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These two brief stories are true.

Walking down West 43rd Street last week, I saw a teenage boy and a teenage girl holding hands, swinging them back and forth, and loudly singing with great joy.

Their song of choice was “I’d Do Anything” from OLIVER!

Seven minutes later – and yes, I did check my watch to verify that so little time had passed – I was on Sixth Avenue where three teenage girls, each clutching arms around another, were skipping down the street singing the same song with equally joyous gusto.

I’d like to think that this happened because these kids had been to the recent concert of OLIVER! at Encores! 

Note the two exclamation points in the final three words of the above sentence. Considering the rapturous reviews that Lionel Bart’s musical has been receiving for 63 years (including those we read earlier this month), the punctuation is justified.

OLIVER! was once Broadway’s longest-running British musical. It opened on January 6, 1963, and by April 1964, it had surpassed THE BOY FRIEND, London’s previous champ, at 490 performances. It would hold that distinction until August 1981, when EVITA leapfrogged over it. 

More British mega-musicals would arrive in the 1980s, resulting in thousands upon thousands ofperformances. OLIVER! has now even been eliminated from the list of Broadway’s Top TenBritish musicals. But when we compare the runs of yesteryear and today, we must take into consideration that Broadway theaters basically have the same number of seats while tourism and population growth have boomed.

By the way, chances are that OLIVER! would have run 13 more performances had there not been a late 1962 newspaper strike. Producer David Merrick, who loved importing shows from London (this was his ninth), had originally scheduled a December 27, 1962, opening. But with newspaper reviews then the be-all and end-all, Merrick postponed the opening for 10 days in hopes the strike would end. 

It didn’t, but Merrick wouldn’t delay any longer. Even with a strike, OLIVER! did manage to receive a radio review that was a rave. Its reviewer, however, was one David Merrick.

(He’s so helpful!)

If 774 performances seem like chump change to you, how about its 2,618 performances in London,when that figure seemed impossible and insurmountable? What’s more, OLIVER! occupied a theater that was off the beaten track from the West End houses where hits were routinely booked. 

And to think that when a musical version of Charles Dickens’ OLIVER TWIST was announced for London in 1960, little was expected. How could such a dour story turn into a musical? It had thieves, orphans, child exploitation and murder. What was there to sing about?

Nevertheless, it turned out to be by far the biggest hit that Lionel Bart ever had. Although some have over the years alleged that he had some help, Bart was originally credited with solely creating the book, music and lyrics. That was no small feat, especially for a man who was not schooled in music.

But what terrific melodies – and lyrics – ran through Bart’s head! 

“Food, Glorious Food” had Oliver Twist and his fellow starving orphans sing they’d welcome indigestion if the meal were rich enough.

“Consider Yourself” was the jaunty welcome that Oliver received from the Artful Dodger, who was intent on seducing the poor kid into a life of crime.

Oliver’s new mentor Fagin will tell him criminality is precisely what’s on his mind in “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two.” 

Also hanging around the thieves’ den is Nancy,who’s never described as the prostitute that she is in Dickens’ novel. Better to have her do the pleasant “It’s a Fine Life” before she shows her heart of gold in acting affectionate with Oliver in the charming (and aforementioned) “I’d Do Anything.” 

And those are just the first-act highlights.

The second act starts, as so many musicals have, with a rouser: “Oom-Pah-Pah,” everyone sings joyously. The song also provides one of musical theater’s favorite ideas: characters celebrate because they don’t yet know, as we do, that something very bad has happened. Just as Maria sings “I Feel Pretty,” unaware that her brother is dead and her boyfriend killed him, Nancy, Faginand everyone else have no idea that Oliver has had a very bad First-Day-on-the-Job. He was caught stealing during his initial attempt at pickpocketing.

How we rejoice, then, when Mr. Brownlow, his victim, takes him under his wing. Our joy is short-lived when Oliver is forced back into crime by the evil Bill Sikes. We also feel for Mr. Brownlow, too, because he trusted Oliver so much.

Danny Sewall, the original Sikes both in London and on Broadway, had previously been a professional prizefighter. He made a better living at it than Muhammad Ali did when he starred in the seven-performance 1969 musical BUCK WHITE. Sewell played the part here-and-there for years and noted that he initially felt bad that he received no applause after he sang “My Name.” He finally realized that he shouldn’t take it personally; the audience doesn’t like the character (and for good reason). 

Of all the Broadway musicals heroines who have worn dresses in shades of red – Dolly, Molly Brown, Annie, Desiree and Cassie – Nancy suffers the most. She gets the show’s most famous song:“As Long as He Needs Me” which was covered at the time by Judy Garland, Shirley Bassey and Eydie Gorme – all best-selling singers in their era.

The song is easier to take out of context; it simply seems to be a declaration of unconditional love, which all of us want. However, in the musical, Nancy is proclaiming her devotion to an uncaring never-do-well who’ll wind up killing her. In our more enlightened times, we may not understand why a woman would allow herself to be such a victim, but both Dickens and Bart wanted to show that such an environment and outside-the-law occupations bring out the worst in everyone.

There’s a much tinier problem with “As Long as He Needs Me.” Given that Nancy speaks in a Cockney accent throughout the show, why isn’t her song called “As Long as ‘e Needs Me”? Did everyone feel that eliminating the “h” might hurt it from getting the expected cover versions? 

OLIVER! was such a London sensation that RCA Victor couldn’t wait for it to open on Broadway; the label decided to record it during the show’s Los Angeles tryout in the summer of 1962. For those who prefer the warm sound of vinyl, you’ll get it even on the CD of OLIVER! because it wasn’t recorded in New York’s Webster Hall, RCA’s usual venue, where recordings came out sounding crisp.

And yet, the five teens I saw doing “I’ll Do Anything” had both warmth and crispness. Chances are you’ll never run into them, but the five performers who sing the same song on the 1963 recording will nicely suffice.

Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on His new book – THE BOOK OF BROADWAY MUSICAL DEBATES, DISPUTES, AND DISAGREEMENTS – is now available on Amazon.