Soundtrack Producer Mike Matessino remembers Academy Award-winning composer, lyricist and songwriter who collaborated with John Williams on several projects including Superman, Home Alone and Hook
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Composer, lyricist, librettist Leslie Bricusse (1931-2021) is one of the most talented and versatile musicians who worked in movies and musical theatre in the second half of the 20th century. His gift both for melody and catchy lyrics kept his works popular throughout the decades. Bricusse is well known to fans and admirers of John Williams for their collaborations on such pivotal and successful projects as Superman: The Movie (1978), Home Alone (1990) and Steven Spielberg’s Hook (1991), but also for the film musical Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969), for which Williams did a magnificent work of adaptation, arrangement and orchestration of Bricusse’s lovely song score.
Leslie Bricusse passed away suddenly last October at the age 90 and we tribute his memory and his artistic achievements with this podcast episode featuring Film Music Producer and Historian Mike Matessino, who worked on several restorations of Bricusse’s scores (Doctor Dolittle and Goodbye, Mr. Chips, among others) and was also a personal friend, offering an in-depth overview of Leslie’s career, his most important works and his collaborations with John Williams.
Born and raised in London, Leslie Bricusse showed inclination and prowess for theatre and music from an early age. He attended University College School and Caius College, Cambridge. At Cambridge, he was president of both the University Footlights Revue and the Musical Comedy Club. While there, he composed his first musical and worked for several years as a screenwriter before seeing some of his songs become British pop hits in the late 1950s. In 1961, he started a unique and fruitful artistic partnership with actor, singer and songwriter Anthony Newley for the innovative hit musical Stop the World – I Want to Get Off. Some of the songs in the show (“What Kind of Fool Am I?” and “Once in a Lifetime”) became popular hits and were later recorded by such singers as Sammy Davis, Jr. In 1962, Bricusse collaborated with composer Cyril Ornadel on the musical Pickwick and then reunited with Newley for The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd (featuring the song “Feeling Good,” subsequently immortalized by black American female singer Nina Simone), which was welcomed with great acclaim by the London audience. Newley and Bricusse (who nicknamed themselves as “Brickman and Newburg”) then started to write songs together for the movies as well, including the now-iconic “Goldfinger,” for the eponymous 1964 James Bond film score composed by John Barry.
The success in London’s West End and on Broadway soon brought Leslie Bricusse and Tony Newley to Hollywood, where they were assigned to work on an original film musical based on Doctor Dolittle. The film was produced by Arthur P. Jacobs for 20th Century Fox and was an ambitious project in every department. Bricusse provided a lovely and inspired song score, which was adapted and richly orchestrated by Alexander Courage (together with a team of Hollywood’s finest arrangers and orchestrators, including Herbert Spencer and Arthur Morton, and Bricusse & Newley’s regular collaborator Ian Fraser), under the supervision of 20th Century Fox’s music department head of Lionel Newman.
Despite the failure of the movie at the box office, the soundtrack was a massive success, garnering Gold Record certificates and three Academy Award nominations, winning the statuette in the Best Original Song category for the now-classic “Talk to the Animals.”
While working on Doctor Dolittle, Bricusse fraternized with the lively Fox music department and became friends with the various talents working at the studio at that highly creative time, which included composers John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, Henry Mancini, André Previn, Quincy Jones, arrangers Sandy Courage, Herb Spencer and Arthur Morton, music editors Ken Wannberg, Kenny Hall and Len Engel. He was asked to pen lyrics for title songs in several films scored by the above-mentioned composers, including Two for the Road (1967, music by Henry Mancini), You Only Live Twice (1967, John Barry), The Sand Pebbles (1966, music by Jerry Goldsmith) among others, and of course John Williams (see below for a brief excursus on their collaborations).
During the 1970s Bricusse composed an outstanding score for the original screen musical Scrooge (1970, adapted and arranged by Ian Fraser with Williams’ regular orchestrator Herbert Spencer) for which he received two more Academy Award nominations; in 1971, he wrote with Anthony Newley songs for Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, which achieved a true cult status in the subsequent years and features some of Bricusse’s most popular and enduring creations (“Pure Imagination” and “The Candy Man,” the latter of which became a huge hit in the version sung by Sammy Davis, Jr.).
