Who would ever guess that a little boy from a Galician family who played an old violin and never learned to write a note of music would give the world a musical masterpiece on the scale of Oliver!? And who would guess that Oliver! would become a landmark musical and an Academy-Awards winning film?

Lionel Bart (pictured) was a writer and composer of British pop music and musicals, best known for creating the book, music and lyrics for Oliver! He was born Lionel Begleiter, the youngest of seven surviving children in East London to Galician Jews. The family had escaped the pogroms against Jews by Ukrainians in Galicia. At 14 he was awarded a junior art scholarship to St. Martin’s School of Art. He changed his name to Bart, derived from when he passed by St. Barts’ hospital by bus after he had completed his national service with the Royal Air Force. He never learned to read or write musical notation, but that didn’t stop him from becoming a significant personality in the development of British rock and pop music.

Bart’s first professional musical was the 1959 Lock Up Your Daughters, based on an 18th-century play. Oliver!, which he wrote in 1960, was based on Charles Dickens’s novel Oliver Twist and was a huge hit from the start, becoming the first modern British musical to make a successul transition Broadway. It has sustained its popularity until today. The musical was brought to the big screen in 1968 and starred Ron Moody, Oliver Reed and Shani Wallis. It won several Oscars, including Best Film. Bart died in 1999 after a long struggle with cancer.

Beit Hillel’s Theater Workshop at Hebrew University, Mount Scopus will present Oliver! as its 27th annual Hanukka presentation from December 9-16. The workshop is composed of students from the Rothberg International School at Hebrew University, Israeli students from the Hebrew University, local high school talent, and a veteran core of local Israeli and Anglo-Saxon actors. Thirty five actors and production staff will present Oliver! this Hanukka.

Hillel’s first production 27 years ago, Fiddler on the Roof, was rehearsed with an accordion in a dormitory basement and performed with piano accompaniment in the Hillel lecture hall. Three hundred people attended three performances. Next came productions of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, The Diary of Frank, The Wall and Ish Hassid Haya. With the success of the program, the Hillel lecture hall was adapted for theater, with theater seats, theater lights and a grand piano. Musical theater classics were introduced into the workshop repertoire, such as Les Miserables, A Chorus Line, Phantom of the Opera, Guys and Dolls and West Side Story. A dvar Torah linking the basic storyline of the production with a Jewish value, dictum or Torah thought presented before each performance served as the “Jewish accent” for each production – a tradition still in effect today. Along the way there were “bumps,” such as the first intifada, which sent American students packing for home and canceling a production, and the opening of other English-speaking programs with larger budgets and significant donor bases. And yet, with some sophisticated upgrading, the original theater concepts introduced 27 years ago are still maintained.

The last half decade has brought an unexpected phenomenon to the Hillel Workshop Theatre – the influx of resident Israeli students and Israelbased veteran actors into the program. For the first time since its inception, many of Hillel’s thespians appear in more than one play. Overseas students working in concert with local Israelis have added an exciting, positive dimension to the workshop.

There will be nine performances of ‘Oliver!’ between December 9-16. For information: (02) 581-7714; nathalieb@hillelisrael.org.il

The writer is the director of Heritage Seminars, Educational Seminars in Eastern Europe. He has been the director of all Hillel productions since the establishment of the workshop in 1985.

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