Remembering the Jewish composer who wrote what might just be the most familiar theme song ever
A Jewish affinity for Asian culture may have been at the heart of the unforgettably churning, implacable “James Bond” theme music that has been heard in each installment of that blockbuster action film series.
Its composer, Monty Norman (born Noserovitch), who died July 11 at 94, emerged from humble origins in London’s East End, where his mother was a seamstress and his father a cabinetmaker. Norman became a big band singer employed by such conductors as Stanley Black (born Solomon Schwartz) and Nat Temple.
Norman began to write music for plays by his friend Wolf Mankowitz that captured the Jewish experience in London. One such was 1957’s “Make Me an Offer,” recalling Mankowitz’s days as an antique dealer. Another Mankowitz-Norman collaboration was “Expresso Bongo,” a 1958 satire of the U.K. pop music industry.
When Mankowitz penned the screenplay for the 1960 Hammer horror flick “The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll,” co-starring David Kossoff, an actor of Russian Jewish origin, Norman co-wrote the soundtrack music, as he did for the Mankowitz-scripted science fiction epic “The Day the Earth Caught Fire” in 1961.
That same year, the friends adapted a play about the English serial killer Dr. Hawley Crippen, and the resulting musical “Belle” baffled critics, before the days of “Phantom of the Opera” and “Sweeney Todd,” unprepared to see a murderer warbling onstage. Despite an enthused producer, Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, the show did not last long.
Later, for a 1976 TV miniseries, “Dickens of London,” about the life of the novelist who created the antisemitic character Fagin in “Oliver Twist,” Mankowitz as screenwriter again invited Norman to compose music.
But previously, in 1962, Mankowitz had fatefully introduced his friend Cubby Broccoli to Harry Saltzman, holder of the film rights to Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. When “Dr. No” was selected as the first Bond project, Broccoli enlisted Norman to write the film score.
Norman had recently abandoned an attempt at a musical adaptation of “A House for Mr Biswas,” a novel by the Trinidadian-born British writer V. S. Naipaul about a struggling Hindu Indo-Trinidadian journalist. Considering it unlikely that a musical with an all-Trinidadian cast would ever be staged in 1960s London, Norman nonetheless cherished a wheedling bit of Orientalia he had written in which the main character kvetches about his life.
The droning, yet obstinately advancing, music perfectly fit the menacing resolve of James Bond, especially in a movie with an Asian supervillain, Dr. No, played by the Canadian Jewish actor Joseph Wiseman.
Norman’s James Bond theme has imprinted itself in the world’s brainpan after being used in over two dozen Bond films. It is performed worldwide by aspiring student musicians, including several in Asia, which would seem to bring the cultural influences back home full circle. Yet among all the recordings of Norman’s “James Bond Theme,” perhaps the most unexpected, albeit pleasantly surprising, was by Count Basie and his orchestra.
Meanwhile, Norman’s career marched on. Even when “Dr. No” was being filmed, Norman was already planning another project, a musical about Mata Hari, the Dutch exotic dancer, courtesan and spy who was long incorrectly rumored to be Jewish. That was another Norman effort that never quite made it to the stage, although the composer energetically tried to persuade Sean Connery to make his musical debut singing opposite Vivien Leigh in the title role.
Norman’s 1979 musical “Songbook,” retitled “The Moony Shapiro Songbook” for its 1981 Broadway staging, was indeed produced. It told the story of a fictional Jewish songwriter who stops at nothing to be trendy, mimicking hits by George Gershwin, the Andrews Sisters, and other superstars. At one Mel Brooks-like moment, Moony Shapiro dresses up as Hitler and sings “You’re a Nazi Party Pooper, Jesse Owens,” about how an African American track star foiled Nazi aspirations for gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
Despite a New York cast featuring Jeff Goldblum and Judy Kaye, “The Moony Shapiro Songbook” was a flop, closing after only one performance and 15 previews. Its portrait of a schmendrick songwriter, in the dumps until a disco performer rescues him by revamping one of his old melodies, was quite unlike the trajectory of Monty Norman. Nevertheless, Norman did cash in from a 1997 remix of the James Bond theme by the American musician Moby. Despite the popularity of the result, Moby modestly insisted that it was inferior to the original version as heard in the Bond films.
Nor was Wolf Mankowitz the only English Jewish theatrical great to repeatedly collaborate with Norman, who was never overlooked like Moony Shapiro. “A House For Mr Biswas” was meant to be directed by Peter Brook, who died only recently at age 97, after a career of being inspired by Asian sources, including the “Mahabharata,” a Sanskrit epic of ancient India.
Peter Brook also directed the 1958 musical “Irma la Douce” with English lyrics by Norman, an adaptation of a French hit that later opened on Broadway and was adapted onscreen, minus the songs, by Billy Wilder. However, the Brook-Norman teamwork finished on an unhappy note with “Perils of Scobie Prilt,” billed as a “science fiction spoof musical” that had a short run in Oxford in 1963. As a biography of Brook notes, “Scobie Prilt” included a few secret agents to capitalize on the Bond craze, to no avail.
Instead, Norman found solace in a different musical, “Who’s Pinkus? Where’s Chelm?” presented as a “Jewish folk musical” in Edinburgh in 1966 and at London’s Cochrane Theatre in 1967. Based on Yiddish folktales about the “Wise Men of Chelm,” the book was by Cecil Philip Taylor, usually credited as C. P. Taylor, a Scottish Jewish playwright who expressed his progressive views in his works.
Taylor’s most prominent play was “Good” (1981), in which a liberal German professor becomes involved with Nazism through cowardice and corruption, while still thinking of himself as a beneficent character. In “Who’s Pinkus? Where’s Chelm?” Norman and Taylor followed the precedent of I. L. Peretz, Sholem Aleichem, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and other authors who delighted in the satiric stories ironically lauding as wise the dimwits who were, according to legend, numerous in Chelm, Poland.
The real Chelm, a center for Torah study, had nothing to do with this fictional location. These niceties did not escape the show’s director, Charles Marowitz, an American-born theater maven and frequent collaborator of Peter Brook. “Who’s Pinkus? Where’s Chelm?” starred Bernard Bresslaw, an English Jewish actor best remembered for playing hulking comic characters in the “Carry On” series of cinematic farces. Despite his substantial height and weight causing him to be typecast as a bulvan (a boor), Bresslaw was an erudite soul and devoted reader of poetry by Jean Racine and John Milton. He even published a volume of his own verse writings, “Ode to the Dead Sea Scrolls.”
Presented as a Brechtian spectacle with Norman’s songs commenting on the action after the fact, “Who’s Pinkus? Where’s Chelm?” explained how Issy Pinkus, played by Bresslaw, escaped poverty in his native shtetl to find fame and fortune in a neighboring town called Mazeltov.
Norman’s own fame and good fortune could be on occasion, like the martinis which James Bond preferred to imbibe, “shaken, not stirred” with theatrical setbacks, but always with discernable Yiddishkeit.