Perfect Poor Decision: “Reviewing the Situation” from Oliver!

It was somewhere around third grade when I fell in love with Oliver!, the musical made from the Dickens classic Oliver Twist. I’m not entirely sure how it came to my attention, but it was likely the 1968 film version. It was slightly before Kenny Rogers, Willie Nelson, and Johnny Cash would spark my interest in country music, and several years before the Beatles and Rush would usher me into rock and roll. My musical tastes at this point were limited to anything the Muppets did, and the Oliver! soundtrack. I was thrilled when my parents bought me the vinyl for Christmas, and I remember driving home from the mall knowing it was in a bag with the rest of the presents they had bought. I think I may have even been bold enough to ask them if I could have it as an early Christmas present. Such was my love for the music that I risked my parents returning the album in punishment for a chance to spend a few more weeks listening to it.

There was a certain grit to these characters and their environment. I grew up in a rural area, and the biggest city I had visited at that point was either nearby Rochester or Utica, where my grandparents lived. I had a vague sense that the action took place some years ago, but to my tiny, inexperienced mind, the London of Oliver! might as well have been Straight Outta Compton. But there were real life stakes here (unlike in my cartoons, people actually died in this world), and the characters were a lot more complex than most anything else I was watching.

Fagin was a particular favorite. He was a thief and a weasel, but he seemed to honestly care for the kids in his little criminal cadre. At least he did to me as a naïve little kid watching the film. It’s a debatable characterization, and there’s less proof for it in the book than the movie, even without the racial concerns I wouldn’t understand for years. But compared to terrifying Bill Sikes, Fagin was a comforting presence. I could not have put it in words then, but I was compelled to watch good and evil battle within this character, which played out in the end in the song “Reviewing the Situation.”

Just as much as any country song I would be drawn to in just a year or so, “Reviewing the Situation” is a map of someone making the wrong choices. It had to have been one of the first times where I, as an audience member watching a story unfold, was aware of a character making a tragic mistake, where the right path – to straighten up and get out of the criminal life – was obvious to everyone but the character, who after all could not help himself.

It’s a basic tenant of drama – there wouldn’t be very many books, movies, or songs if people always did the right, smart thing. And I wonder how influential this might have been to my still-hardening skull discovering the power of storytelling. But watching this even now, I still agonize a bit for Fagin, knowing what lies ahead for him (yes, I am conscious of spoilers for Oliver Twist here, which is probably ridiculous but now burned into me after writing about TV for a while).

Here’s Ron Moody in the 1968 film, singing the version that was likely my introduction to the song.

And here’s the version I had on vinyl, from Oliver! The Original Broadway Cast Recording. It is sung by Clive Revill, who shares top billing here with Georgia Brown as Nancy. On a side note, Revill did the voiceover for Emperor Palpatine for the character’s original appearance in The Empire Strikes Back, before being cut in favor of Ian McDiarmid for the special edition DVDs.

On another side note, I can’t help but think of this song every time I watch Fargo. Carter Burwell’s instrumental soundtrack does a fine job evoking the sparseness and isolation of the characters and their surroundings, but it also echoes a bit of the melody of “Reviewing the Situation.” If this was at all on purpose on Burwell’s part (which seems unlikely), it would be brilliant, considering how fatal indecision, or poor decisions, are in the script. Take a listen to the main theme and see if you hear what I hear.

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