Rex Harrison expressed grave doubts about ‘Talk To The Animals’. ‘It’s such a silly song,’ he opined.
‘That’s because it comes from a silly story,’ I pointed out.
‘And you are aware, of course, that “rhinoceros” does not rhyme with “of courseros”,’ he added.
‘It does if you pronounce it “of cos-eros”,’ I said.
‘Well, I don’t,’ he said. ‘I pronounce it “of course-eros”! Because that is English, you see, and Doctor Doolittle and I happen both to be and to speak English.’ He sounded like Henry Higgins at his most waspish and cantankerous, in a scene cut from My Fair Lady.
‘It’s a humorous song’, I ventured.
‘A humorous song is meant to be funny,’ countered Rex. ‘This isn’t funny.’
‘We’re playing with words,’ I said.
‘Oh, God protect me from fucking puns,’ he snorted. ‘Silly schoolboy stuff. Anyway, that’s not the point. The point is that it doesn’t fucking rhyme!”
This is just one of the vivid memories recalled by Leslie Bricusse in his just published book, Pure Imagination. The author describes the work as a “sorta-biography” and it is clear why: this is no dry as dust account of the life of one man; rather, it is a jolly, fascinating, and often revelatory wander through another time, when ‘the social life in Hollywood was sybaritic, hedonistic heaven’. You learn about Bricusse by what he does, with whom he works, where he goes. His pungent, vivid observations of and recollections about the foibles of others is captivating, but also enlightening about the kind of man Bricusse is and was.
As would be expected for a man who has penned lyrics for some of the greatest tunes in the repertoire, Bricusse’s style is assured, comfortable and brimming with devilish fun. He deftly sums up people and places, all the while making you feel you might have just been at the next table. He uses words as others breathe air – and he always uses the right words, just as, he explains, good lyric writing demands.
The book is laid out like a sorta-score. There is an Overture, large chapters which form ‘the key changes of (Bricusse’s) life’ – from A Minor to G Undiminished and a Coda. The sense of musicality is all pervading, as it should be for the man responsible for tunes such as Goldfinger, The Candy Man, Feeling Good and Talk To The Animals. As Elton John puts it in one of six Superstar forewords: “Anyone who has written What Kind Of Fool Am I? and My Old Man’s A Dustman should be revered forever.”
As he openly admits, Bricusse is a glorious name-dropper; there is an Overture about it. In the space of four paragraphs in the C Sharp chapter, he drops fifteen of them. But this is not pretentious – it’s just a reflection of the glamorous circles in which he constantly moved, the stars who were his daily companions.
It also turns out to be one of those important reminders that stars are just people, well-known and adored maybe, but people nevertheless. Tales of Ava Gardner running from the press, Sean Connery up a tree, or Yvette Mimeux’ pet, a peeing adult she-jaguar: all are tales of life, not of stars.
The narrative covers many fields: from Bricusse’s efforts to set up a meeting between Stephen Sondheim and the Beatles in London so that Sondheim could discuss music with Lennon, through tales of a slightly tipsy Rachel Roberts barking like a dog and trying to get the gig of supplying animal voices in Doctor Dolittle, and the endless secretive damage done by David Merrick to Pickwick prior to its Broadway opening, to training Barbra Streisand in an impeccable English accent for the film of On A Clear Day You Can See Forever, meeting a young Anthony Newley on a cruise ship, finding Liza Minnelli asleep with a cheese platter balanced on her bosoms, and an audience with God (aka Cole Porter) secretly arranged by the wonderful actress Beatrice Lillie. Stars and stories abound.
Brickman and Newberg, as Bricusse and Newley call themselves while seeking to infiltrate the Jewish dominated musical theatre landscape in the USA, turn out to be a fine subject for a Buddy film or even a Jukebox musical. Add Joan Collins, whom Bricusse describes as only second to Sammy Davis Jnr in Olympian abilities to enjoy life, and the love of Bricusse’s own life, Evie, and you have a quartet of friends – bosom buddies indeed – who could be the centre for any film or musical.
There are moments of regret and pain as well as moments of hilarity and sheer joy. It’s Liza Minelli’s fault that Bricusse never penned lyrics for the title tune in An American In Paris. The night Sammy Davis Jnr entertained the actors of the London stage til 5am at a special industry Palladium show. Calling Rex Harrison’s bluff by accepting his resignation and casting Christopher Plummer as Dr Dolittle and then watching Harrison beg to be reinstated. Thoughts about the Tony Awards post Jekyll and Hyde. Regrets over being all but excluded from Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, despite the outstanding success of Willy Wonka the film. The glorious fun of filming Victor/Victoria. Petula Clark struggling to record the right version of “You and I”.
This is a celebrity sorta-biography that is almost Dickensian in its cast of colourful characters, gripping prose and thoughtful cogitations. Supremely readable and utterly engaging, it drips charm and style – and there is a golden thread of love that binds it all: love for life, love for Evie, love for friends, love for music and a love to laugh.
A hugely enjoyable treat.