By the mid-sixties, Barry had more or less mastered every genre of popular music, bar one. He dearly wanted to crack the stage musical too.
In fact, he was reported to have started work on a musical adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel ‘Brighton Rock’ as early as September 1964. Greene had not only given permission for its use, but had also agreed to help in the lyric writing alongside Wolf Mankowitz. Persuading the Boultings to relinquish their hold on the film rights was muted at the time to be the only stumbling block. Barry, a huge admirer of Greene, worked on the idea at length and had already written several songs before it was eventually shelved. He was soon to discover just how serious Greene was in his intent on collaborating to the point where the author insisted on working on three of Barry’s melodies; however, it didn’t take Barry long to realise that as a lyricist, Greene made a great novelist. In one of life’s more awkward moments, Barry had to delicately explain to Greene how his wonderful rhymed prose did not necessarily cut it as song lyrics. They were simply not concise enough. Fortunately, Greene took the criticism well. The one insurmountable problem, as Barry saw it, was basing an entire production on one extremely despicable character, ‘Pinkie’. Regrettably, the production never transpired, although it remains a project dear to Barry’s heart to this day.
Back in 1965, Barry quickly overcame any lingering disappointment he may have felt over ‘Brighton Rock’, by signing up to write an entirely different type of musical, ‘Passion Flower Hotel’, which opened at the Prince of Wales, London in August of that same year. Even though it was subjected to mixed reviews and only ran for six months, it did include two or three excellent songs. Critics generally could not decide who was to blame for this rather short run. The Sunday Telegraph under the heading 'Silly and smutty', thought that ‘Barry seemed more at ease writing the production numbers for Peter Gordeno's lively hot foot if derivative choreography than the melodies for Trevor Peacock's static, repetitive, clumsily contrived lyrics.' On the other hand, Hugh Leonard, writing in Plays and Players thought Peacock ‘a most talented lyricist who leaves the composer, John Barry, lagging behind.' Leonard disliked almost everything about the show, and was particularly scathing about Francesca Annis, one of the female leads: 'There is only one solo song number in the course of the evening. This goes unaccountably to Francesca Annis, who either cannot or will not sing or dance. She seems to loathe the show, and goes through the evening very much on her dignity, being a good sport about the entire nasty proceedings.'
Leonard did enjoy two of the songs, 'What a Question' and 'I Love My Love', but even these were ruined for him by 'the appalling amplification system in the Prince of Wales. Herbert Kretzmer, for the Daily Express liked Annis version of 'How Much of the Dream Comes True', but complained in general about the quality of all the singers. The show featured many young actors and actresses who have since made their mark, including Jeremy Clyde, Nicky Henson, Jane Birkin (who became the second Mrs Barry), Pauline Collins and a very young Michael Cashman, who was later to become well known through BBC TV's EastEnders and is now an MEP! Barry thought years later that a certain over confidence could have been the trouble. An original stage cast LP was released as part of Barry’s new recording deal with CBS, together with a single adapted from the show and released under Barry’s name. ‘The Syndicate’ was a storming brassy big band instrumental at which he has always excelled.
It wouldn’t be for another five years before Barry would be wooed back into musical theatre and this was due largely to Katharine Hepburn’s inadvertent intervention. She revealed to lyricist Alan Jay Learner how he shared with Barry a mutual liking for the children’s tale, ‘The Little Prince’. During the course of their discussion, Lerner wondered whether Barry would consider collaborating on an entirely different project under development for the American stage, a musical version of Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’, with the working title ‘Lolita My Love’. They met in London during May 1970 over the possibility, but with Barry heavily committed to scoring films, they bounced around a few ideas and then left it at that. It took until October for the bulk of the writing to truly begin. In this instance, around ninety per cent of the music was written first, once tempo, mood, title and attitude had been finalised. Lerner then added lyrics, which was in complete contrast to the way in way Rodgers and Hammerstein always worked.
‘Lolita My Love’ proved to be a disastrous experience, as Barry would later confirm: "We opened in Philadelphia on February 16th, 1971 to very bad reviews, and closed on February 27th." The cast returned to New York for a month to review the wreckage, before the show resurfaced with changes in script and personnel at the Schubert Theatre in Boston on March 23rd; it closed five days later. The anticipated Broadway opening at the Mark Hellinger Theatre never transpired and, not surprisingly, nor did a planned original cast album for Columbia Records. Despite this, some of the songs were later recorded, notably 'Going Going Gone' by Shirley Bassey and 'In the Broken Promised Land of Fifteen' by Robert Goulet. A couple of non-commercial recordings on the Mediasound label featuring those two songs and ‘How Far Is It to the Next Town?’ also surfaced. Then, quite unexpectedly, an album was released in 1987 featuring a complete recording of one of those performances at the Schubert in Boston. Since it was recorded unofficially through the theatre's sound system, the quality is by no means perfect, but it gives a fair indication of the style and nature of the show.
It became a case of ‘third time lucky’ for Barry, when, in 1974, his collaboration with Don Black on ‘Billy’ provided him with the success denied him in the past. Barry first conceived the idea of staging a musical version of Keith Waterhouse’s novel, ‘Billy Liar’, in 1971. His friend and lyricist Don Black recalls: "John was always going on about the book, saying how great it was, so we re-read it all, ran the film and I had to agree it was marvellous. A great story and very funny, which is a thing I miss in musicals these days; you don't get much humour."
