Generally, when one goes to the theatre, it is in expectation of a good time, perhaps a few laughs and certainly some fantastic singing, all conditioned on a happy tale.

Oliver! is a show of a different tone.

Based on the Charles Dickens tale of an orphaned boy in 19th Century London, the stage show does not shy away from the harshness of life, abusive relationships or pickpocketing on the streets of London.

Still, it has wowed audiences in the UK and internationally, so much so that, since its opening night at London’s West End in 1960, it has enjoyed several revivals. It was even adapted to film!

Today, your Superprof takes a break from all of the giddy, feel-good shows that have graced the stage to review a tragic story that reflects perhaps the worst of humanity.

Keep those tissues handy; you may shed some tears!

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Synopsis of Oliver!

Clive Revel did not play a gentleman in Oliver!
Clive Revel was a most excellent Fagin in the musical Oliver! Source: Wikipedia Credit: Harvey Sabinson

Day’s end at the workhouse; the story opens on streams of starving, dishevelled boys. Served only a thin gruel and knowing that is all the food there will be, they dream about glorious food as they slurp every last drop from their bowls.

Oliver has the temerity to ask for more. Instead of a second serving of mean food, he is told to gather his meagre possessions. Mr Bumble then sells him to the local undertaker, ostensibly to be apprenticed.

Waking from an uncertain night spent in a coffin, Oliver has no chance to acquaint himself with the household before another apprentice insults his late mother. As Oliver takes him to task, the undertaker’s wife and daughter arrive on-scene.

Repulsed by this urchin’s violence, they intend to return him to the workhouse but, in the confusion, Oliver gets away. Thus begins his life on the streets.

He falls in with a gang of petty criminals; soon, he too begins a life of crime but, when Dodger and Bates leave him holding the bag after picking a wealthy man’s pocket, it’s up to Fagin and Bill to bring him home.

Coincidence can be a strange beast: the wealthy old man that the Dodger had robbed was the grandfather Oliver did not know he had and did not know had been searching for him.

With greed aplenty, the workhouse keepers respond to a newspaper ad advertising a reward for any knowledge of Oliver’s whereabouts.

Mr Brownlow, the wealthy old man who is Oliver’s kin, questions their motives – clearly, they have no interest in the boy’s welfare, only the promised reward. Disgusted, he throws them out.

Nancy, the long-suffering wife of gang-leader Bill Sikes, regrets her life lived wrong. She has grown to care deeply about Oliver and, seeing a chance for him to escape a poor life, approaches the wealthy old man herself.

They agree to meet on London Bridge so she can bring him his grandson but her abusive husband suspects her of something…

He follows Nancy and Oliver and, when the time is just right, he clubs her to death and runs away with the boy. Oliver’s grandfather, so close to meeting the only family member he has left, is shocked to instead discover Nancy’s lifeless form.

Soon, Bill appears at the top of London Bridge with Oliver, proclaiming to the crowd below that he will murder the child. The police, sneaking up on Bill, shoot him dead and return Oliver to his grandfather.

By no means is this an uplifting story like The Lion King.

Differences from the Original Tale

Presumably set in Victorian England, the story actually takes place a few years before Queen Victoria ascends to the throne, during King William IV’s reign.

One could never accuse Charles Dickens of penning lighthearted fairy tales with happy endings; even the enormously popular A Christmas Carol wraps fundamental human goodness in a blanket of often cruel reality.

However, unlike other popular musicals, Oliver! is not uplifting; there is no sense of triumph over adversity.

His tales tend toward the elaborate; for that reason, musical author Lionel Bart opted to leave many sub-plots out. For instance, Mr Monks, so vital to the story’s final twist (no pun intended) does not feature in the show at all.

His villainous acts were added to Bill Sikes’ and Fagin’s, making the original character superfluous. Mrs Mann, Rose Maylie and Harry don’t feature in the musical, either.

The Dickens novel that this show derives from has been seen as antisemitic because of the handling of ‘the Jew Fagin’ – portraying him as evil and sneaky.

Lionel Bart, who wrote the music and lyrics for the show, gave that central character more of a comedic turn, making him more sympathetic. That may also be why, contrary to the book’s ending in which Fagin is hanged, the show sees him contemplating turning his life around.

Likewise, the Artful Dodger, a fairly active character throughout the book and in the first part of the show, rather fades from view in the second act… unlike the novel, where he is sent abroad to a penal colony.

The idea of Bill using Oliver as a hostage is not a part of the original story; it came from the 1948 film directed by David Lean.

