Culture: Theatre

Interview: Robert Chevara

Robert Chevara - image: Stephanie Humphries

The King’s Head Theatre makes history this month as it presents not only its first ever musical, but the world premiere of Lionel Bart’s little-known Quasimodo. Alex Hopkins caught up with director Robert Chevara to find out more about the tormented composer and the masterpiece that he never got a chance to see performed.

Quasimodo has never been performed before. Tell me about the history of Lionel Bart’s score and what audiences can expect.

The music is so beautiful. It’s Bart’s darkest, most intense work and is full of passion and longing. We’re discovering it as we go along. There was a tape of it in the 90s, which was basically just a sing through of nine or ten songs. None of the book had been written and it was just strung together with a written narrative to sell to producers. Unfortunately, it didn’t sell to anyone. They only did a few of the songs on the recording. I think it was the wrong moment for it and it didn’t ignite for some reason. When we got the material there was only a vocal line and a piano line for a lot of it. Because Bart died in the middle of redoing it all what we’re doing is a totally new show.

Why does this piece and Lionel Bart appeal to you?

I’ve been obsessed with Bart since I was 11. I don’t know if it was because he was working class, gay, an outsider who lost all his money – but his story is a potent one – the most successful British writer of musicals who lost everything and ended up living in LA, taking a lot of drugs and trying to forget that he was ever famous. He came back to England and couldn’t get a break, couldn’t get any shows on and then, just before he died, Cameron Mackintosh gave him some of the royalties back from the Sam Mendes’ production of Oliver at The Palladium.

Bart sold the rights to his work to Max Bygraves for just £2000 in the 1960s, when he was totally off his head, and Bygraves then sold them on a year later for £500000. Bart never got a penny from his back catalogue. He sold the rights for all the material he wrote for Cliff Richard and Tommy Steele and never got anything from it. I think I was attracted to him for the same reasons I was attracted to Tennessee Williams – he was a total outsider looking in on society. He couldn’t read music and would hum it into a tape recorder and get someone to orchestrate it for him. That kind of mad genius is very interesting to me. You can hear his yearning and hurt in the score of Quasimodo.

How did you go about obtaining the rights to the show and bringing it to the King’s Head?

After I directed Tennessee Williams’ Vieux Carre Adam Spreadybury-Maher (Artistic Director at the King’s Head) asked me if I’d like to direct something else. They’d never done a musical and he said he’d like to do something English. He suggested a few things and I said I wasn’t really keen on them. I then went to see the Bart estate apropos something else. I got on very well with the guy who ran the estate and told him something in Bart’s soul of writing spoke to me. He suggested Quasimodo and gave it to me to take away and listen to.

What was your instinctive reaction on hearing the score?

I rang the estate back the next day and said I really loved it, but that it needed a lot of work. The book had been written by Chris Bond, who wrote the original play that Sweeney Todd was based on. I asked if I could cut, rewrite and paste it around and he said I could. I rewrote half of the book. I’m quite a good show doctor and as I read it to myself I could see what would and wouldn’t work. I made it clear to the estate that I wouldn’t change a word of Bart’s lyrics. Nothing has been cut there.

Can you give me an example of some of the changes that you made?

I had to put one of the most imnportant plot pieces in it. There’s a religious fanatic who hates gypsies because her daughter was stolen by one. She calls Esmeralda a witch and is instrumental in having her hung. Just before she’s hung, however, the woman finds out that Esmeralda is her daughter. There’s a lullaby that the woman sings and Bart never finished it because he died. I had to find the piece in another bit of music that I could slow down, do at half time and turn into a song for a soprano. I also had to doctor some other tunes and make a trio into a duet, but it was a total pleasure. When we had the read through I could hear it with the cast for the first time and see whether it worked or not and it brought tears to my eyes. Everyone of the cast is amazing. They inhabit the parts really well and understand the subtlety of the piece.

Bart is best known for his score for Oliver. How different is the music in Quasimodo?

It has that same life enhancing thing, that joy of living which Consider Yourself or Oom Pah Pah has, but there’s also a darkeness and a desire which isn’t really in any of his other pieces. It’s definitely his most complex work. We’ve scored it for an accordian, piano and clarinet. You can hear, like in all his work, the Yiddishness in the music and he gives that gypsy flavour to it which we’ve really pointed up.

Tell me about the central character of Quasimodo. How does he reflect Bart’s real life story?

Stevie Webb plays Quasimodo and he is moving, clever and breaks your heart. We all have in our minds Charles Laughton who played Quasimodo in the film as a kind of ruined clown of an old man. But actually, in the book the character is only 18. He is like a young bull, a minotaur. There’s a sexuality to him as well as being King of Fools. He snarls at the rest of the cast and is like a monster that they’re afraid of taming, so they decide to destroy him.

Bart certainly identified with the character. He was a working class man in the middle class world of theatre. He felt he was ugly and that his success wasn’t his, but belonged to someone else. He felt totally unwanted and unloved and put all of that pathos into Quasimodo.

Lionel Bart didn’t come out until much later in his life. How did this affect him?

He didn’t and he was utterly tortured by it. He would pick up East End rent boys who would rob him and he thought that was all he deserved. He paid for sex with blokes who weren’t available to him which, of course, for all of us is a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s like being attracted to straight men – in the end all you’re going to get is one particular, damaged type of relationship.

He only came out just before he died. I met him once at the first benefit for THT, which was a production Things Ain’t What They Used To Be. He was as drunk as a lord and with some pretty boy who was a bit of rough trade, I think.

This self-destructive impulse seems to be quite common in gay artists…

Don’t you think it’s true even for straight artists too? I am thinking of Judy Garland, who Bart was best friends with. It’s that whole thing of getting yourself up there, singing, taking quaaludes, going home and not being able to come down. But whatever that spark of inspiration was for these people when they got on stage they were totally mesmeric.

My dad was gay and came from that closeted time in the 50s and he was absolutely tormented. He hated himself and thought any man attracted to him was not a real man, like Quentin Crisp. And I think Bart was the same.

Words: Alex Hopkins

Kings Head Theatre

20 March – 13 April

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