Prolific and well-loved British film and musical theatre songwriter LESLIE BRICUSSE has been busy in recent weeks. Not only has the composer, lyricist and librettist revealed that he’s working on a major new musical about the life of his close friend, legendary entertainer, Sammy Davis Jr, but he has been in London celebrating the world premiere of Pure Imagination– The Songs of Leslie Bricusse, a musical revue reflecting on an incredible back catalogue of more than 1,000 songs for over 40 musical films and plays during a 60-year career [although there are only a mere 50 included in the show!] Read Part Two of our interview with Leslie Bricusse below.
The songwriter Leslie Bricusse describes himself in his book Pure Imagination: A Sorta-biography (“it rhymes with autobiography… it’s what I do!”) as “one of the luckiest people I know, second only perhaps to Ringo Starr”. But, gosh, has he worked hard for his luck.
Born in 1931 in Pinner, Middlesex, where he attended the same school as Elton John, Bricusse went on to take up residence in Hollywood, but not before crafting two hit musicals with the actor-writer Anthony Newley: Stop The World – I Want to Get Off (1961) and The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd (1964). The former was five-times Tony nominated on Broadway (winning Anna Quayle a statue for Best Featured Actress in a Musical), the latter nominated six times.
On his very first day on the 20th Century Fox lot to write the music, lyrics and screenplay for the movie musical Doctor Dolittle, he penned ‘Talk to the Animals’, which would go on to win the Best Song Oscar at the 40th Academy Awards ceremony in 1968. Not bad for a first day at work! Three years later, he and Newley’s original score for Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971) failed to win in its category at the Oscars, but Bricusse did pick up a second statue in 1982 for his songwriting partnership with Henry Mancini on Victor Victoria.
The Bricusse songbook is a rich and varied tome – ‘My Kind Of Girl’, ‘What Kind of Fool am I?’, ‘Who Can I Turn To?’, the Bond themes ‘Goldfinger’ (the first – and only – Bond theme in the Grammy Hall of Fame) and ‘You Only Live Twice’, ‘The Candy Man’, ‘Le Jazz Hot’, the ‘Can You Read My Mind?’ love theme from the 1978 movie Superman, and ‘Christmas at Hogwarts’ for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. He even wrote the lyrics to ‘My Old Man’s a Dustman’, under the pseudonym of Beverly Thorn. No surprise, then, that a revue/compilation show of his greatest hits has opened on a stage in London.
Pure Imagination, which takes its name from the song of the same title in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, has continues at the St James Theatre in Victoria until 17 October. Director Chris Renshaw and MD Michael England have amassed a small team of talent – Julie Atherton, Siobhan McCarthy, Niall Sheehy, Giles Terera and Dave Willets – to serve up Bricusse’s best-known work alongside some of his lesser known material, in a plotless revue that may well surprise audiences unaware of the composer-lyricist’s extensive output.
In a rare interview – he’s not a fan of press junkets – Leslie Bricusse and his devoted and beautiful wife Yvonne ‘Evie’ Romain, invited Musical Theatre Review’s Craig Glenday to their stunning Thames-side penthouse overlooking the Albert Bridge to discuss 60 years of showbusiness.
Is there anyone you wished you’d worked with?
I got to work with most of my heroes – Henry Mancini, John Barry, John Williams. Henry Mancini was an absolutely wonderful guy, very cool. The film of Victor Victoria became a stage show – it happened the wrong way around: usually it goes from stage to screen, but we knew we had a big box office star in Julie Andrews – and Hank [Mancini] didn’t get to see the show. He died literally a few months before. But he had got the feeling for Broadway. He loved writing songs, instead of just scoring movies, and he did it brilliantly. He realised he could do more songs this way, and we were going to do The Pink Panther. We even wrote the title song, which is also in Pure Imagination. But then he wasn’t there any more. Very sad. So I guess I’d say I wished I’d worked more with Hank.
People must also want to work with you…
I don’t mean this to sound arrogant but I don’t need a composer because I write my own stuff anyway. But if John Williams, say, wants something, I’m there, obviously. He doesn’t write many songs – we did five songs for the first two Home Alone films, then we did Hook, where there were three songs, then we did the odd song at 20th Century Fox.
How did you feel winning your two Oscars?
The Oscars are brilliant. If the whole world was run by the Oscar committee it would be a much better place. I have nothing but admiration for them. I’m playing par – I’m ten nominations and two wins. So if you reckon you win one in five, I’m on par! A couple of them didn’t deserve to be nominated and a couple of them I thought would win didn’t. You can’t tell. There are too many factions.
Which of your songs are you most proud of?
The usual answer to that is “the next one”! On Willy Wonka, ‘Pure Imagination’ – which has become the title of this new show and also of my autobiography – wasn’t a hit at the beginning. It took 30 years to become the hit song. ‘The Candy Man’ was the instant hit song [for Sammy Davis Jr]. And on a show called Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd, which I did with Anthony Newley, the big song was ‘Who Can I Turn To?’ but over the years it became ‘Feeling Good’. Michael Bublé recorded it brilliantly, as did the group Muse. The Muse version was used by Virgin Airlines for a James Bond-style commercial – they spent millions on it – which I’m sure had a huge impact on the song.
