ON THE RECORD: Blitz! and Inside U.S.A.

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21 Aug 2005

This week's column discusses Lionel Bart's 1962 musical Blitz! and the 1948 Arthur Schwartz-Howard Dietz revue Inside U.S.A..

Lionel Bart wrote music and lyrics for but six produced musicals, all within a ten-year span. Oliver! was an instantaneous international success, Broadway's biggest British-born hit between Chu Chin Chow and Evita. The two that followed Oliver!, Blitz! and Maggie May, were both West End hits of the non-exportable variety. The final pair, Twang! and La Strada, were twin disaster on either side of the Atlantic. The mercurial Bart went into a decline of pills and booze and destiny, and nothing more issued from his music box.

Bart emerged from the world of fifties British rock 'n' roll, where he wrote tunes for Tommy Steele and others. The Oliver! score, which is no doubt well-known to the reader, can be used to illustrate the varied song types he used in his musicals. There are the strongly emotional ballads ("As Long As He Needs Me," "Where Is Love?"); the knockout rousers ("Consider Yourself," "Food, Glorious Food"); and more traditional musical comedy songs ("You've Got to Pick a Pocket or Two," "I'd Do Anything"). These titles are mentioned only to give the reader an idea of the variety of the score of Blitz!

Blitz! opened on May 8, 1962 — which is to say, before Oliver! made it to Broadway. The show might be described as Abie's Irish Rose set against the burning of Atlanta; in more specific terms, it was Carrie's Cockney Alfred set against the Blitz. This presumably had a strong impact, as the World War II attacks were still a very recent London memory. The show inevitably suffered from comparison with Oliver!, which was already well into its record-breaking 2,618-performance run. The specificity of the setting, along with the accents of the characters and the outsized running costs, worked against the prospects for trans-Atlantic transfer. Even so, Blitz! played a respectable 568 performances. The cast album is mighty delicious, with Bart displaying the same scope as in his earlier hit.

This was a massive musical, with a stageful of scenery (from design genius Sean Kenny), actors and songs. Not having seen the show, I can imagine how it might have been a somewhat overloaded entertainment. The original cast CD, which has now been re-released by EMI, offers no less than 22 tracks. (The original LP was supplemented during the run of the show with another record, containing three songs that didn't fit on the first. This combined and complete Blitz! was first issued on CD in 1991.)

This is the spot where I list the songs I like, except there are too many of them. Using the Oliver! model from above, we can single out the ballads ("Far Away," "The Day After Tomorrow"), the knockout rousers ("Down the Lane," "Who's This Geezer Hitler?") and the musical comedy entries ("I Want to Whisper Something," "Opposites"). But this list leaves out "Another Morning," "Mums and Dads," "Who Wants to Settle Down?" and more. So let's just say, Blitz! is as enjoyable a pre-Webber West End score as you're likely to find.


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