the mid-sixties, Barry had more or less mastered every genre of
popular music, bar one. He dearly wanted to crack the stage musical
fact, he was reported to have started work on a musical adaptation
of Graham Greenes novel Brighton Rock as early
as September 1964. Greene had not only given permission for its
use, but had also agreed to help in the lyric writing alongside
Wolf Mankowitz. Persuading the Boultings to relinquish their hold
on the film rights was muted at the time to be the only stumbling
block. Barry, a huge admirer of Greene, worked on the idea at
length and had already written several songs before it was eventually
shelved. He was soon to discover just how serious Greene was in
his intent on collaborating to the point where the author insisted
on working on three of Barrys melodies; however, it didnt
take Barry long to realise that as a lyricist, Greene made a great
novelist. In one of lifes more awkward moments, Barry had
to delicately explain to Greene how his wonderful rhymed prose
did not necessarily cut it as song lyrics. They were simply not
concise enough. Fortunately, Greene took the criticism well. The
one insurmountable problem, as Barry saw it, was basing an entire
production on one extremely despicable character, Pinkie.
Regrettably, the production never transpired, although it remains
a project dear to Barrys heart to this day.
in 1965, Barry quickly overcame any lingering disappointment he
may have felt over Brighton Rock, by signing up to
write an entirely different type of musical, Passion Flower
Hotel, which opened at the Prince of Wales, London in August
of that same year. Even though it was subjected to mixed reviews
and only ran for six months, it did include two or three excellent
songs. Critics generally could not decide who was to blame for
this rather short run. The Sunday Telegraph under the heading
'Silly and smutty', thought that Barry seemed more at ease
writing the production numbers for Peter Gordeno's lively hot
foot if derivative choreography than the melodies for Trevor Peacock's
static, repetitive, clumsily contrived lyrics.' On the other hand,
Hugh Leonard, writing in Plays and Players thought Peacock
a most talented lyricist who leaves the composer, John Barry,
lagging behind.' Leonard disliked almost everything about the
show, and was particularly scathing about Francesca Annis, one
of the female leads: 'There is only one solo song number in the
course of the evening. This goes unaccountably to Francesca Annis,
who either cannot or will not sing or dance. She seems to loathe
the show, and goes through the evening very much on her dignity,
being a good sport about the entire nasty proceedings.'
did enjoy two of the songs, 'What a Question' and 'I Love My Love',
but even these were ruined for him by 'the appalling amplification
system in the Prince of Wales. Herbert Kretzmer, for the Daily
Express liked Annis version of 'How Much of the Dream Comes
True', but complained in general about the quality of all the
show featured many young actors and actresses who have since made
their mark, including Jeremy Clyde, Nicky Henson, Jane Birkin
(who became the second Mrs Barry), Pauline Collins and a very
young Michael Cashman, who was later to become well known through
BBC TV's EastEnders and is now an MEP! Barry thought
years later that a certain over confidence could have been the
trouble. An original stage cast LP was released as part of Barrys
new recording deal with CBS, together with a single adapted from
the show and released under Barrys name. The Syndicate
was a storming brassy big band instrumental at which he has always
wouldnt be for another five years before Barry would be
wooed back into musical theatre and this was due largely to Katharine
Hepburns inadvertent intervention. She revealed to lyricist
Alan Jay Learner how he shared with Barry a mutual liking for
the childrens tale, The Little Prince. During
the course of their discussion, Lerner wondered whether Barry
would consider collaborating on an entirely different project
under development for the American stage, a musical version of
Nobokovs Lolita, with the working title Lolita
My Love. They met in London during May 1970 over the possibility,
but with Barry heavily committed to scoring films, they bounced
around a few ideas and then left it at that. It took until October
for the bulk of the writing to truly begin. In this instance,
around ninety per cent of the music was written first, once tempo,
mood, title and attitude had been finalised. Lerner then added
lyrics, which was in complete contrast to the way in way Rodgers
and Hammerstein always worked.
My Love proved to be a disastrous experience, as Barry would
later confirm: "We opened in Philadelphia on February 16th,
1971 to very bad reviews, and closed on February 27th." The
cast returned to New York for a month to review the wreckage,
before the show resurfaced with changes in script and personnel
at the Schubert Theatre in Boston on March 23rd; it closed five
days later. The anticipated Broadway opening at the Mark Hellinger
Theatre never transpired and, not surprisingly, nor did a planned
original cast album for Columbia Records. Despite this, some of
the songs were later recorded, notably 'Going Going Gone' by Shirley
Bassey and 'In the Broken Promised Land of Fifteen' by Robert
Goulet. A couple of non-commercial recordings on the Mediasound
label featuring those two songs and How Far Is It to the
Next Town? also surfaced. Then, quite unexpectedly, an album
was released in 1987 featuring a complete recording of one of
those performances at the Schubert in Boston. Since it was recorded
unofficially through the theatre's sound system, the quality is
by no means perfect, but it gives a fair indication of the style
and nature of the show.
