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?
(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
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
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;
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.