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Lionel Bart's Quasimodo - King's Head Theatre

Lionel Bart

Preview by Lizzie Guilfoyle

FIFTY years after he started writing it, Quasimodo, a major musical by Oliver! composer Lionel Bart, will finally receive its world premiere at the King’s Head Theatre, where it will run from Wednesday, March 20 to Saturday, April 13, 2013.

Based on Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel Notre Dame de Paris, Quasimodo is set in 15th-century Paris and tells of the love between the deformed bellringer and the beautiful gypsy girl Esmerelda.

It was hoped that the poignant tale, written by Bart in 1963, would make it to the West End and Broadway where it would have joined his stage hits: Lock Up Your Daughters, Fings Ain’t Wot They Used t’ Be, Oliver!, Blitz! and Maggie May. But it was never produced in his lifetime. He died 13 years ago in 1999 in London.

A semi-staged workshop for investors and producers in 1995 at the Soho Laundry, featuring Tony Award-winning Frances Rufelle as Esmerelda, Ray Shell (currently playing the manager in The Bodyguard) as Quasimodo and Peter Straker, was the nearest it came to the West End. A recording of that workshop still exists with Bart himself playing the piano as part of the band.

Bart said at the time of the workshop: “I’ve been fascinated by this story since I saw Charles Laughton as the hunchback in the 1939 film version. I was inspired by the story of this marvellous soul within a monstrous body. But in the original story the hunchback is only 18 – not Charles Laughton at all. Esmerelda is 16, a street kid. With the obsession of the priest, Frollo, who is the hunchback’s mentor, it suddenly came together as an involved, modern, dark subject.

“The simple premise of the piece, when I wrote it, was the question, ‘What is ugly?’ I hoped that you could realise, when you left the theatre, that the guy at the end of the row wasn’t so ugly after all. It’s a tragic story, but about being free to change, free to renew oneself. In a way I became the hunchback. It’s a great release and a catharsis for me to put it all in this work.”

The King’s Head Theatre production, produced by TheatreUpClose, will have a cast of eight.

Adam Spreadbury-Maher, the King’s Head Theatre’s Artistic Director, said today:

“Choosing our first musical at the King’s Head was a simple one for me. It had to be new and it had to be British. Lionel Bart is the father of the modern British musical, Gilbert & Sullivan his grandparents. This new version of Bart’s the Hunchback is typical of the way he saw the world: dark, sexual and from the vantage point of the outsider. I am incredibly honoured that we are producing the world premiere of his final work, which will be directed by my new Associate Director, Robert Chevara.”

Chevara scored a major success earlier this year with the first London production of Tennessee Williams’ Vieux Carré since its West End premiere in the 1970s. His production won rave reviews, sold out at the King’s Head Theatre and subsequently transferred to the West End’s Charing Cross Theatre.

When Lionel Bart was just six years old, a teacher told his parents that he was a musical genius. After initial success in the pop world, working with the likes of Tommy Steele, Cliff Richard, Anthony Newley and Adam Faith, he won nine Ivor Novello Awards – three in 1957, four in 1959, and two in 1960. In 1960, he was also given the Variety Club Silver Heart for “Show Business Personality of the Year”.

His greatest stage success was the musical Oliver!, which opened at the New Theatre (later to become the Albery) on June 30, 1960. It received 23 curtain calls and went on to run for 2,618 performances. In 1963, it opened on Broadway and ran there for 774 performances. The 1968 film version, directed by Carol Reed, won several Oscars, including Best Picture.

The musical Twang!! in 1965 was a flop but Bart tried to prop up its failing finances with his own money. He then sold the rights to his past and future works, including those of Oliver! to keep himself solvent but he was forced to declare himself bankrupt in 1972.

In 1986, he received a special Life Time Achievement Ivor Novello Award. And in 1994, Cameron Mackintosh, who owned half the rights to Oliver!, revived the musical at the London Palladium in a version rewritten by Bart, to whom he gave a share of the production royalties.

Bart died of cancer on Saturday, April 3, 1999, aged 68.

Tickets: £15 – £25. Previews (March 20 and 21): all seats £10. Available from the box office on 020 7478 0160 or online at www.kingsheadtheatre.com/.

Times: Tuesday to Saturday at 7.15pm; Sunday at 3pm. Saturday, April 13 at 3pm and 7.15pm.

The Upstairs Room continues at the King’s Head Theatre until December 8, 2012.