British songwriting genius Leslie Bricusse behind Willy Wonka and Goldfinger dies aged 90

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Leslie Bricusse’s only connection to the show business was that her grandmother had cleaned the steps of the Apollo Theater, opposite Victoria Station.

Incredibly, at the time of his death yesterday at the age of 90, Bricusse was the composer and lyricist of over 40 successful musicals on stage and on screen.

He was nominated for ten Oscars, winning two. On the mantelpiece were nine Grammys and four Tonys.

Man was an institution, a phenomenon. Like everyone else, I’ve spent my life immersed in his soundtracks: Doctor Dolittle (Talk To The Animals), Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory (Oompa-Loompa), the wonderfully brassy songs of Goldfinger and You Only Live Twice.

Sir Harry Secombe as Pickwick opening his larynx and shouting: “If I ruled the world!” – Bricusse proposed that one too.

Bricusse, along with his longtime collaborator Anthony Newley, was responsible for classic 1960s shows such as Stop The World – I Want To Get Off and The Roar Of The Greasepaint – The Smell Of The Crowd.

Their songs were smashing, sizzling hits – and continue to be. Feeling Good, from this latest musical, made famous by Tony Bennett and Nina Simone, received a big band arrangement for Joe Biden’s inaugural presidential concert.

Bricusse was born to Pinner (Elton John a neighbor) in 1931. His room was lined with posters for MGM extravagances, and he took tap and piano lessons.

After national service he went to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, where he was president of Footlights.

Her first job in the theater was to honor Beatrice Lillie, the Victoria Wood of her day, an eccentric artist who wore a fez, sang comic songs about “Fairies at the bottom of the garden” and stood there. passed off as a bear roller skate.

Lillie, in real life Lady Peel, had lost her son when her ship, HMS Hermes, was sunk by the Japanese. She unofficially adopted Bricusse – and when he went on his honeymoon, he and his wife, Evie, photographed the monument to Lady Peel’s son in a military cemetery. “She had never seen him,” said Bricusse poignantly.

Lillie’s philosophy of comedy was, “Tell them what you could do; do something else ; then denies having done so.

Incredibly, at the time of his death yesterday at the age of 90, Leslie Bricusse was the songwriter and lyricist of over 40 successful musicals on stage and on screen. (In the photo, third from left at the 55th Academy Awards, 1983)

It’s an approach that Bricusse found sympathetic – because if you look at the subjects he adapted and set to music for theater and cinema (Peter Pan, Scrooge, Jekyll and Hyde, Sherlock Holmes, Cyrano de Bergerac among them), he has always been drawn to powerful individuals who struggle with life, overpowering it in their unique ways.

His first hit, with Newley, was Stop The World – I Want To Get Off, which opened in 1961 and performed for 485 performances in the West End.

It has a broad circus or cabaret theme and deals with cosmic topics, such as the dissatisfaction with existence and the need for love.

One of the numbers, What Kind Of Fool Am I ?, won the Ivor Novello Award. It has since become a standard, recorded by Tony Bennett, Andy Williams, Shirley Bassey and Kermit the Frog.

The Roar Of The Greasepaint – The Smell Of The Crowd seemed not to repeat the success of its predecessor.

This time there was a music hall format, almost a Punch and Judy booth format – the theme is one of violence and submission, animosity between a master and a servant, with the iconic characters who call each other Sir, Cocky and Kid.

Then for Hollywood there was Doctor Dolittle, (pictured) implying that Bricusse had to deal with the contemptuous and impossible Rex Harrison, whom Bricusse, a affable, intelligent and charming man, found

Then for Hollywood there was Doctor Dolittle, (pictured) implying that Bricusse had to deal with the contemptuous and impossible Rex Harrison, whom Bricusse, a affable, intelligent and charming man, found “formidable and fierce”.

The production, starring Norman Wisdom as Cocky, ended in Liverpool or Leicester and never made it to London.

Two of the songs, however, Who Can I Turn To and the catchy Feeling Good, were recorded by Dusty Springfield. An American producer took an interest and, choreographed by Gillian Lynne, and with Newley replacing Norman Wisdom, the musical was a hit in New York City.

Then, for Hollywood, there was Doctor Dolittle, who implied that Bricusse was dealing with the contemptuous and impossible Rex Harrison, whom Bricusse, a affable, intelligent, charming man, found “formidable and fierce”.

For example, Bricusse introduced the star to the lyrics of Talk To The Animals. Rex was not happy. “It’s such a stupid song,” he said. Rex particularly objected to the rhinoceros rhyme with “of course”. He didn’t think it was “good English” – and Rex had won the Oscar for (and identified with) the linguist schemer, Professor Higgins.

