Barry succeeds in theater and TV

More obscure works attest to composer's ambition

With five Oscars on his mantelpiece, it’s easy to forget that John Barry has enjoyed success in other musical realms, notably the London stage and in both American and British television.

In fact, a revival of Barry’s 1974 musical “Billy” is now in the discussion stages. Based on the play and film “Billy Liar,” about a daydreaming young Yorkshire clerk, it ran for three years on the West End and made a musical star of Michael Crawford.

“There’s a lot of talk about it,” says Don Black, who wrote the show’s lyrics and who confirms that readings and workshops have recently taken place in London. “We have producers very keen to get it back up again.”

“Billy” was Barry’s biggest stage hit, but it never made it to Broadway. He had a minor West End success nine years earlier with “Passion Flower Hotel” with lyrics by Trevor Peacock. One of its songs, “How Much of the Dream Comes True,” was covered by Barbra Streisand.

“Lolita, My Love” (1971), based on the Vladimir Nabokov novel, closed in Boston before reaching Broadway. But this tuneful score, with lyrics by “My Fair Lady’s” Alan Jay Lerner and starring John Neville as Humbert Humbert, was a bold treatment of controversial source material. Broadway expert Ken Mandelbaum describes it as “a grand attempt at the impossible” in his book “Not Since Carrie.”

“I think for a musical it got too dark,” Barry says. “I loved it for every reason that they didn’t like it. But what are you going to do? They’re the ones that pay.”

Barry and Black reteamed for two other musicals after “Billy”: “The Little Prince and the Aviator,” based on the Antoine de Saint-Exupery classic (starring Michael York), which closed during Broadway previews in early 1982; and, more recently, a musical version of Graham Greene’s “Brighton Rock,” again with lyrics by Black. About a sociopathic killer in the 1930s, “Brighton” played for eight weeks at London’s prestigious Almeida Theater in 2004 but never progressed to the West End, and a revival seems unlikely.

“I think we did some great work,” Black says. “Unfortunately, there’s no album that you can reflect on and dissect, and the terrible thing is, these things all take a couple of years to do. It needs a very brave producer to take something that didn’t work and say, let’s have another go at it.”

Barry has had better luck on TV, occasionally penning series themes with impressive results. His catchy, waltz-time title track to “The Persuaders” (1971) rose to No. 13 to become one of the composer’s biggest U.K. chart hits.

“It’s a very memorable theme,” recalls Roger Moore, who co-starred with Tony Curtis in the adventure series. “I find it’s used all the time. It seems to come up in commercials and when a program is going to be a little bit about action, wham! There goes ‘The Persuaders’ music.”

The composer has even ventured into commercials, writing in the 1960s for White Owl cigars, Eastern Airlines and Sunsilk shampoo — a tune that was enough of a hit with the British public to be recorded as “The Girl With the Sun in Her Hair.”

More typical were Barry’s scores for prestige telepics. “It’s still motion pictures,” Barry points out. “It’s just a different environment.”

Among his best efforts were the two “Eleanor and Franklin” minis from the mid-1970s and three projects starring Katharine Hepburn: “The Glass Menagerie” (directed by Anthony Harvey), “Love Among the Ruins” (directed by George Cukor and co-starring Laurence Olivier) and “The Corn Is Green” (also directed by Cukor).

All are distinguished by Barry’s characteristic lush writing and a lyricism that is affecting without being manipulative, but “The Glass Menagerie” is particularly notable for its solo-piano score, performed entirely by Barry.

“It really captured the loneliness, and the whole sort of feeling of Tennessee Williams’ play,” director Harvey says. “John just sat down and played it. That’s what we wanted, and that’s what he did. Like all his themes, it also has a tuneful quality about it. He always writes music that sticks with you.”

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