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 (1965). The former was five-times Tony nominated on Broadway (winning Anna Quayle a statue for Best Featured Actress in a Musical), and the latter nominated six times.
On his very first day on the Fox lot to write the music, lyrics and screenplay for the movie musical Dr. Doolittle, 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 is soon to open on a stage in London.
Pure Imagination, which takes its name from the song of the same title in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, is set to run from 24 September to 17 October at the St James Theatre in Victoria. 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-lyricists’ extensive output.
In a rare interview – he’s not a fan of press junkets – Leslie and his devoted and beautiful wife Yvonne “Evie” Romain, invited Craig Glenday of Musical Theatre Review to their stunning Thames-side penthouse overlooking the Albert Bridge to discuss 60 years of showbusiness. With everyone running late because of torrential rain and the composer’s ridiculously busy schedule, we finally made contact and prioritized the opening of a bottle of wine.
Cheers! You must be exhausted – you’re in your mid eighties but showing no signs of retiring…
I love it. I had to do a TV interview this morning about the great Bond songs, then we had to go to the first run-through of the new show this afternoon. We’ve got to go back to California because I’m doing a film there – The Great Music Chase – which is an animated movie. Then hopefully coming back here to do another show. So we wander back and forth between the UK, France and the United States.
You’ve had such a wealth of experience, I’m not sure where to start. What was your first experience with songwriting?
I suppose it was the Cambridge musical. I was at Cambridge, and the sort of songs we wrote for the Footlights – all that clever-pants revue stuff – were not the sort of songs that I wanted to write. So I formed a musical comedy club and we wrote a musical [Lady at the Wheel]. It was a big hit in Cambridge but it took four years to bring it to London, by which time it’d lost its magic. They got it right in Cambridge and it worked with undergraduate enthusiasm but it didn’t work in the West End. There were some good songs in it, since recorded by people like – and we’re going way back here – Alma Cogan and the Beverly Sisters. So that was my first experience with musical theatre.
Did you have any formal musical training?
I didn’t study music; I studied words, really. I started out as a lyricist. Even as a little boy I was mad about the songs of George and Ira Gershwin – two brothers who wrote some of the best songs ever. They stuck with me all through my childhood, so when I got the chance to write at Cambridge, I grabbed the opportunity. So really I studied music and lyrics at Cambridge instead of what I should’ve been studying [Modern and Medieval Languages].
What’s your song-writing process? Lyrics first? Or music?
As I write one, I can hear what the other would sound like. So I’ve developed a way of getting melodies down and it’s worked from the beginning. I think that if I’d studied music, I wouldn’t’ve written as many good songs as I have, because I wasn’t technically accomplished enough to do it that way. So I used my own homemade method.
I was lucky to have the same musical director for over 50 years, Ian Fraser [1933–2014]. A brilliant guy, he died last year, but I go on without him. He won 12 Emmy awards from 30 nominations. He started with Newley and me back in 1959. I’d give him the melody and he’d write it down. We then did demo records of all the songs – my life is filled with demo records! God knows how many hundred we must have done over the years. I’ve kept them all, and I have a duplicate set in LA.
Modern technology must now be helping you, is it?
Oh yes. I recorded a radio show for the BBC interviewing movie stars who were in England, and you could barely lift this big green box – it really was a bugger, must’ve weighed more than 50 lb, a real back-breaker. This bloody great box is what I used to use to record the interviews, and now you get these things [indicates my iPhone recording the conversation]. That technology is wonderful now. And the advent of email has made communications so much easier, and it helps my work a lot.
Are you good with technology?
[Evie interrupts: “Oh, you are. You’re good! He emails everybody…”]
But I’m not clever at it. The man were talking about, Fraser, could orchestrate a complete score just by doing that [mimes typing at a keyboard]. Just amazing. He was one of the most amazing people on computers I’ve ever met.
How important are collaborators to you?
Well, I’ve only collaborated – and I think I’m right in saying this – on films with other composers. Other shows, other than those with Tony Newley and Frank Wildhorn, were worked on exclusively on my own. What happens on films is that a composer will ask you to write a lyric for him. I did some films on my own, but in the main part I worked with other people kind enough to think of me.