And a favourite show?
The film that became a favourite show of mine was Victor Victoria by Blake Edwards. But one of my favourite stage shows, which is going on tour shortly, is Sherlock Holmes [from 1988]. We originally had Ron Moody play Sherlock Holmes, which was bad, bad miscasting, and the show didn’t run very long. I was in Sloane Street shopping one day when a voice behind me said [in his deepest baritone], “And why didn’t you think of me for Sherlock Holmes?” and it was Christopher Lee! Christopher Lee made 300 movies – Evie [Bricusse’s wife] did a couple of films with him – but he was also an opera singer. I kicked myself. He could fit so many roles, like Scaramanga [in The Man with the Golden Gun], perfect casting! Anything would have been better than dear old Ron Moody.
What new material are you working on now?
I met this wonderful producer who’s in the animated business and we’ve got two projects lined up at the moment. I’ve got three more that I want to do, but I’m waiting for the first one to go. One at a time! It’s with a man who has the wonderful name of Courtney Conte. He’s an American who runs BBC Worldwide, and they’ve just opened a big new studio in Wales for animation.
The first film is called The Great Music Chase, in which I collaborated with Tchaikovsky! It’s about the ‘The Nutcracker Suite’. I use the themes from ‘The Nutcracker Suite’ as the score but it is a film about the Nutcracker. Nothing to do with the ballet itself – it’s about a girl whose only clue to her own identity is that she was left as a baby with a recording of ‘The Nutcracker Suite’ and she has to find out why.
And you’re doing the same thing with Gershwin, writing lyrics to his tunes?
Yes, but the Gershwin idea is a different project. We were in Hawaii with Liza Minnelli – a long time ago, 20 years back – and on Christmas morning, she and I were sitting on the floor watching An American in Paris, which was her father’s film. She said, I’ve always wanted to sing that [he hums the bluesy ‘walking theme’ from Gershwin’s symphonic poem] so I said: “Okay, let’s put a lyric on it.” And I did. I’ve always loved Gershwin, and what this led to over the next three years was putting lyrics on all those instrumental pieces: ‘An American in Paris’, ‘Rhapsody in Blue’, ‘Cuban Overture’ and his ‘Piano Concerto’. I finally figured out how to do it. We tried to do it with a big symphony orchestra but it wasn’t a good way to go, but I think we’ve now got the answer. I’m having lunch with Cameron Mackintosh to try to shove it down his throat! I think he’d like something like this.
Can you give me a sample of a new lyric?
The thing that Liza wanted from An American in Paris was:
“Nowhere’s quite like Paris in the spring
So I go to Paris in the spring
Stroll the Champs-Élysées
And let Ravel and Bizet
Do their thing.”
You’ll hear that song in Pure Imagination. I’ve waited and waited to do it. Years ago, I met a nephew of Gershwin called Mark George Gershwin and he let me do one theme. An opera singer called Barbara Hendricks sang it at the second inauguration of Bill Clinton [in 1993] – that’s how long this has been going on – and the next morning I got a phone call saying: “I want to record this.” It was Aretha Franklin! I said to her: “I can’t let you have it, I haven’t cleared the rights! I just got this one-off arrangement for Clinton!”
They [the Gershwin estate] made a mistake, in my opinion. Gershwin’s now PD [public domain] but if they’d made a 50-50 deal with me, [his music] would all have been in copyright for the rest of my lifetime plus 70 years. And I’m still here! So, anyway, I think they regarded it rightly as sacred territory – they didn’t want to let just anybody in. But now’s it PD everywhere in the world except the United States, and in four year times it will be PD there too. In any case, I’m very proud of it, and it will work and it will be seen. And I’m going to give the Gershwin estate half of the royalties towards a music scholarship.
Finally, I have to say that I love the quantity and quality of name-dropping in your book – Bacall, Bassey, Beatty, Bennett, Bogart, Burton, Bygraves, Beatles, and that’s just the Bs…
Come on, I arranged for a summit meeting between the Beatles and Stephen Sondheim! Talk about name dropping! You just can’t tell the story properly if you have to apologise every time. We’ve had absolutely phenomenal experiences with these people, and if you want to tell interesting stories, you have to name drop!
One more before you go. On the first night of Stop the World, the notices were bad. We sat up all of that first night in the suite of the hotel, and two of the people there were Paul and Joanne Newman. At about five o’clock in the morning, Paul announced a crisis: “We’re running out of beer.” So he and I went into the street to buy more beer and he said: “Do you know that if you lie on the road between 6th Avenue and 58th Street you get a perfect view of the sunrise?” So we lay down in the middle of the road and sure enough the sun came up – a big red ball – bang in the middle of two buildings. Then the police turned up! Thankfully they recognised Paul and helped us up the stairs with the beers.
Those are stories that you have to tell. You can’t apologise for them. It’s the world I’ve lived in, and it’s been great fun.
* After the performance of Pure Imagination on Wednesday 7 October, there will be a Q&A session with Leslie Bricusse.
Readers may also be interested in:
Interview – Part One – Triple threat writer Leslie Bricusse on what inspires his Pure Imagination
Review – Pure Imagination – The Songs of Leslie Bricusse – St James Theatre, London