Credits: Music & Lyrics by Lionel Bart. Book by Lionel Bart.
Summary: A musical based on Charles Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist, about an orphan in Victorian England who runs away from an orphanage and joins up with a gang of pickpockets.
West End: Opened in 1960 and ran for 2,618 performances.
Broadway: Opened in 1962 and ran for 774 performances.
Revivals: There have been numerous revivals of Oliver! on the West End (1997, 1994, 2009) and on Broadway (1984), as well as an Australian Tour and two National Tours in the U.S. (in 2003 and 2009).
Movie: Released in 1968. A possible remake of the movie is set for 2016, by the same production team that created the 2012 film version of Les Misérables.
Broadway: Nominated for 9 Tony Awards in 1963. Won 3, including Best Original Score. (It lost Best Musical to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum)
Movie: Nominated for 11 Academy Awards. Won 6, including Best Picture.
Rating: G (movie rating)
Why This Musical: Oliver! is one of those musicals that feels like it has been around forever. Since it opened in the 1960s, there have been numerous revivals and tours, and it has been performed in over 20 languages around the world. It’s a continual favorite among community theatre groups, because the cast includes a lot of roles for children. The songs are regularly used for auditions and musical theatre classes, and I’d be hard pressed to think of a theatre geek who doesn’t know the words to at least one of the songs! In terms of its source material, the musical isn’t that faithful an adaptation of Dickens’ original work—it simplifies the story, takes out an entire sub-plot, and gives the audience a happier ending than the book. However, the musical was well-received by critics and audience members when it first premiered, and it got a lot of praise for its exuberant score and lively choreography.
The 1968 movie also received positive reviews; Roger Ebert put it on a par with The Wizard of Oz as a movie musical that stands the test of time. It’s a fun movie (if a little long), enhanced by the stand-out performances of Ron Moody as Fagin and Jack Wild as the Artful Dodger. I will say that the Victorian England portrayed in the film seems overly bright and cheerful–a place in which everyone happily sings about their lot in life, including butchers, fish-mongers, milkmaids, and flower sellers!
My Connection: Oliver! and I go way back. I first saw the movie on TV when I was 11, and I was immediately smitten with the Artful Dodger, who was smarter, craftier, and more fun than the whiny Oliver Twist. I watched the movie numerous times over the next 30 years, and eventually bought a copy of the DVD, but I’d never seen a live version until 2012, when my daughter was cast as one of Fagin’s gang in a community theatre production. Because I often stayed for the rehearsals, I became very familiar with all the songs, especially “Food, Glorious Food,” which the director made the kids practice over and over again! I was surprised to learn that a couple of great songs from the musical (“That’s Your Funeral” and “My Name”) were left out of the movie version. I ended up seeing the community theatre version in its entirety five times. By now I should be sick of the show, but I still enjoy listening to the songs every now and then.
Where to See It: Oliver! is often performed by community groups and high schools, so it’s not hard to find a live version somewhere. The 1968 movie is available on DVD and on Amazon (streaming).
“You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two”
“Be Back Soon”
Final Thoughts: Though not a groundbreaking show by any means, Oliver! is an enjoyable musical with songs that have been in the canon for over fifty years. It’s worth seeing as a live production or watching the 1968 movie.