“Dr Dolittle and I are and speak English,” Rex said imperiously. Bricusse patiently explained that it was a comic number. “A humorous song is meant to be funny,” Rex persisted. ‘It’s not funny. God save me from fucking puns. Silly schoolboy stuff.

He came out and was replaced by Christopher Plummer. Rex then begged to be reinstated, which he was, and his wife Rachel Roberts begged to be allowed to overtake barking dogs, which she wasn’t. Talk To The Animals won the Oscar for Best Song in 1967.

Willy Wonka’s songs And The Chocolate Factory, originally written in six weeks, had a life of their own. Pure Imagination, sung by Gene Wilder, has been admired by Sinatra, Garland, Streisand and Lena Horne.

Another fan was Fred Astaire, who desperately wanted to play Willy Wonka on screen. The producers preferred someone younger.

The Candy Man, still in the movie, became a huge hit for Sammy Davis Jr, indeed his first number one international hit. He phoned Bricusse every week with the countdown – “It’s at 18, 14, 12, before he became number one,” recalls the songwriter / lyricist with amusement.

Indeed, Sammy has recorded more than 60 numbers of Bricusse, and once held a captive audience until 5 am at the Palladium while browsing them. When he died, Bricusse was working on a musical about Sammy’s life, which had to be cut short due to Covid.

Another perennial was Scrooge, first conceived in 1970 as a movie starring Albert Finney – Rex had given up. He still appears as a stage version in some provincial towns most Christmases, with Tommy Steele.

Man was an institution, a phenomenon.  Like everyone else, I've spent my life immersed in his soundtracks: Doctor Dolittle (Talk To The Animals), Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory (Oompa-Loompa), the wonderfully brassy songs of Goldfinger and You Only Live Twice.

Man was an institution, a phenomenon. Like everyone else, I’ve spent my life immersed in his soundtracks: Doctor Dolittle (Talk To The Animals), Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory (Oompa-Loompa), the wonderfully brassy songs of Goldfinger and You Only Live Twice.

I saw him once in Oxford, with Anthony Newley and a brilliant supporting role. Jon Pertwee was the ghost of Marley and a round Stratford Johns was the ghost of past Christmas. All now gone to their reward.

Bricusse’s shows, in fact, are staged all over the world. They particularly appreciate it in South Korea and China.

We’re talking about Netflix doing an animation series. Bricusse followed his business and creative interests to the end, though “mostly on the phone until now”.

What this means – and meant for most of Bricusse’s career – is that his copyrights are very lucrative, providing him with houses and villas in Beverly Hills, Malta, Gstaad, Acapulco and Saint-Paul de Vence. , among other places overlooking blue seas, swimming pools or crisp snow.

The square in the south of France was filled with paintings by Bricusse’s neighbor, Chagall. “We don’t have an inch of wall space anywhere. There was also an apartment on the Thames in London.

Bricusse was always delighted to have been able to take advantage of the “sybaritic and hedonistic paradise” that Hollywood was in the 60s and 70s. Ava Gardner, fleeing the press, knocked on her door, seeking refuge. Sean Connery hid a tree.

Bricusse introduced Sondheim to John Lennon and taught Barbra Streisand to speak with an English accent rather than a Brooklyn horn for On A Clear Day You Can See Forever.

Willy Wonka's songs and the Chocolate Factory, originally written in six weeks, had a life of their own

Willy Wonka’s songs and the Chocolate Factory, originally written in six weeks, had a life of their own

Every weekend there was a party for “British refugees” – Michael Caine, Christopher Lee, Samantha Eggar, David Hemmings and Roger Moore. There was even a party in April 1984 for Prince Andrew.

In 1958, Bricusse married Yvonne Romain, a semi-Maltese beauty who had starred in Double Trouble alongside Elvis Presley.

She, Evie, was also in The Saint with Roger Moore, their neighbor in Los Angeles, Switzerland and Monaco.

Bricusse and Evie have had an enviable long and happy match – their son Adam is an artist; there are many grandchildren – and it is this element of joy, zest and punch, which has always made Bricusse’s compositions compelling and rewarding. (I guess Newley, who died in 1999 and married Joan Collins between 1963 and 1970, injected the darker strains.)

If Charles Dickens had gotten into show business, he would have been Leslie Bricusse – the enthusiasm of vaudeville, the over-the-top characters, the sense of shameless sentimentality.

From Pickwick of Secombe, reigning benevolently over the world, Willy Wonka’s ballad of belief in the imagination, the many interpretations of Sammy Davis, Nina Simone’s version of Feeling Good, to Julie Andrews on the transsexual show Victor / Victoria (which won Bricusse his second Oscar in 1983) – the meaning of the songs he wrote can be summed up in three powerful (and in a way topical) words: Freedom is mine.


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