Though Alain Boublil has co-written some of the most epic contemporary musicals of our time, including Les Misérables and Miss Saigon, his latest project, a subtly affecting play with music entitled Manhattan Parisienne, is a much smaller, more intimate project, and one that's near and dear to his heart.
Manhattan Parisienne begins performances Dec. 18 at 59E59 Theaters' intimate Theater C in a production directed by Graciela Daniele that stars Boublil's wife, Marie Zamora, who originated the role of Cosette in the Paris production of Les Misérables. The play, a modern-day romance set on a rainy New York day, depicts the chance meeting of a French singer named Eve and an American piano player named Adam, whose relationship evolves in unexpected ways throughout the course of a fantastical day in a Manhattan bar. Also featured in the cast are Randy Redd, Jeremy Cohen and Stephen Zinnato.
The play utilizes pre-existing songs from the French and American songbooks, including songs by Jacques Brel, Michel Legrand, Charles Aznavour, Harold Arlen, Cole Porter and the Gershwins, among others, to tell its original story. Boublil recently sat down with Playbill.com to speak about his brand-new play, as well as Les Misérables, Miss Saigon and Martin Guerre, shedding light on the genesis of Manhattan Parisienne but also the evolution of his most enduring shows over the years.
What was it in particular that inspired you to write Manhattan Parisienne?
Alain Boublil: What inspired me was the frustration of both Marie Zamora, my wife, who has played some of the greatest musical theatre parts in Paris and London, having been the original Paris Cosette, coming here — because we decided to move here for the children. She made that sacrifice, and obviously I could see how frustrated she was, because she couldn't audition for all the parts she would have auditioned for in France. At the same time I was seeing the frustration of so many young American actors and musicians who can audition for everything they want but have so much difficulty in between roles, and I found that very stressful. And the idea that there was something common to Marie's frustration and some of the young men and women that I've met over all the auditions that I've been doing here for Les Misérables and for Miss Saigon made me think that maybe there was some subject here. While I was trying to write a kind of cabaret evening for Marie and a young American singer, which would mix the kind of songs she was singing when she was on tour with Michel Legrand, and some of the best songs from the American songbook, suddenly the idea came that maybe there was something to write there and kind of mix the best of both songbooks in one evening. So it started as simple as that, and little by little the venom of writing, of playwriting, prevailed and I found myself writing a play.
The idea came to have an evening of a very small play – which is not as small as it looks, because it touches on some universal things, like frustration, tolerance or intolerance – and mainly that a real love story has no boundaries, neither of color, gender, race, age, whatever. And without disclosing the plot of the play, it touches on this kind of universal problem, and in that way and only in that way, that may be the common thread between my bigger shows, which I write with Claude-Michel Schönberg, and which touch on much larger subject matters, and this very small play.
It's become a play with an extraordinary feeling for me, as I had decided from the beginning to use the songs that these two characters would sing in their real lives, and because it's the story of their real lives that I'm putting on that stage, I've not written any songs for the play. I'm only using very well-known songs from both the American and the French songbooks, and it was the feeling of having Michel Legrand or Cole Porter, Gershwin, Jacques Brel and Harold Arlen in the room, and suddenly they were giving me the material that would move the action forward. I've been using these songs exactly as I would have if I had written them, so it's not at all like a show with a compilation of songs because they are famous, but it is because they are either part of the life of the characters or because they move the action forward, exactly like I would write with Claude-Michel on one of our musicals, so at the end of the day it was a fantastic and exciting collaboration which never happened, but it was the same feeling.
Did you ever consider writing original songs for the show?
AB: To tell exactly the truth, I had considered writing one original song for the show, which we had discussed with Claude-Michel, which would be a conclusion and would take the story ten years forward. That didn't work, and at the end I was thinking: That's artificial, that's untrue, that's inauthentic, it's just something that is not needed. Let's keep this play and the songs that are in the play as an homage to all the songs I wish I had written.
You've lived in New York, London and Paris, and were born in Tunisia. What is your favorite of all the cities you've lived in?
AB: At this moment in my life, it is New York, with no doubts at all. Same for Marie. Suddenly Marie Zamora is going to be on stage in English in New York City, Off-Broadway, and it's a dream come true for her. It's a dream come true for me to be creating something in New York, which I've not done before, because fortunately I'm lucky enough to work with Cameron Mackintosh, who is based in London, and who is the best producer in the world for the kind of shows we are writing, and everything was started from London. And although New York has been an extraordinary experience in our lives every time we've opened any of the shows here, and I'm blessed that Les Misérables is still playing here, it's a completely different experience. It's very small; it's in a very small theatre, 59E59, which I believe has about 65 seats, and to me it's thrilling and scary to be in a small theatre, not under the umbrella of any big producer. It's an experience we are trying ourselves and putting together ourselves with the extraordinary help of a director whom I adore, Graciela Daniele.