Convinced they had amassed enough material, the two networked furiously to secure the best production team available. At this stage Barry also did the next best thing to actually putting up money himself, by securing the rights from the play’s authors, Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall. He then persuaded Michael Crawford to take on the title role, Peter Witt to produce and then hired top TV scriptwriters Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais to adapt the play for a musical setting. With Patrick Garland drafted in to direct - fresh from a recent collaboration with Barry on the film A Doll's House - an extremely promising team was complete.
Barry and Black spent the best part of 1973 determined to perfect the songs by retreating to Barry’s half-finished villa in Majorca, so that they could write more easily in splendid isolation. "We’d get up around six or seven in the morning and work very hard in separate rooms before having late lunch. Then we’d talk things over," explained Barry. As partnerships go, this was a flexible one, with inspiration likely to emanate from either music or lyric. "You go through several phases. There are areas where it is obvious where songs should go. Then there are also highly technical areas where there is no real need for a song, and yet the structure requires music to make an idea work. What we have come up with is a traditional musical as opposed to something like ‘Hair’, ‘Godspell’ or ‘Jesus Christ superstar’," Barry added.
‘Billy’ opened for a three-week trial run at the Palace Theatre, Manchester on Monday, 25th March, 1974, for which Barry brought in orchestrator Bobby Richards and musical director Alfred Ralston. The show opened to rapturous reviews, and was to run for two years at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. It was given a Royal Gala Premiere in the presence of Princess Margaret on Monday April 29th, two days before its official first night.
Critics were unanimous in their praise of Michael Crawford in the lead role, and this time the music, in the majority of cases, seemed to be everything they were looking for.
For the Daily Express, Herbert Kretzmer wrote: "The songs are always suitably dashing or sentimental, always right for the moment, if lacking any obvious hit. ‘Some of Us Belong to the Stars’ is one of the show's best songs. For Michael Crawford the title is prophetic." The Guardian noted in particular, "John Barry's catchy score and Don Black's pointed lyrics".
Jack Tinker in the Daily Mail praised almost everything about the show, but neglected to mention the music. Milton Schulman, in the London Evening Standard, felt that "John Barry's music was more practical than melodic, though I suspect that songs like 'Billy' and 'I Missed the Last Rainbow' could catch on. Don Black's lyrics were sharp and bright."
The original cast album issued by CBS in the UK was awarded a silver disc; its popularity reinforced by Sony’s decision to reissue the album on CD and cassette in the early nineties. Ambitious plans to take the show to Broadway failed to bear fruit, although from time to time, press reports alluding to proposed revivals and revisions continue to surface.
In November 1987, when working with Mort Shuman on Budgie, Don Black again brought up the subject of a revival: "We never did anything with ‘Billy’ originally. It never went to America; it never went anywhere. It was just one of those things. Somehow we all got involved in different projects and we didn’t pursue it. But plans are now at an advanced stage to revive it. We've got some exciting thoughts about recasting, and I really think it could happen all over again." However, in 1989, Black admitted to the difficulty in finding someone suitable to play Billy, a problem first raised in public by Barry in a radio interview two years earlier.
Nonetheless, in 1989, original director, Patrick Garland, remained optimistic about a proposed revival. He envisaged the show being brought up to date to enable the young English comedian and singer also Gary Wilmot to play the lead. Although this particular plan fell by the wayside, a new National Youth Music Theatre production did run for two weeks at the Edinburgh Festival in 1992. Black and Barry wrote two new songs, 'My Heart Is Ready When You Are' (a duet for Liz and Billy) and 'One Man Can Make a Difference' (sung by Billy). TV comedian Andrew O'Connor took the lead in the hope that this would attract West End investment, but a lingering recession and the recent failure of other musicals combined to put the venture on ice once more.
Barry’s most recent stage musical project was The Little Prince and the Aviator, in 1981. This was an adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s fable about an airman, forced to make an emergency landing in the Sahara Desert, befriending a small boy who had been transported there himself by birds from another planet. Sadly, this Barry/Black collaboration was aborted before it was due to open at the Alvin Theatre on Wednesday, January 20th 1982.
Negative reaction to production previews led to a poor demand for tickets and when producer A Joseph Tandet ran into financial difficulties, the musical’s premature demise was sealed. Unusually for a production of this kind, finance was raised by the formation of a public company, Little Prince Productions Ltd, selling 750,000 shares to the public at two dollars each. Very soon, confidence in the project became undermined by the criticism, leaving the musical well and truly grounded. Anthony Rapp was to have played the title role alongside Michael York as Toni (the aviator) and Ellen Greene as Suzanne. This was not the only attempt at a musical version of the book, for Alan Jay Lerner, whom you may recall discussed this very idea with Barry eleven years earlier, managed to get there first in 1974. Regrettably, his film version proved equally as unsuccessful.
Now, in 2003 comes the news that Barry & Black are working on their third musical together, Brighton Rock. Almost 40 years on from Barry’s first attempt, we must hope for a much more satisfactory conclusion!
For a much more detailed look at Barry’s musicals, buy our book, John Barry – The Man with the Midas Touch, published in 2008.