Leslie Bricusse: One of Britain’s best-loved composers

His talent for composition, lyrics and screenwriting made him a triple threat in Hollywood (Shutterstock)
His talent for composition, lyrics and screenwriting made him a triple threat in Hollywood (Shutterstock)

Leslie Bricusse, an Oscar-winning composer and lyricist who enchanted children with his musical confections for Doctor Dolittle and Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, seduced their parents with the crooner standards What Kind of Fool Am I? and Who Can I Turn To? and helped write the title song to the James Bond film Goldfinger, has died aged 90.

Born in London, Bricusse parlayed his precocious theatrical success at Cambridge into an early career writing sketches and music for stage and TV. His most important partnership began in 1959 with British actor-singer Anthony Newley, a one-time child star he described as a platonic “soulmate”.

They collaborated on two splashy and long-running 1960s stage musicals, the Tony-nominated Stop the World – I Want to Get Off and The Roar of the Greasepaint – the Smell of the Crowd. The shows were career-making hits on London’s West End and Broadway, and produced top 40 songs including “What Kind of Fool Am I?” (for Sammy Davis Jr) and the plaintive “Who Can I Turn To? (When Nobody Needs Me)” (for Tony Bennett).

Amid a resurgence of grand-scale Hollywood musicals, thanks to the popularity of Mary Poppins (1964) and The Sound of Music (1965), Bricusse was invited to write the screenplay and songbook for Doctor Dolittle (1967) – a task that made him a rare triple threat in Hollywood as a composer, lyricist and screenwriter. The musical, starring Rex Harrison, ran longer than two-and-a-half hours, returned less than half of its $17m (£12m) cost and was a notorious flop. Nonetheless, it brought the composer an Oscar for his song “Talk to the Animals”.

Harrison initially baulked at what he considered a “silly song”, Bricusse recounted in his 2015 memoir, Pure Imagination!

“And you are aware, of course, that ‘rhinoceros’ does not rhyme with ‘of courseros,’” Harrison said. “It does,” the composer replied, “if you pronounce it ‘of cos-eros.’”

Bricusse and Newley worked on Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, a 1971 film adapted from Roald Dahl’s children’s book and starring Gene Wilder. Although it was not a box-office hit, the film earned Bricusse and Newley an Oscar nomination for best song score.

The movie eventually found a devoted audience, thanks in part to numbers such as “The Candy Man” – a No 1 hit for Davis – and “Pure Imagination”. The latter song had Wonka telling wide-eyed kids, over a lush string lullaby, “If you want to view paradise / Simply look around and view it / Anything you want to, do it / Want to change the world? There’s nothing to it.”

Bricusse was recruited to the Bond franchise by English-born composer John Barry, who had written the series’ main theme and was a regular at the Pickwick Club, the star-studded London restaurant that Bricusse co-founded.

Their first venture was Goldfinger (1964), which brought Shirley Bassey a top 10 hit as she sang with her thundering voice the memorable lines Bricusse cowrote with Newley: “Goldfinger, he’s the man / The man with the Midas touch / A spider’s touch / Such a cold finger / Beckons you to enter his web of sin / But don’t go in.”

Bricusse with actor and singer Newley (ANL/Shutterstock)
Bricusse with actor and singer Newley (ANL/Shutterstock)

Three years later, Bricusse penned the lyrics for another Bond title song composed by Barry, “You Only Live Twice”, which was performed by Nancy Sinatra. In a 2006 appraisal in The Daily Telegraph, arts critic Mark Monahan described the lyrics “You only live twice, or so it seems / One life for yourself, and one for your dreams” as “mysterious, romantically carpe diem ... at once velvety, brittle and quite bewitching”.

The first of Bricusse’s Oscar-nominated collaborations with composer John Williams came in the 1969 film musical Goodbye, Mr Chips, starring Peter O’Toole as a British classics instructor whose life is upended by the lively young woman he marries.

Bricusse later provided words for the Williams-composed “Can You Read My Mind?” which Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane speak-sings to the Man of Steel in Superman (1978); the Oscar-nominated yuletide carol “Somewhere in My Memory” from Home Alone (1990); and the Oscar-nominated “When You’re Alone” from Steven Spielberg’s Peter Pan film Hook (1991).