In the following years, Bricusse continued to work for both films and the stage. In 1983, he won his second Academy Award for Victor/Victoria, with music by Henry Mancini; he penned lyrics for another Mancini project in 1985, Santa Claus: The Movie (directed by Jeannot Swarcz and producer by Alexander and Ilya Salkind of Superman fame); for the theatre, he contributed the book and lyrics for Frank Wildhorn’s long-running Broadway version of Jekyll & Hyde (1997) and worked on commercially successful stage adaptations of his existing screen hits, bringing Victor/Victoria to Broadway and Doctor Dolittle to London’s West End.
On October 29, 2001, he was awarded the OBE for services to the film industry and the theatre from Queen Elizabeth II at a Buckingham Palace investiture ceremony; in 2015, he released a memoir entitled “Pure Imagination: A Sorta-Biography,” with a foreword by Sir Elton John. He died peacefully at his home in St. Paul-de-Vence on October 19, 2021, after living an incredibly charmed, rich life.
The Williams/Bricusse Connection
The first collaboration between Leslie Bricusse and John Williams was for a song featured in the comedy film How To Steal a Million (1966), directed by William Wyler and starring Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole. It was one of the first major high-profile studio projects for Williams and, according to many people who were around at that time, the score showed already the composer’s prowess at writing sophisticated yet tuneful music for motion pictures. Bricusse’s lovely lyrics (“Two Lovers”) complement Williams’tuneful romantic melody.
After How To Steal a Million, Bricusse provided lyrics for two other songs written by Williams, namely for Penelope (1966, directed by Arthur Hiller) and A Guide For The Married Man (1967, directed by Gene Kelly). Subsequently, Bricusse then went on to write an original song score for a film musical based on Goodbye, Mr. Chips, with John Williams in the role of the musical supervisor, arranger and adapter of Bricusse’s songs. The film, directed by Herbert Ross and starring Petula Clark and Peter O’Toole, features an astounding musical score, in which Bricusse’s melodies and tunes are masterfully adapted and orchestrated by Williams. The end result left Bricusse so highly impressed that he truly felt that John Williams elevated the songs to a whole new level. Williams received an Academy Award nomination as Best Adaptation Score for his work on Chips and the success of the score paved the way for more important projects, while also cementing his artistic partnership and personal friendship with Leslie Bricusse.
Listening closely to Williams’ brilliant arrangements in Chips, you can definitely hear hints of many works of the subsequent decade and even beyond. The shimmering “Overture” that opened roadshow presentations of the film was rediscovered and recorded by Keith Lockhart with the Boston Pops Orchestra for a 2017 album mostly focused on lesser-known John Williams’ compositions for the movies.
Bricusse and Williams re-teamed for “Can You Read My Mind”, a.k.a. the Love Theme from Superman: The Movie (1978). Originally planned as a song to be featured in the film, “Can You Read My Mind” encountered a great success in its various pop arrangements for singers of the era, especially in the version sung by Maureen McGovern and released as a single tied with the film. Despite Bricusse being disappointed that the song didn’t end up in the film, “Can You Read My Mind” remains one of his loveliest and most lasting creations.
In 1990, Bricusse provided lyrics for two songs featured in the film Home Alone (“Somewhere In My Memory” and “Star of Bethlehem”) after John Williams realized the two themes he composed for the film had potential to be turned into Christmas carols for the modern era. The huge box office success of the movie, helped greatly by Williams’ inventive and inspired musical score, garnered Williams and Bricusse an Academy Award nomination as Best Original Song for “Somewhere In My Memory”. The composer and the lyricist collaborated again also for the film’s sequel Home Alone 2: Lost In New York (1992), with Bricusse writing lyrics for two more Christmas-themed songs, “Christmas Star” and “Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas.”
Williams and Bricusse worked together also for Steven Spielberg’s imaginative adaptation of the Peter Pan myth Hook(1991). For the project, they wrote a number of original songs that were originally meant to be filmed, as the movie was supposed to be a musical at some point of its production, but the idea was discarded during the filming and only three songs survived in some form in the final film. Nevertheless, Williams kept the melodies as the basis of many of the score’s leitmotives and one of songs (the touching lullaby “When You’re Alone”) got an Academy Award nomination, coronating once more the fruitful collaboration between Williams and Bricusse.
The collaboration between Leslie Bricusse and John Williams remains a very important piece in the careers of both men, who have been touched not just by success, but first and foremost by creativity, inspiration and a great deal of joy and love for their art.
Thanks to Mike Matessino for his kindness and generosity.
Leslie Bricusse official website: https://lesliebricusse.com/
Pure Imagination: A Sorta-Biography by Leslie Bricusse is available on Amazon.com