Bart was born Lionel Begleiter on August 1, 1930. Bart's parents and six older siblings were survivors of the Holocaust out of Austria and resided in the East End of London. When Lionel Bart was six a teacher told his parents that he was a musical genius. His parents gave him an old violin. Bart did not have the drive he needed to be a successful musician and gave up music in favor of art. At 16, he received a scholarship to St. Martins School of the arts but found himself expelled for behavior and he gave up his ambition to be a painter. However, he took jobs in silk-screen printing works and commercial art studios before doing a stint with National Service in the Royal Air Force.
Later he began earning a living as a graphic designer and as a scene painter in the theatre His work led to acquaintance with the actors and singers for whom he began to write songs. It was around this time, while passing St. Bartholomews Hospital on the bus that he decided to change his name to Bart.
In the early 1950's he joined the Communist Party and arranged a cabaret for the left-leaning International Youth Centre. In 1952 he wrote, the annual IYC review with a story about Robin Hood and for the leftist Unity Theatre he wrote the lyrics for a version of Cinderella.
Bart now moved on to work writing lyrics and comedy for a number of groups. One of the most popular was Tommy Steele, of whose backing group, The Cavemen, Bart became virtually an honorary member. He also was a musical scribe for the Sunday lunchtime BBC radio program The Billy Cotton Band show. His success was rewarded. He earned three Ivor Novella Awards in 1957, four in 1959, and two in 1960. He was also named Show Business Personality of the Year winning the Variety Club Silver Heart. But Bart truly longed to write for the theatre. In 1958 he finally staged his first musical, Wally Pone (a Cockney version of Jonson's Volpone). Bernard Miles at the Mermaid took notice of Bart at this time and commissioned him to write the lyrics to Laurie JohnsonÕs music for Lock up your Daughters. After writing both music and lyrics for another hit show, Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be, he wrote No.1 hits for both Cliff Richard (Living Doll) and Anthony Newley (Do You Mind?).
On June 30, 1960 his signature work, Oliver!, opened at the New theater in London. The musical was an immediate success. A New York version of the play opened on January 6, 1963, and was a Broadway hit, earning Bart a Tony Award. The long-running play had two successful revivals in 1967 and 1977. Bart found it impossible to repeat the staggering success of this show. Blitz! in 1962 and Maggie May in 1963 were comparatively moderately successful but nowhere near the triumph that was Oliver!
His success was temporarily restored with the success of the 1968 movie version of Oliver! The movie received a whopping 12 Academy Award Nominations and won in 6 categories including Best Picture and Best Music.
Bart was a pivotal figure throughout the swinging London scene of the 60's, although he maintained that the party actually started in the 50's. Bart befriended Brian Epstein, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, became an international star following Oliver!'s success as a film (winning six Oscars), and, although he was homosexual, was romantically linked with Judy Garland and Alma Cogan.
By the end of the 1960's Bart's dependence on drugs and alcohol began to rule his life and diabetes took hold of his health. The next two decades saw little of his work save a few contributions to The Londoners and Costa Packet. The burlesque of the Robin Hood legend Twang! was a disastrous failure in 1975, but Bart continued writing up to his death. During this time the gutter press was eager for a kiss-and-tell story but Bart remained silent, a credible action considering the sums of money he was offered. During the late 80's Bart finally beat his battle with alcohol, gained control over his diabetes and ended the decade a saner, wiser and healthier man. His renaissance started in 1989 when he was commissioned by a UK building society to write a television jingle. He again was awarded for his immense talent with the 1986 Ivor Novella Award for life achievement.
The early 1990's saw revivals by the talented National Youth Theatre of Oliver!, Maggie May and Blitz! His profile continued on a high with the inclusion an early song, "Rock With The Caveman", in the blockbuster movie The Flintstones, performed by Big Audio Dynamite. In December 1994 Lionel Bart's fame and talent were resurrected when producer Cameron Mackintosh presented a new major production of Oliver! at the London Palladium. In a gesture rarely seen in the world of show business, Mackintosh returned a portion of the show's rights to the composer (Bart had sold them during the bad old days), thereby assuring him an "income for life". Lionel Bart succumbed to a long bout with cancer and died on April 3, 1999.