With two long-running hits Les Miserables and Miss Saigon still going strong on Broadway and in the West End, the French team composed of Alain Boublil (lyrics) and Claude-Michel Schonberg (music) have definitely become landmarks in the contemporary musical theatre.
Boublil and Schonberg's first musical was La Revolution Francaise, which started as a concept album before opening at the Palais des Sports in Paris on Oct. 2, 1973. This musical was billed as "the first French rock-opera" and enjoyed a short but successful run.
Boublil and Schonberg's international career started with their musical adaptation of Hugo's Les Miserables. Like La Revolution Francaise, Les Miserables started as a concept album released in June 1980. A few months later, Robert Hossein directed the stage version at the Palais des Sports. The revised English version, produced by Cameron Mackintosh and directed by Trevor Nunn and John Caird of the Royal Shakespeare Company, opened in London on Oct. 8, 1985 and on Broadway Mar. 12, 1987 with Colm Wilkinson and Frances Ruffelle in both productions. The rest is history. The musical has been seen by more than 40 million people worldwide.
After the international success of Les Miserables, their next musical, Miss Saigon was highly awaited. This musical, based on Puccini's Madame Butterfly, first opened in London on Sept. 20, 1989. It opened on Broadway Apr. 11, 1991 with Jonathan Pryce and Lea Salonga recreating their London roles under the direction of Nicholas Hytner.
On July 10, 1996, Boublil and Schonberg's new musical Martin Guerre opened at the Prince Edward's Theatre in London, with Iain Glen, Jerome Pradon and Matt Rawle. The musical, directed by Declan Donnellan, will close Feb. 28. Playbill On-Line interviewed Claude-Michel Schonberg about his musical theatre career and his upcoming projects.
How came your passion for musical theatre?
Since my childhood, I have always been attracted to opera. When I was 6 or 7, there was a couple of operas that I knew by heart, including Madame Butterfly. Later on, I started to work as an artistic director for a record company, I wrote songs, music and I have to admit that I have always been frustrated by the short length of a song. And then, one day, in 1972, Alain Boublil, with whom I had already worked because he was a lyricist, saw Jesus Christ Superstar in London. He realized that Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber came from the world of songwriting and that one could be a songwriter and a musical theatre author. That's how Alain Boublil had the idea of illustrating the French Revolution in 24 songs. We recorded a concept album which was quite successful, thanks to the song "Chouans, en avant !" which was a hit. Immediately, Jean Serge, who was working for Europe 1 [one of the biggest French radio stations], asked us why we didn't make a show out of La Revolution Francaise. So I linked the songs together and the show opened at the Palais des Sports and became a hit --to our surprise. That's when Alain Boublil and I -- although we were working with two other guys, Raymond Jeannot and Jean-Max Riviere -- got the musical theatre virus. And we said to ourselves that the next time we have a story, we shouldn't just write songs illustrating the topic, but we should write a real opera.
[Five years later] when Alain saw Oliver ! in London, when he saw the young Oliver, he thought about Gavroche. Then he came to me with the idea of making a musical out of Les Miserables, and I was so seduced that I was surprised no one has ever thought about musicalizing it before. Later on, I found out some people did. In five minutes we made up our minds. At that time, people were saying we were crazy. It took us two years to write it. After that I had a demo tape with 70 % of the music that can currently been heard -- the book structure was different of the current one -- but nobody wanted to produce that. Then, one day, Rene Cleitman of Europe 1 told us that he wanted to introduce us to [director] Robert Hossein. So Robert came to our office and said "Musicals are not my cup of tea . . .But when I heard you did a musical version of Les Miserables, I was so curious . . ."
Then he sat down, I played and sang the score at the piano and that was the first and last time I saw him sitting still for three hours, listening almost religiously. At the end, he stood up and said "I'm gonna do your stuff" and he kept his promise.