Do you think of yourself a lyricist who composes?
I write the book, the music and the lyrics. I’m the triple threat! [laughs] I write all three elements of it because it’s a good way for me to work. I get my head into the characters so I know what the lyrics should say. I love doing that and have done it all my life. The only successful show that was done by someone who did all three was The Music Man with Robert Preston, which was written about fifty years ago by Meredith Wilson.
Why do you consider yourself so lucky?
The early songs – things like “Goldfinger”, for example – came purely circumstantially. John Barry said, “What the Bond songs always have been – from the time that Lionel Bart wrote the first one, which was “From Russia With Love” – is about who’s hot at that moment.” Like Adele most recently, [whose song “Skyfall” became] the first Bond song ever to win an Oscar. No song even got nominated except “Nobody Does It Better”, by which time the Bond films had been on for 15 years or so. They weren’t the sort of films one thought of winning Oscars for Best Song – it was more of your beautiful songs like “Moon River” or “The Shadow of Your Smile”. When I was doing Dr. Doolittle at Fox, I became – purely by chance – the resident lyricist just because they all knew I was doing a film musical. That’s how I met John Williams and all sorts of people who wanted songs for their movies.
How did you get the job in the movies?
First of all, because of the producer Arthur Jacobs. He was a famous publicist – he was Marilyn Monroe’s press agent, big stuff at Fox! – and he’d parlayed his way into producing. He managed to convince the studio to let him make films. Because we’d had these two hit shows in New York, he sniffed me out and then he found out that I’d written a score about Noah’s Ark. So he went back to the studio – this is true! – and said, “I’ve found a guy who writes songs about animals!” and that’s how I got the job, as ludicrous as it sounds!
Originally it was supposed to be Lerner and Loewe doing the score, because of Rex Harrison; the studio wanted to associate them again [after the success of My Fair Lady in 1964]. But Fritz Lowe got ill and Alan couldn’t function without Fritz, I guess – they really were each other’s other half – so it came my way, purely by chance.
That’s why I won an Oscar on my first day in Hollywood! I thought, what is this film about? It’s about talking to animals. So on day one I wrote “Talk to the Animals” and it won the Oscar!
Did you live on the movie lot?
Yes. It was a very expensive movie and I was writing the screenplay and the score, so they needed me on the lot. We would do these demo records. They were ridiculous, with a 75-piece orchestra… for a demo! I was expecting Ian Fraser to play the piano for the producer but I guess the theory was that a great big movie budget needed a great big demo. We’d go into this huge studio – the main film-scoring studio – where a man called Alexander Courage did these wonderful arrangements, absolutely brilliant. It was quite a thrill.
What’s it like working in Hollywood?
It’s a fascinating place to be. We keep a pad there, and it’s been very good to us. We’ve had a lovely time. We’ve probably got more friends over there now than we have here because of the business associations you make. If you look at it seriously, for all the hoopla and everything, it really is quite an amazing place in terms of the good films they made.
You must have seen a lot of changes over the years…
We don’t realize we’ve got older. You feel the same, and I’m still writing. But yes, of course, it’s changed enormously. And our early pals over there are sadly no more. Steve McQueen was a great pal of ours and he was dead at 50. He was a year older than me, so he’s been dead about 35 years. We still see his wife, Neile [Adams], she’s still around and a lovely lady. But people do pass on. Evie and I have been together all our lives, and when you’ve been married as long as we have you don’t grow old. Because we’re together, we don’t become aware of age, really.
What your secret for a long, successful marriage?
Well, Evie’s very special. The main link in any life is humour – we make each other laugh and have a lot of fun together. We go everywhere together. She came to do the interview today on television, and she came to the rehearsal this afternoon. So I really am blessed in that respect.
How are the rehearsals going for Pure Imagination?
We tried running it through today for the first and it wasn’t bad at all. I’ve got a few notes, so the director and producer are coming here tomorrow. There are about three things I want to change, and different songs I want to put, and there’s just about time to do it.
What’s the story or concept?