In the book, Mr Brownlow is not Oliver’s grandfather; rather, there is a tenuous connection between him and the boy’s father that filters through nearly the entire cast before the boy and his benefactor are brought together.

A similar situation plays out in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables and is likewise omitted from the stage show.

The workhouse boys sing of glorious food in their dreadful conditions
The boys of the orphanage sing Food, Glorious Food as their opening number in Oliver! Source: Wikipedia Credit: from the Broadway playbill


It’s not uncommon for any stage show to have a bit of strangeness; Oliver! had its share.

Lionel Bart composed the magnificent score entirely in his head. He did not know how to write music so he hummed the entire show to a piano player who wrote it for him and also arranged the orchestrations.

In the original London show as well as on Broadway, Davy Jones played the Artful Dodger. He was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical but gained fame only later, as a Monkee.

Steve Marriott and Phil Collins also took turns at playing Dodger!

Georgia Brown (Nancy), Ron Moody (Fagin) and others averred that there was plenty of friction during the show’s original run; many of the cast members simply did not get along.

In a strange twist, Mr Bart was compelled to sell all rights to Oliver!, present and future, because he had fallen on hard times. He only gained £350 from the sale. The buyer later sold those rights for £250,000!

When the show arrived in America, complete with already-painted sets and brickwork, the American set designers were distressed at their garishness. With just hours to go before showtime, the painters were still hard at work, revamping the scene.

They continued working through the performance and even took a bow with the cast at the end of the show. Reviews favoured the ‘London painters’ but subsequent critics wondered why they had been cut from the show.

Join the discussion: should Hamilton be considered a break from traditional musical fare because some of its songs are rapped rather than sung?

Production History

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens was published as a serial novel in a monthly magazine; it took 26 months for the entire story to see the light.

In a sense, you could say the stage production mirrored the original story’s publication.

It opened in London in June 1960, running for more than 2,600 performances. It was choreographed by Malcolm Clare and directed by Peter Coe. Costumes and scenery were designed by Sean Kenny.

Before playing on Broadway in the US, the show opened in Los Angeles to generally favourable reviews. When it finally made it to Broadway, it only ran for 774 performances. Some of the London cast, Davy Jones among them, featured in the Broadway show.

And then, a year after the Broadway show closed it enjoyed a revival – 64 additional performances.

London’s revival of this Dickensian adaptation came nearly 20 years after the original show’s run but made use of the original sets, which were still intact. In 1983, it was revived in London yet again over the Christmas season, after which it moved back to Broadway.

International adaptations a Dutch version and a Japanese one; it met with particular success on Australian stages, too.

Today, Oliver! Is often performed in schools across the UK; indeed it has become a favourite of the school musical genre.

Furthermore, the story was made into a film in 1968 and, unlike other works of Charles Dickens, it is the musical rather than the original tale of that was produced.

The Phantom of the Opera met with the same situation: the musical rather than the original story was made into a film.

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Dickens serialized tale, Oliver, became a hit musical
Oliver and his gang of thieves revived at the Drury Lane Theatre Royal in 2009 Source: Wikipedia Credit: Expressing Yourself

Awards and Recognition

Plenty of Dickens novels have been made into shows and films but none received quite the accolades that this terrible tale of orphans and pickpockets has.

From the table below, you can see that whipping a starved orphan and committing burglary is apparently not that repugnant when told through the magic of musical theatre.

And let’s not forget the abuse heaped on Nancy!

Oliver Twist was Dickens second novel and, like his other works, a brutally honest look at life in pre-Victorian England but, unlike in The Pickwick Papers, humorous elements fail to appear in Oliver Twist.

Unlike the musical Chicago, so outrageous a show that one can't help but laugh!

We should credit Lionel Bart for eliminating some of the more grotesque and pathetic elements – not sending Fagin to the gallows, for instance.

He leaves in just enough to make the story both credible and enduring; the hallmark of an excellent show.

Just see for yourself!

Table of Awards for Oliver!

Year and LocationAwardCategoryResult
London Revival 1994

Lawrence Olivier AwardBest revival
Best director
Best Actor
Best Actress
London Revival, 2009Lawrence Olivier AwardBest revival
Best actor
Best Choreographer
London Revival, 2009What's Onstage AwardsBest revival
Best actor
Best supporting actor
Best supporting actress
Best takeover of a role
Original Broadway ProductionTony AwardBest musical
Best leading actor
Best leading actress
Best featured actor
Best original score
Best producer
Best director
Best conductor
Best scene design
Broadway revival, 1984Tony AwardBest Lead Actornominated

Now discover the magic of Cats, Andrew Lloyd Webber's masterpiece...

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