Is there something about the city, about your day-to-day life in the city that informed the play?
AB: Of course there is; there is a huge day-to-day life in the city. If I had not come walking outside of the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, where they show the small movies, and walked by the Juilliard School, where I saw a poster announcing an evening of the American songbook at Lincoln Center – that's how the idea of the American songbook and French songbook solidified in my mind, and that's how for the very first time I conceived the idea of what was at the time a project for a cabaret evening of a double songbook cabaret evening, which is how the whole project started. Now the whole double cabaret evening is part of the play, but it's part of the story of the characters, it's not what the evening is about, but it's partly what the evening's about. I would have never written [the play] if I hadn't been living here for the last six years.
How did you go about choosing the specific songs that you included in the play? Were they already in your head, or did you go out and find some of them?
AB: Some of them were already in my head, like I always was thinking that "Ne Me Quitte Pas" by Jacques Brel seems like a song in the middle of a musical. It's like, "Don't leave me;" it's a song where versions of that song are in many musicals. So that's the first song that came to mind, and then the idea that these two people had a connection in some kind of way with Paris, that's why the play is called Manhattan Parisienne. So Jacques Brel, "Ne Me Quitte Pas," came to mind, and it's the song that the male lead of the show, who is an American musician, sings for himself with a terrible French accent, and that's how the play opens.
The rest – some of the songs, which are part of their cabaret act – came naturally from what Marie was singing with Michel Legrand, and some other songs that some actor friends of mine were doing in cabaret acts in New York City, so that was an easy choice. And then the songs that move the action forward, which I would say are more the storytelling songs, came naturally to me, because they were the songs that I had heard in my life all the time and that I always thought – oh my God, this song would make for wonderful storytelling at that moment of a story that would be about such and such – and suddenly I'm writing the story where the song could be used. So I just had to ask all these publishers and all these people, some of them, most of them are dead unfortunately, so you have all these heirs and publishers and all that, and I must say that I was blessed that all of these people, including the estate of Cole Porter, have all agreed for their songs to be part of the show, even when I was using only an excerpt, because I'm only using what helps me to carry the story along, as I would do for one of my shows when I write with Claude-Michel. How did you go about choosing to name the protagonists Adam and Eve?
AB: This came little by little. I think at the beginning they were called Michael and Marie, just because Marie Zamora had recorded a duets album with Michael Ball, our first Marius in Les Miz thirty years ago now, and during that album, he used to joke while we were recording (it's a very good recording, that CD), and they were singing two songs from West Side Story, songs from Phantom and songs from Les Miz, and Michael in the studio used to joke all the time, "And now Mickey and Marie will come on stage," so that was the joke. Then at some point, it started to sound to me like circus artists, and one night I was thinking, I have a feeling this show – I don't know why – should happen at Christmas. It's a Christmas tale in its own strange way. That's why we call it now in the tagline "an unusual Christmas tale with music." Then I thought, maybe I should call the show Christmas Eve, and then I said, no, I'm going to call her Eve. And suddenly you say these two, aren't they reinventing love like every new couple reinvents love? Then they should be called Adam and Eve.
What is it like working with your wife on this production? Is that always easy, or are there challenges to that?
AB: Well, we haven't started rehearsal, but then really the show is in the hands of Graciela, and Graciela is someone I've been dreaming to work with since Once On This Island 20 years ago. Marie has followed me through everything that has happened. She has been a director of Marguerite, the play that I have written with Michel Legrand – not the version in London but the version that we did in the Czech Republic – and she directed a brilliant version there with new orchestrations by Bill Brohn, and she did masterful work with a cast of about 40 people, because you have to hire everyone, because that's how subsidized theatre works there, and a symphonic orchestra, because that's what you have. It's fantastic, but hard to maneuver. So she did that, and we're in full agreement on many things and I was reading pages to her as we went along, and so far the collaboration has been great. [Marie]'s been reading a few times, and obviously Graciela fell in love with her, and that's how the thing happened. That's all I can say at this stage.
What is it that you're hoping people will take away from Manhattan Parisienne?
AB: What I hope is that people have the impression of being in a bubble for an hour and a half with two characters who had – or thought they had – nothing in common and in fact had a lot in common and discover through the evening that, however far away you come from, there is sometimes something between people which is so much stronger than the differences that they have, that can make them one for a moment or for a lifetime, and it's for you at the end of the evening to decide.