There is no concept. The director [Chris Renshaw] has been very clever in stringing together 50 of my songs – a lot of songs for one musical! – but he’s somehow related one song to the next, so there’s a nice flow. He’s even in one or two places played two songs at once against each other, which is quite cleverly orchestrated. And there’s all sorts of songs in there, from “What Kind of Fool am I?” to “My Old Man’s A Dustman”.
How did you come to write “My Old Man’s a Dustman”?
My music publisher just called Lonnie Donegan, and Lonnie called me. That’s how it happened. That’s the way in which these things tend to happen. For example, I’d just written a song for Home Alone with John Williams and he called me to say how pleased he was with the final lyrics. I was in France and he was in California. At the end of the call, he said, “Hold on a minute,” then went off the line. When he came back, he said, “That was the Young Prince,” – that’s what he calls Stephen Spielberg – “and I was telling him how much I liked your lyrics. He wants to know if you’d like to do Hook?!” And that’s how I got Hook!
The sad thing about Hook was that John and I wrote 10 songs for it, and Stephen shot a very over-long picture. And of course the first things to go in those circumstances are the songs, because they’re so easy to cut. It was so sad, because there was a lot of good material there.
Can’t you rescue the songs and create your own show?
I asked Stephen if I could use the songs. I’d written a version of Peter Pan with Newley [in 1976] and I said to Stephen that John’s songs meshed with the Newley songs – there were no two songs about the same things – so if we could work out how to do it, we’d have a show. He said, “Fine, provided you give me first call on a movie”. But we haven’t done it yet… you get sidetracked.
Talking of which, where were we? Oh yes, Pure Imagination. Tell us about it…
Yes, it makes no attempt to be anything other than a songbook show. For every anecdote you tell, you sacrifice two songs. I did a version of a songbook show with Bill Kenwright here in London, and he came up with the terrible title of Brick By Brick By Bricusse. I don’t think so! You can tell stories, but I’d sooner hear a song. I think we’ve done the right thing. If people are paying money to hear famous songs, so let’s hear the songs!
I think audiences might be surprised to learn that you’ve written quote so many well-known numbers…
Well, I’ve got quite a wide variation of songs. I’ve done well over a thousand songs – 1,500 maybe. Of course, there are lots of scores you write where nothing happens to them. The English composer Jule Styne and I wrote a score for The Rose Tattoo by Tennessee Williams – we had all these meetings with Tennessee – and I wanted Liza [Minelli] to play the lead. She would have been the perfect musical Anna Magnani [the Italian actress who won the Best Actress Oscar for her role in the 1955 film version]. But he wanted Angela Lansbury. I didn’t see her as an Italian dame, although she’s a wonderful actress and would have pulled it off, I’m sure. Anyway, it didn’t happen, and it went the way of many unproduced scores. Henry [Mancini] and I wrote a score for Julie Andrews, a bad concept taking Major Barbara by George Bernard Shaw and adding a Salvation Army score – just wouldn’t’ve worked. I’ve lots of these things in the cupboard.
Do you recycle your songs?
No, because they’re too specific to the project.
Perhaps there’s a show in this: Unheard Bricusse…?
The unhearable, more like! [laughs]
Why has the idea behind Pure Imagination taken so long to be realised?
As I said, we talked about different things over the years, and people were concerned about what we were going to say with the show. But finally I said, “Let the songs speak for themselves. Let’s not have any dialogue.” And rightly or wrongly that’s what we’ve decided to do.
It worked recently for What’s It All About?, the Bacharach revue...
He’s a lovely guy, Burt. We talked about writing together so many times but we never got round to it. You always regret the people you don’t work with. His music is fabulous – I just love it.
Is there anyone you wished you’d work with?
I got to work with most of my heroes – 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, he did it brilliantly. He realized 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 will 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. But he doesn’t write many songs. We did five songs for the first two Home Alone films, then we did Hook, where there three songs, then we did the odd song at 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”! [laughs] 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 thirty 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, which I did with Newley, the big song was “Who Could 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 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 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 man with 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 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 next week 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-Elysees
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 Gershwin’s half of the royalties to a music scholarship.
Finally, I have to say that I love the quantity and quality of name-dropping in your book – Bacall, Bassey, Beattie, 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 recognized 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.