Leslie Bricusse, prolific songwriter for stage and screen, dies at 90

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Leslie Bricusse, prolific songwriter for stage and screen, dies at 90
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

by Neil Genzlinger

NEW YORK, NY.- Leslie Bricusse, a composer and lyricist who contributed to Broadway hits like “Stop the World — I Want to Get Off” and “Jekyll & Hyde” and popular films like “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” and “Goldfinger,” died Tuesday. He was 90.

The BBC said his agent had confirmed his death. News accounts said he died in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France, where he had a home.

Bricusse’s songs, many written with actor and singer Anthony Newley or other partners, were recorded by a vast range of vocalists. Among the first was Sammy Davis Jr., who, when performing in London in 1961, saw the Newley-Bricusse show “Stop the World,” which had just opened in the West End, and became an ardent fan. He garnered a Top 20 hit in America in 1962 with his version of a song from that show, “What Kind of Fool Am I?”

A decade later Davis would take Newley and Bricusse (pronounced BRICK-us) to the top of the charts when he recorded a largely unnoticed song from the film musical “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” with the Mike Curb Congregation. (The film had been released the previous year to negative reviews.) The song was “The Candy Man,” and it reached No. 1 on both Billboard’s pop and easy listening singles charts, the biggest hit of Davis’ long career.

Another song from “Willy Wonka,” “Pure Imagination,” has been recorded by numerous artists, among them Josh Groban, Maroon 5 and Barbra Streisand. Shirley Bassey had a Top 10 hit in 1965 with “Goldfinger,” the title song from the 1964 James Bond movie, for which Bricusse and Newley wrote the lyrics to John Barry’s melody. Another Bond film, “You Only Live Twice,” featured a title song by Barry and Bricusse that was sung by Nancy Sinatra and recorded later by many others.

One of Bricusse’s biggest, and earliest, hits in his native England was a song that some listeners may not have even realized he had a hand in: “My Old Man’s a Dustman,” a chart-topping novelty number recorded by Lonnie Donegan in 1960. Bricusse wrote it with Donegan and Peter Buchanan but used a pen name, Beverly Thorn, “because I was worried about it being down-market,” as he told The Telegraph of Britain in an interview in January.

When Bricusse published a memoir in 2015, “Pure Imagination: A Sorta-Biography,” one of its several forewords was written by his friend Elton John.

“His catalogue of songs is enormous — his achievements endless,” John wrote. “Anyone who has written ‘What Kind of Fool Am I?’ and ‘My Old Man’s a Dustman’ should be revered for ever.”

Leslie Bricusse was born Jan. 29, 1931, in London.

“I fell in love with the idea of writing songs when I was a child,” he told The Herald of Glasgow in 2016. “I thought I was going to be a journalist at first, but I gradually fell in love with all these great writers like Irving Berlin and Cole Porter, who were at the peak of their powers then. The great thing about them as well was that they were literate, and wrote story songs.”

As an undergraduate at the University of Cambridge, he was active in the drama club Footlights, writing and directing musical comedy shows. Beatrice Lillie, a star of the day known for offbeat musical comedy, saw his work and was impressed, hiring him to be her comic foil in a show she was performing at the Globe Theater, “An Evening With Beatrice Lillie.”

“Auntie Bea sort of adopted me,” Bricusse told The Sunday Express of Britain in 2017.

In 1961 he was working for Lillie when Newley approached him about collaborating on what became “Stop the World,” a show about an Everyman character named Littlechap and the lessons he learns from birth to death. Bricusse had free use of Lillie’s apartment in New York, and Newley joined him there from England; they wrote the show in four weeks (or, in another telling by Bricusse, eight days).

“We had a nice thing of it in New York,” Newley told The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1961. “Pleasant flat, no one to bother us. It went like cream.”

The show, with Newley starring, opened at the Palace Theater in Manchester, England, in June 1961 and then hit London, where it caught on, propelled by strong songs like “Gonna Build a Mountain” and “I Wanna Be Rich,” in addition to “What Kind of Fool Am I?” It opened on Broadway in October 1962 and ran there for more than a year.

The two men followed that with “The Roar of the Greasepaint — the Smell of the Crowd,” an allegory in revue form about class struggle in which Newley again starred; it also made Broadway, in 1965. Decades later, Bricusse had two other Broadway successes: “Victor/Victoria” (1995), for which he wrote the lyrics (as he had done for the 1982 film on which it was based), and “Jekyll & Hyde” (1997), for which he wrote both the lyrics (Frank Wildhorn did the music) and the book. That book earned him a Tony Award nomination, his fifth.

He was equally successful in the film world, and not just for songs. He wrote the screenplays as well as the music for “Doctor Dolittle” (1967) and “Scrooge” (1970), among other films. He later adapted both into a stage musicals. His song “Talk to the Animals” from “Doctor Dolittle” won him an Oscar, and he shared an Oscar with Henry Mancini for “Victor/Victoria.”

In an interview this year with NPR’s “All Things Considered,” Bricusse recalled that when he visited the set during the filming of “Willy Wonka” he was struck by the contrast between the treatment it was receiving and the slick production being filmed on a neighboring soundstage: “Cabaret.”

“I was a bit nervous about the amateur style of our show compared with the professionalism of Bob Fosse,” the director of “Cabaret,” he said.

The critics, too, found “Willy Wonka” a bit amateurish, but it developed a following over time, especially once it began turning up on television and the music filtered into popular culture.

Davis’ hit version of “The Candy Man” was one of some 60 songs he recorded that Bricusse wrote or co-wrote. One of Bricusse’s more recent projects had been a musical about Davis’ life and career. A version of it was staged at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego in 2009, and Bricusse had been continuing to refine it.

Bricusse’s survivors include his wife, actress Yvonne Romain, and a son, Adam.

In a 2015 interview with the London publication The Stage, Bricusse talked about how he and Newley, who died in 1999, worked.

“When I write a song, I hear the music and words at the same time — one suggests the form of the other,” he said. “And Tony was exactly the same. We would sing at each other across the room; it was a very bizarre, unofficial way of writing songs.”

He was nonchalant about his ability to work with a wide range of other writers and composers.

“I’m a good collaborator: I haven’t ever fallen out with any of them,” he said. “Though there have been one or two tricky ones that I won’t name.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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