- Oliver! A Dickensian Musical by Marc Napolitano
In the preface to his book, Marc Napolitano foregrounds the personal origins of this project. Watching Carol Reed’s 1968 film version of Oliver!, he explains, “marked the beginning of what would become a lifelong fascination with Dickens’s stories and characters” (ix). His love for Dickens and for the musical is evident throughout. Happily, Napolitano combines this enthusiasm with impressive scholarly rigor: in producing the study, he has visited a number of significant archives in the U.S. and the U.K., from the Lionel Bart Foundation to the Harry Ransom Center, and arranged interviews with many of those involved in productions of Oliver! from its first appearance on the London stage in 1960 through to more recent times. This subject might at first seem a slightly narrow one for a full-length study, but Napolitano’s extensive archival legwork results in a densely textured and substantial account of the cultural influence of Oliver! As he points out in the introduction, this extended attention is justified by the fact that, while its popularity “has previously inhibited serious scholarly engagement,” “Oliver! is arguably the most popular version of Dickens’s Oliver Twist ever created” and as a result deserves further in-depth consideration (5).
At the start of his introduction, Napolitano labels the book a “‘biography’ of Lionel Bart’s Oliver!” (1). He could have defined his use of this term with more care; nonetheless, it provides a logical hook for the structure of this monograph on the “life” of Oliver! which traces the influences that shaped the musical, its complicated genesis and development, and its subsequent reception across different cultures. The book opens sensibly with a contextualizing chapter assessing the “most noteworthy cultural trends” (9) that influenced Bart in creating the musical, including the previous adaptations that had turned Oliver Twist into a “culture text,” the rise of a youth culture focused on pop music, and the theatrical scene in post-war London. Three dense chapters follow that expertly analyze the drafting, staging and press response to the original London run of Oliver! After a close reading of the musical text itself in relation to what Bart “considered to be [its] four central plot threads” (135), Napolitano concludes his study by assessing the many reworkings and revivals of the show, from the 1968 film version directed by Carol Reed, through the intriguing 1960s productions in Sweden, Israel and Japan, and up, finally, to the blockbuster West End restagings in 1994 and 2009. In tying these wide-ranging materials together, Napolitano’s book makes two main claims. The first of these, perhaps of greater interest to Dickensians, is the argument that the contribution of Oliver! to the Twistian “culture text” is a particularly significant one; according to Napolitano, “the cultural memory of Oliver Twist has invariably [End Page 75] been shaped by the popularity of Oliver!” (5). The second aspect of Oliver!’s importance relates to the way in which it “built on […] the traditional mass appeal of Dickens,” and in so doing “anticipated a new tradition of English musical theater that would [in the era of the mega musical] fully embrace the possibilities of mass culture” (5–6).
As this summary should demonstrate, Oliver! A Dickensian Musical covers a great deal of ground. Its real strengths lie, though, in its mining of neglected archival materials. This side of the book is most obvious in the central chapters dealing with the musical’s origins, composition, production and reception between 1959 and 1960. In chapter 2, for instance, Napolitano makes excellent use of surviving drafts and other sources to reconstruct “a linear and logical narrative ‘arc’ for the biography of Oliver!” (59). The close study of the libretto drafts in particular offers a fascinating glimpse into the ideas discarded by Bart during the revision process. In one version, the musical’s finale saw Fagin, “fed up with the dangers of being a criminal, happily [taking] Mr. Bumble’s place as the parish beadle and [proving] a benevolent caretaker to the orphans” (63...