Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



Librettist Alain Boublil (b Tunis 1941) and composer and co-librettist Claude-Michel Schönberg (b 1944), the most successful composers of musical shows of modern times after Andrew Lloyd Webber. Boublil worked for a music publisher; they met in 1967 after he heard one of Schönberg's pop songs on the radio; inspired by Jesus Christ Superstar, their brash rock version of the French Revolution did well at a Paris sports stadium in the early 1970s. When Boublil saw Oliver! (produced by Cameron Mackintosh) the Artful Dodger reminded him of Hugo's street urchin: their Les Misérables ran for twelve weeks in Paris '80, had a recording, was rewritten and opened at the Barbican in London '85, soon moving to the West End, and had grossed £800m at box offices around the world by mid-'96 (22 companies in 27 countries in 14 languages); it is a doomy, gloomy play with a great many corpses but had the strength of being played by actors who could sing. Schönberg is an opera fan, and saw Miss Saigon as an update of Madame Butterfly (with a famous helicopter landing on stage, either coup de théâtre or meaningless bombast depending on taste); the shows are not operas, he says, but have an operatic structure. Miss Saigon opened '89 and was said to be reaching £600m by mid-'96 when Martin Guerre opened in London. Martin Guerre cost £4m to put on; it was extensively rejigged in the autumn. Lyricist Herbert Kretzmer (who had replaced poet James Fenton on Les Mis and became wealthy for 'additional dialogue') and Bill Brohn (who had orchestrated Miss Saigon) had both bowed out and lyricist Stephen Clark added, like his colleague Edward Hardy a graduate of the Stephen Sondheim masterclasses at Oxford U. The original story (filmed '83 with Gérard Depardieu, '93 with Richard Gere) had been rewritten and the critics didn't like the show, but then they hadn't liked Les Mis either.

In general, critics find the words and music unmemorable; writer Philip Furia misses 'the love of language itself -- the playfulness with words that goes back via Wodehouse to Gilbert. Maybe the spectacle of the shows frees the lyricist from having to create verbal spectacle.' The problem may be the necessity of translation, but Johnny Mercer, Gene Lees and others have done good translations for the stage; still, a few of the songs have begun to reach cabaret status, and there is no doubt that audiences find the shows moving. Sheridan Morley of The Spectator was one who did like Martin Guerre, and said that the rejig was even better: 'We are, the show tells us, all Martin Guerres: impostors on the run from family or war or just ourselves, and easily bullied into being whoever our loved ones and their neighbours would most like us to be that morning.' There were two other shows on the subject, one opening briefly in Hartford CT '93 and The House Of Martin Guerre by Canadian composer Leslie Arden in Chicago '96, but the composers of Les Mis will probably clear the field. Producer Sir Cameron had a disaster with Moby Dick '92, but also produced Lloyd Webber's Phantom Of The Opera, still going strong around the world; Guerre was costing $50,000 a week to keep going at a time when he was negotiating to buy seven West End theatres. He also overhauled the cast of Les Mis in NYC '96, who had been in the parts for years and were literally getting too old for them. Lloyd Webber said '96 that the handwriting might be on the wall for blockbuster musicals because they're becoming too expensive to put on; see his entry.

[Herbert Kretzmer (b 5 October 1925, South Africa; d 14 October 2020, London) was a TV critic for a British tabloid who became a very wealthy celebrity through his work on Les Mis.]