It was at the very beginning of 1980. And since Robert was interested in the project, then everyone was interested : Europe 1, the Palais des Sports again, the producer of the Moscow Circus and Holiday on Ice. . . We recorded the album first, in June, and then in September, the show opened at the Palais des Sports in Robert's version and ran for three months. It was a big hit. Unfortunately, as usual, the Palais des Sports was booked for another show so we had to stop on Dec. 14, 1980 with 250, 000 tickets requests. But the people we were working with were not professionals of the musical theatre : it was a theatre owner, a touring production manager, a radio station. . . When Les Miserables stopped, no one asked us what we wanted to do with it or what were our projects. Robert went to direct his movie version of Les Miserables with Lino Ventura, without asking us to write the score. And we were there with our Miserables and not knowing what to do with it. We were looking for new ideas and then, we went back to writing songs for other people.
Two years later, by the end of 1982, a young English director -- who was in Paris during Les Miserables and who bought the album at that time -- met this young producer, Cameron Mackintosh, who was mounting Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats. And he gave him the album of Les Miserables and told him "This musical I saw in France is quite interesting and you should listen to the album." Cameron told us later that, at that time, he thought that "French musical" were "contradiction in terms". Then he said that he brought the album home and left it there. And on a Sunday afternoon -- a day he would remember all his life -- he had nothing to do. He saw the album and played it. He said that after three minutes, he had the feeling he had never heard anything like this before. He didn't understand how it was possible. He told us that he was stunned even if he didn't understand French. He said that the biggest similar shock he had before was when he saw West Side Story. From that day on, he listened to the album again and again and was obsessed with meeting us. He found us through the SACEM [the French equivalent of the ASCAP]. He gave us an appointment in a Parisian restaurant on Jan. 28, 1983, where he told us : "I have listened to the album and would like to produce this show, but what you did is a draft for French people who know the book. If you want this show to be produced in England for international audiences who are not familiar with the book, you have to rework on the show."
At the end of 1983, [Cameron Mackintosh] said "Now, we can start, you're going to meet some people." He introduced James Fenton to us who started to work on the structure of the show with us. We spent the whole year 1984 rewriting. One third of the show was totally new. When we started to work with this team, they told us how this show had nothing to do with what they had seen and heard before. A musical where there's no dance, a tragic ending and 30 dead people on stage. And it was all sung-through, which was new at the time, even the stage version of Evita had a few spoken scenes.
The first preview, which lasted 3 hours and 45 minutes, was acclaimed. Ten days later, we had the opening night and the critics panned us. In spite of this, the day after that, the Barbican Center broke box-office records. In 48 hours, the two months-run was completely sold out. We had raves from the American critics like the [New York] Times who came to see the show. The English tabloids said that it was not a musical because there was no happy ending and the serious newspapers said that we popularized one of the masterpieces of European culture.
If you were to keep one special memory about Les Miserables, what would it be?
There are so many but first, I would mention the day where I had to write the finale of the Act I with all the characters on stage, singing their part. It was a traffic jam in my head. I probably spent a week on it. After that, it was named by the critics as one of the best finale of Act I ever written. But it has been so difficult. But I have another story. One month before we started in London, we all agreed on writing a song for Jean Valjean and we thought that he might sing a prayer. And there was Colm Wilkinson's voice which was extremely high. So I thought "If I write for Colm, I should write something very high." And I wrote this music during a week-end. So on Monday morning, I brought the song to Alain and told him "We could have Colm sing this." Two or three days later, Alain brought the lyrics and at the end of the rehearsal, I took Colm aside and told him that we wanted him to sing the song. I taught him the song for fifteen minutes. And then, Colm sang the song and at the end, one cast member stood up and said "We have been told that this show was dealing with God but we've never been told that God would get to sing in the show."
The new version of Les Miserables opened in Paris in 1991. Alain Boublil, and you have often said that it was one of the most talented companies in the world. Were you surprised to find so many multidisciplinary talents in France?
