By Marlo Ihler
Les Misérables may quite possibly be the most well-known musical in modern history, but its creators certainly did not dream of this when they began writing it in 1978. Alain Boublil (French librettist), Claude-Michel Schönberg (composer), and Herbert Kretzmer (English librettist) are attributed to creating this spectacular show that is known and loved around the world.
Lyricist Alain Boublil was born in 1941 in Tunis, Tunisia. At age eighteen he immigrated to Paris and worked in music publishing, where he first heard songwriter and recording artist Claude-Michel Schönberg’s music on the radio. Boublil had recently seen Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar, and became interested in composing for musical theatre. He used his connections in the music publishing industry to contact Schönberg to discuss collaborating.
Six months after their initial meeting in 1973, the two musicians had written twenty songs together for a new show. Three months later the show, La Revolution Française, the first-ever staged French rock opera, opened in Paris, with Schönberg in the role of King Louis XVI.
Schönberg, who was born in 1944 in Vannes, France, grew up wanting to be an opera composer, and later said he had never even considered writing for the theatre. “Musical theatre didn’t really exist in France like in London or the U.S. It was complete madness to write La Revolution Française” (American Theatre Wing podcast: Downstage Center, interview with Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, May 4, 2007).
Boublil and Schönberg then began collaborating on pop songs. In 1974, Schönberg recorded an album of his own music that included the number one pop song in France, “Le Premier Pas.” Then a series of projects followed that never came to fruition. However, a few years later, when both Boublil and Schönberg were looking for a theme for a new musical, Boublil saw a revival of Oliver in London (produced by none other than Cameron Mackintosh, a name that didn’t mean anything to him at the time). From this production, Boublil got the idea of staging Victor Hugo’s epic novel Les Misérables (Edward Behr, “The Complete Book of Les Misérables,” 1989, p. 50).
Schönberg was immediately on board with the idea, and in 1978 left his record company job to dedicate his full attention to the project. “All our friends told us we were completely mad to stop writing pop songs,” said Schönberg (Downstage Center interview).
Boublil said concerning the project: “It was . . . a monumental, monstrous piece . . . to dare compress the world-famous epic novel into a piece of musical theatre. We were scared to tamper with it in any way. In any case we knew we had to kick the idea around for weeks if not months, talking about it . . . discussing the book aimlessly but with an ultimate purpose, to see whether it would work as a musical or not, and whether the gods would be on our side” (Behr, 50).
Schönberg wrote the music first; then Boublil added lyrics, with assistance from poet Jean-Marc Natel. Together it took two years to create a two-hour long demonstration tape of what was the first version of Les Misérables. This led to a 1980 Paris production at the Palais de Sports, a sports arena, that was seen by half a million people (Behr, 51).
After years of revision and hoping for another production of the show, an auspicious meeting with mega-theatre producer Cameron Mackintosh in 1983 resulted in a longer, restructured, more fleshed-out version that was set to premier in London, co-directed by Trevor Nunn and John Caird. James Fenton, English poet and a London Sunday Times drama critic, originally started work on translating the French version into English. He worked on a prologue, but ultimately was replaced by Herbert Kretzmer who finished the project (Downstage Center interview).
Kretzmer, veteran songwriter, lyricists, drama critic, and television critic for London’s Daily Mail, took a year to write the English version for the London production. When asked about his experience, he said he did not see himself as a translator, but “as a co-writer” (Interview by Al Sheahan for The Barricade Magazine, 1998). He indicated his English version was approximately “a third rough translation, a third rough adaptation, and a third original material” (“Stage by Stage: The Making of Les Misérables,” 1988 television documentary; viewed on youtube.com). Many feel Kretzmer’s lyrics bear equal responsibility for elevating the show to the classic it has become (The Barricade Magazine interview).
Les Misérables opened in London at 1985, and later on Broadway in 1987. The musical has been unbelievably successful, grossing nearly $2 billion worldwide, seen by over fifty million people, and winning numerous awards including eight Tonys, five Drama Desk Awards, and a Grammy (“Stage by Stage” documentary). The Broadway production holds the record for the third longest running musical in Broadway history, behind Cats and The Phantom of the Opera. It closed on May 18, 2003, after 6,680 performances.
Boublil and Schönberg went on to write other musicals together including Miss Saigon in 1989 (for which they were nominated for two Tonys), Martin Guerre (1996), The Pirate Queen (2007), and Marguerite (2009), with lyrics by Kretzmer.
Boublil, who lives in London and has four sons, has also written Abbacadabra, a musical based on ABBA songs; The Diary of Adam and Eve, a play based on short stories by Mark Twain; a novel called Les dessons de soi; and a stage adaptation of Jacques Demy’s film Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (www.playbillcom).
Schönberg also lives in London and has three children. Additional compositions include a ballet version of Wuthering Heights (2001) and the ballet Cleopâtra (2009). He also oversaw the six-month revival of Les Misérables on Broadway in 2006 (www.last.fm/music/Claude-Michel+Schönberg/).