In addition to his songwriting, Bricusse wrote the screenplay and Oscar-nominated score for Scrooge, a 1970 adaptation of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. The film starred Albert Finney as the title character, who evolves from mumbling the miserly “I Hate People” to belting out a jaunty “Thank You Very Much”.

Bricusse also contributed lyrics to Henry Mancini’s compositions in the musical film Victor/Victoria (1982), which starred Julie Andrews as a struggling singer who chases success by pretending to be a man impersonating a woman. The songwriters shared an Oscar, and the music was reprised in a successful Broadway production, again featuring Andrews, which ran from 1995 to 1997. (Bricusse and Mancini shared an Oscar nomination for their original song “Life in a Looking Glass” from the 1986 film That’s Life!)

In 1997, Bricusse received a Tony nomination for best book of a musical for Jekyll & Hyde, for which he also wrote lyrics to accompany composer Frank Wildhorn’s music.

“As with crossword puzzles, there is only one correct answer to the selection of every word of a lyric – the elusive mot juste – that one and only word in the entire language that expresses exactly, not approximately, whatever it is that you and the lyric are trying to convey,” Bricusse wrote in his memoir. “And it is not merely what the word means – it is also what it sounds like.”

Don Black, Shirley Black, Leslie Bricusse and Evie Bricusse attend the Broadway opening night of ‘Wonderland – Alice Through A Whole New Looking Glass’ in New York City in 2011 (Getty)
Don Black, Shirley Black, Leslie Bricusse and Evie Bricusse attend the Broadway opening night of ‘Wonderland – Alice Through A Whole New Looking Glass’ in New York City in 2011 (Getty)

Leslie Bricusse was born in London on 29 January 1931 and grew up in the suburb of Pinner. His father worked in newspaper sales, and his mother was a homemaker.

He recalled that his family made weekly trips to the local movie theatre and that his musical education began with “obligatory schoolboy piano lessons”. During Second World War air raids, he would entertain his classmates with made-up stories.

While trudging through two years of required army service, Bricusse was drawn one evening to the piano-playing of a fellow soldier. “On a wild, possibly wine-induced impulse, I volunteered – the only time in my entire army career I ever volunteered for anything – to try to put a lyric on it,” he wrote in his memoir.

He honed his craft at the University of Cambridge, where he wrote and performed in musical comedies in the Footlights Dramatic Club before graduating in 1954.

His first full musical on campus, Lady at the Wheel, attracted the attention of the London press and West End producers, as well as stage star Beatrice Lillie, who invited the college student to write, direct and perform in a new show with her.

Bricusse grew to hate acting in the year-long, 400-performance run that followed, but Lillie introduced him to the rarefied reaches of show business, and he soon had a contract with Pinewood Studios to write screenplays.

In 1959, he sought out Newley, by then a popular singer, to see whether he might record some of his songs. The two struck up an immediate friendship, and almost impulsively decided to write songs together. “We had a rare rapport, a wavelength all our own,” Bricusse wrote in his memoir, “and above all, we made one another laugh.”

Bricusse led an energetic social life. Peter Sellers, Michael Caine, Stephen Sondheim, Mia Farrow, Elton John and Roger Moore were among his friends. He drank with Paul Newman and lunched with actress Sharon Tate two days before she was murdered by members of the Charles Manson cult.

His wife of more than 60 years, actress, Yvonne Romain, known as Evie, was the inspiration for his song “My Kind of Girl” (from Stop the World). Survivors include his wife, son and two grandchildren.

In his autobiography, Bricusse described the art of songwriting as an exercise in craft and luck.

“Songs are like women or cats – fascinating, elusive, seductive, irresistible, infuriating, moody, demanding and contradictory creatures,” he wrote. “The writer pursues them like some phantom fantasy – fascinated, intrigued and desperate to find out what they’re really like. They should be approached with caution and respect – especially at night. The more promising and beautiful they appear, the harder they may be to catch.”

Leslie Bricusse, composer and playwright, born 29 January 1931, died 19 October 2021

© The Washington Post

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