Tonight I’ll play violin in “Oliver!,” one of my favorite musicals, my affection for it dating back to 1977 when Hoover High School performed the show and my younger brother and two friends were on the stage crew. I glimpsed the inner workings of theater as cast and crew produced magic, and I entered that world of magic in 2000 when I joined Carnation City Players as a pit musician. Over the years I’ve played violin, mandolin, guitar and even ukulele at CCP, and tonight I return after a three-year absence to accompany Fagin as he ponders his future and Nancy as she declares her love for the most despicable of thieves.
Lionel Bart based the musical “Oliver!” on Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist,” a portrayal of the dregs of London taken from real life. A biography by May Lamberton Becker says Dickens “taught himself shorthand and became the best reporter in all England. … He had seen Oliver Twist’s London as a young reporter on police-escorted rounds of slums, thieves’ kitchens and night-shelters; he had visited it when he took poorhouses unawares and went through at mealtimes without giving notice, or when he had watched unseen, through the little window of the condemned cell at Newgate, the drawn, desperate features of some doomed wretch within.”
Dickens wrote in the preface to the “Charles Dickens” Edition, published in 1867: “It has been observed of Nancy that her devotion to the brutal housebreaker does not seem natural. And it has been objected to Sikes in the same breath — with some inconsistency, as I venture to think — that he is surely overdrawn, because in him there would appear to be none of those redeeming traits which are objected to as unnatural in his mistress. Of the latter objection I will merely remark that I fear there are in the world some insensible and callous natures that do become utterly and incurably bad. Whether this be so or not, of one thing I am certain, that there are such men as Sikes, who, being closely followed through the same space of time and through the same current of circumstances, would not give, by the action of a moment, the faintest indication of a better nature. …”
“It is useless to discuss whether the conduct and character of the girl seems natural or unnatural, probable or improbable, right or wrong. IT IS TRUE … there is not a word exaggerated or over-wrought.”
“Dickens’ works are characterized by attacks on social evils and inadequate institutions, topical references, an encyclopedic knowledge of London, pathos, a vein of the macabre, a delight in Christmas, a pervasive spirit of benevolence and geniality, inexhaustible powers of character creation, an acute ear for characteristic speech, a strong narrative impulse, and a prose style that, if sometimes overdependent on a few comic mannerisms, is highly individual and inventive,” says Merriam-Webster’s Encyclopedia of Literature.
“Oliver Twist” was published serially from 1837 to 1839 in “Bentley’s Miscellany” and in a three-volume book in 1838. “The novel was the first of the author’s works to depict realistically the impoverished London underworld and to illustrate his belief that poverty leads to crime.”
This passage from the beginning of “Oliver Twist” illustrates Dickens’ humor and facility with words: “The fact is, that there was considerable difficulty in inducing Oliver to take upon himself the office of respiration, — a troublesome practice, but one which custom has rendered necessary to our easy existence; and for some time he lay gasping on a little flock mattress, rather unequally poised between this world and the next: the balance being decidedly in favour of the latter.”
Tonight I’ll practice respiration and ponder violin fingerings while Fagin speculates on his future, and I’ll enjoy being a small part of theater, helping to present magic and a look into the human condition.
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