to what search committee head Roger Saydack (who led the last five searches including this one) called “the strongest pool of candidates we’ve ever seen here,” which is saying something. That’s why the search for a second-tier orchestra conductor in a college town in the upper left corner of the country is really international news. ESO conducting alums go on to much bigger opportunities after a few years in Oregon.
Like the song says: “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere … It’s up to you, Eugene, Eugene.”