Throughout your career, you've worked in a number of forms. Do you prefer working on plays, lyrics, or the book of a musical?
AB: I've only written one straight play in my life, called The Diary of Adam and Eve, and that was based on Mark Twain's short stories of Adam and Eve, which I had translated first and then intertwined into a play rather than two separate dialogues as Mark Twain wrote. It was quite successful in Paris, and maybe the name stuck with me, but I've not written another play until Manhattan Parisienne, which happens to be a play with music and songs. I don't think I'm someone who will write a straight play without music; music is the basis of my education, is what makes me tick in life. I used to be a pop songwriter. I discovered the theatre with West Side Story when I was 19 or 20, so at a late age compared to what an American would discover at school, and suddenly I was plunged into that world, which I discovered was my world also, although I was born in a world where this discipline of musical theatre doesn't exist, so it's quite a strange journey. Certainly a play with music is the limit of my ambition other than a full-blown musical, which is certainly what is my life.
Are you working on any new musicals?
AB: New, no. What I'm working on at this moment is a complete rewrite of Martin Guerre with Claude-Michel, which we hope to complete by the middle of next year and hopefully together with Cameron bring to life again in what we hope will be its definitive version, because as you may know Martin Guerre has gone through several incarnations. We feel we know the story we want to tell, and we are putting the last work to what hopefully will be the definitive Martin Guerre.
Do you attend productions of your shows very often? With Les Misérables running on Broadway now, do you ever go back and rewatch it?
AB: Of course I do. I do participate in some of the casting. I do participate most of the time in the rehearsals – beginning, mid-rehearsal, and the last two weeks of rehearsal of the new version which opened here, and traveled to Toronto before when we were doing it. And then, a few weeks ago Claude-Michel and I went there and reworked a few things with the company, because we are blessed to have Ramin Karimloo to play one of the most incredible Valjeans we've ever had, and it's a thrill to work with him and the whole company. It's a great company we have in New York. So you always enjoy revisiting your shows. It never gets tiring.
AB: Because they are new productions. Cameron had the incredible idea to redo his own new production rather than waiting for other people to do it when we are all gone, so it was a stroke of genius from him to say, 'I'm going to revise my own shows.' And we are all here, so the three of us, plus new directors, Laurence Connor, and all the new people and the new designers, we're all suddenly working in a room and trying to reinvent our own shows. And look at what's happening to Miss Saigon in London. It's a huge success, because it's a new show – it's a reinvented show. I went to see it two weeks ago in London, and I can tell you it's a show that I keep discovering and rediscovering.
Can you talk a little bit about the changes that have been made to Miss Saigon for the West End production? I know there's a new song; there are some lyrics that have been changed.
AB: Well, the major change is a new song, "Maybe," that finally settled down in there and replaces the previous two or three songs that we had written for the character of Ellen in Act Two, which never really captured the state of mind in which this lady was after discovering: 1) That her husband has a child; 2) That he may have a love story with her that was not just a fling as he sometimes pretended she was; and, 3) That she thinks that [Kim] wants them to take the child back to America, which is an impossible situation. And I hope that in that song "Maybe," from the reaction we are getting, it looks like this is the last time we are rewriting it.
So you think that's the version that would come to New York if that production comes here?
AB: I think that the version as it is now, plus the new vocabulary in the opening song. Some things that you couldn't say maybe 20 years ago when the Vietnam War was still a very recent memory, today we're saying exactly what we think about it and what we believe the soldiers were already thinking about it, and just allowing ourselves to be completely true about it and about what these young people might have been thinking at that time. So I believe that, yes, all these changes, which have been rewritten with the help of a young American lyricist called Michael Mahler, obviously in addition to 85 percent of the show, which is still born out of my collaboration with Richard Maltby, Jr., I think the show has a strength today that makes it very, very relevant to a contemporary audience, which hardly knows anything about the Vietnam War and which doesn't need to know about this specific war, but which understands what it is to suffer from the wounds of any war.
The show has opened up and has a more universal reach than just, 'It is a love story happening during the end of the Vietnam War.' It's a love story that could have happened at the end, in the useless last days of every war, when people die, and when lives are put in turmoil – sometimes definitive, irreversible turmoil – for nothing. Because the war will end, and the last people are going to pay very dearly for even less because they have no reward of any kind. And, as you know, Miss Saigon revolves very strongly around these themes apart from being a big spectacle and, I think, a great theatrical evening in this new staging by Laurence Connor, who has masterminded with Cameron's permanent complicity.