You can have a very talented company in France but it's more difficult. The auditions are longer. But when the company is cast and you add the French individualism, ardor and romantism. . . It's one of the most beautiful companies -- on stage and on record -- ever. Although backstage it was one of the worst! Not towards us, but between them. Besides, the management has never seen as many doctors certificates as with this company ! There were also a lot of fights, between them, between the leads and the understudies. . . But when on stage with something to do, it was extraordinary. The recording is fabulous. Some individualities stand out like Robert Marien who has now realized the dream of his life, being on Broadway, or Stephanie Martin, or Jerome Pradon who is extremely talented. . .
How did you feel when the show closed after a seven months run?
We were sorry but there were several causes, I think. Prices were too expensive, also the way the show was advertised. I don't think that it is a good thing to have an open-ended run in France, it's better to extend a limited run. In Paris and the suburbs, there is a potential musical theatre audience of around 250,000 people. And that's it. And it's not a French tradition to come from the provinces to see a show in Paris, unlike Germany, for example. A production like Les Miserables has expensive costs, especially in France because of the taxes. It's obvious that it is one of the countries where Les Miserables had the least success. Even in Madrid, it ran for two years, it ran for two years and a half in Oslo. In Duisburg, they think they will be there for at least five more years.
When thinking about your next show, Miss Saigon, it seems like finding the perfect Kim was as difficult as searching for Scarlett, could you tell us about that?
It has been very difficult because we decided that we wanted an Asian performer to play an Asian role. It was out of question to have an English or American girl. With the concept of the story, we wanted something real. We quickly realized that it is rare that a show is in demand for so many Asian performers. In England, we didn't find the "magical girl". In New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, we saw sitcom stars, lyrical singers... we never found the ideal one. We required experience, professional qualities, beauty, acting and singing abilities and we didn't find them. And I had seen, years ago, films directed by a Filipino director, Lino Brocka, that were shown on French TV. . .there was always a scene around a firecamp with youngsters singing. I couldn't understand how these Asians could sing like Italians or South-Americans. Then I forgot about it. And three or four months later, I saw another Lino Brocka film and I got the same feeling again. . . So when we were in the casting process of Miss Saigon I said to Cameron that we should go to the Philippines. . .At the end of 1988, we decided to see again all the people we had seen before, so we returned to New York, Los Angeles, New York and then, the last stop was Manila. So we arrived in Manila and it was extraordinary. . .
On the second day, we saw this little Lea who was 17. She gave me an album, which is still here by the way, and then she sang "On My Own." And we were fascinated, it was too beautiful. She came back the day after that and I taught her "Sun and Moon." And the wonderful thing is that she was seated next to me, listening and then I said, "Now I'm gonna teach you the song," but she said "I can sing it." I had played it only once. I have to say that she sang it almost like she would be going to do it every night on stage. She didn't need me. So she had all the qualities because she was very cute, she is a professional singer, she was a young star in the Philippines, she started at age 9 in Annie, she had performed in shows, she had played in films, she had a TV show, so she knew her job and she is a very hard worker. . .
We decided to fly her to London. We watched her on the Drury Lane stage. I have to admit she was very disoriented because she never performed in a very big theatre before and the Drury Lane is the biggest house in Europe. She gave a very poor audition. We told her to work with the assistant director and on the second day, it was clear that she would be the one.
Are there any plans about a possible Tenth Anniversary Celebration of Miss Saigon in London [in 1999]?
I don't know what are Cameron's plans. He mentioned something to me but I don't know if it's a concert or what.
After Miss Saigon came Martin Guerre in London, in 1996, what attracted you to this story in the first place?
First of all, Alain and I had the idea at the same time without talking to each other. It's a marvelous love story because it's the story of two people who have to lie to be able to love each other in a difficult time.
Did you have difficulties?