became a case of third time lucky for Barry, when,
in 1974, his collaboration with Don Black on Billy
provided him with the success denied him in the past. Barry first
conceived the idea of staging a musical version of Keith Waterhouses
novel, Billy Liar, in 1971. His friend and lyricist
Don Black recalls: "John was always going on about the book,
saying how great it was, so we re-read it all, ran the film and
I had to agree it was marvellous. A great story and very funny,
which is a thing I miss in musicals these days; you don't get
they had amassed enough material, the two networked furiously
to secure the best production team available. At this stage Barry
also did the next best thing to actually putting up money himself,
by securing the rights from the plays authors, Keith Waterhouse
and Willis Hall. He then persuaded Michael Crawford to take on
the title role, Peter Witt to produce and then hired top TV scriptwriters
Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais to adapt the play for a musical
setting. With Patrick Garland drafted in to direct - fresh from
a recent collaboration with Barry on the film A Doll's House
- an extremely promising team was complete.
and Black spent the best part of 1973 determined to perfect the
songs by retreating to Barrys half-finished villa in Majorca,
so that they could write more easily in splendid isolation. "Wed
get up around six or seven in the morning and work very hard in
separate rooms before having late lunch. Then wed talk things
over," explained Barry. As partnerships go, this was a flexible
one, with inspiration likely to emanate from either music or lyric.
"You go through several phases. There are areas where it
is obvious where songs should go. Then there are also highly technical
areas where there is no real need for a song, and yet the structure
requires music to make an idea work. What we have come up with
is a traditional musical as opposed to something like Hair,
Godspell or Jesus Christ superstar,"
opened for a three-week trial run at the Palace Theatre, Manchester
on Monday, 25th March, 1974, for which Barry brought in orchestrator
Bobby Richards and musical director Alfred Ralston. The show opened
to rapturous reviews, and was to run for two years at the Theatre
Royal, Drury Lane. It was given a Royal Gala Premiere in the presence
of Princess Margaret on Monday April 29th, two days before its
official first night.
Critics were unanimous in their praise of Michael
Crawford in the lead role, and this time the music, in the majority
of cases, seemed to be everything they were looking for.
For the Daily Express, Herbert Kretzmer wrote:
"The songs are always suitably dashing or sentimental, always
right for the moment, if lacking any obvious hit. Some of
Us Belong to the Stars is one of the show's best songs.
For Michael Crawford the title is prophetic." The Guardian noted in particular, "John Barry's catchy score and Don
Black's pointed lyrics".
Jack Tinker in the Daily Mail praised almost
everything about the show, but neglected to mention the music.
Milton Schulman, in the London Evening Standard, felt that
"John Barry's music was more practical than melodic, though
I suspect that songs like 'Billy' and 'I Missed the Last Rainbow'
could catch on. Don Black's lyrics were sharp and bright."
original cast album issued by CBS in the UK was awarded a silver
disc; its popularity reinforced by Sonys decision to reissue
the album on CD and cassette in the early nineties. Ambitious
plans to take the show to Broadway failed to bear fruit, although
from time to time, press reports alluding to proposed revivals
and revisions continue to surface.
November 1987, when working with Mort Shuman on Budgie, Don
Black again brought up the subject of a revival: "We never
did anything with Billy originally. It never
went to America; it never went anywhere. It was just one of those
things. Somehow we all got involved in different projects and
we didnt pursue it. But plans are now at an advanced stage
to revive it. We've got some exciting thoughts about recasting,
and I really think it could happen all over again." However,
in 1989, Black admitted to the difficulty in finding someone suitable
to play Billy, a problem first raised in public by Barry in a
radio interview two years earlier.
in 1989, original director, Patrick Garland, remained optimistic
about a proposed revival. He envisaged the show being brought
up to date to enable the young English comedian and singer also
Gary Wilmot to play the lead. Although this particular plan fell
by the wayside, a new National Youth Music Theatre production
did run for two weeks at the Edinburgh Festival in 1992. Black
and Barry wrote two new songs, 'My Heart Is Ready When You Are'
(a duet for Liz and Billy) and 'One Man Can Make a Difference'
(sung by Billy). TV comedian Andrew O'Connor took the lead in
the hope that this would attract West End investment, but a lingering
recession and the recent failure of other musicals combined to
put the venture on ice once more.
most recent stage musical project was The Little Prince and
the Aviator, in 1981. This was an adaptation of Antoine de
Saint-Exuperys fable about an airman, forced to make an
emergency landing in the Sahara Desert, befriending a small boy
who had been transported there himself by birds from another planet.
Sadly, this Barry/Black collaboration was aborted before it was
due to open at the Alvin Theatre on Wednesday, January 20th 1982.
reaction to production previews led to a poor demand for tickets
and when producer A Joseph Tandet ran into financial difficulties,
the musicals premature demise was sealed. Unusually for
a production of this kind, finance was raised by the formation
of a public company, Little Prince Productions Ltd, selling 750,000
shares to the public at two dollars each. Very soon, confidence
in the project became undermined by the criticism, leaving the
musical well and truly grounded. Anthony Rapp was to have played
the title role alongside Michael York as Toni (the aviator) and
Ellen Greene as Suzanne. This was not the only attempt at a musical
version of the book, for Alan Jay Lerner, whom you may recall
discussed this very idea with Barry eleven years earlier, managed
to get there first in 1974. Regrettably, his film version proved
equally as unsuccessful.
in 2003 comes the news that Barry & Black are working on their
third musical together, Brighton Rock.
Almost 40 years on from Barrys first attempt, we must hope
for a much more satisfactory conclusion!
a much more detailed look at Barrys musicals, buy the forthcoming
book, John Barry The Man with the Midas Touch, to
be published in 2005.