The difficulties of this show were on the writing level. Unlike the previous musicals where we had heroes, we now had lying heroes, they are not classical heroes. We had to know where did these people come from and where they were going to. For Les Mis we had the novel, for Miss Saigon, we had Butterfly. For Martin Guerre, we only had the thin plot which was used for Daniel Vigne's film and for Sommersby which is good for a film, but I don't think this plot is enough to make people sing on stage. To make the audience forget that the characters are singing on stage, there must be something bigger than life which justifies the use of music. Or you can write intimate things, Sondheim knows how to do that but we don't. So we had to rewrite the whole story without references. It has been very difficult. It has been five years of writing, re-writings, at the end of which we mounted this London production and even if it's a beautiful production, we are not completely satisfied with it because we didn't have enough distance and we worked with too many people. For Les Miserables and Miss Saigon, directors came quite late in the process and we thought it was a mistake. So for Martin Guerre the director came very early and much too early. Because instead of keeping our baby and imposing our vision, we had to follow very quickly the rules of directing.
At the beginning, we wanted a theatre house with a medium capacity, a show with 16-17 performers on stage, 9 to 18 musicians, but we ended up in a huge theatre house and little by little, this production which was originally planned as an intimate one ended up with ballets, big sets and a big orchestra, and you can't jump off the train and say stop. There were so many people and so much money involved in it. So we went all the way through with it and it is not the ideal production. With Cameron's understanding, we have decided to close the show in February and make a new one for November.
We are currently working on a new version which will be closer to our original intimate vision of the show. It will be focused on the love story we wanted to tell. Previews will start in Leeds and Manchester. The theatre in Leeds has a 800-seat capacity. The show would be done for a 800-seat-capacity theatre house. It will be our original vision.
We want to stop these mega-budget extravaganzas. We want to stop this crazy pursuit of sets, helicopters, barricades, chandeliers or Titanics. There will be a new director because this is a completely different production. You can't ask a director to work twice on a show. There will be a new company, a new director, a new set designer, etc. . .
Are there any chances to bring Martin Guerre to Broadway some day?
Certainly, if it's the new version and if it happens to be a good one.
Among the characters of your musicals, are there some of them for whom you feel more sympathy or affection ? Do you have a favorite show?
The characters we have created have no mysteries for me anymore. You can feel tenderness, affection towards them but you can't love them because you know them too much. You can't love somebody who has no mysteries for you. But when you create them, you have to love them and have tenderness for them. If you don't say to yourself that the characters you're creating are the most wonderful ones, you are not motivated anymore. But I can't say that I prefer one or another.
I don't have a favorite show. Even La Revolution Francaise with all its imperfections is very special to me. It's more about the memories and the people we worked with who are not with us anymore.
Have you been especially impressed by some of your performers?
Nine times out of 10, it's by the creators of the roles. I'm not likely to find again the joys I had with Colm Wilkinson or with Lea. It's difficult. Frances Ruffelle was extraordinary too. So I would say Colm, Frances, Lea Salonga.
Which are the recent Broadway or West End musicals that you liked?
I liked Rent, I found the songs wonderful. The book could have been improved but unfortunately the author died. I loved Kiss of the Spider Woman which I saw several times. I adored Phantom and Evita at the time. I loved the recent London revival of Stephen Sondheim's Company. I liked the Show Boat revival I saw in New York. And I'm going to see Titanic and The Lion King next time I'm in New York.
What did you think of the French production of Nine?
I found it wonderful. I already loved the original Broadway production I saw with Raul Julia and Liliane Montevecchi. I had a wonderful evening. It's no justice that the [Paris production of the] show had to close after two months. It's not normal that people are not interested by productions like that. . . They are so stupid sometimes in France! I know some French artists who spit on French musicals and who haven't seen Les Miserables in Paris, but who call me to get tickets as soon as they're in London or in New York.
What will be the upcoming productions of Les Miserables and Miss Saigon that we will be able to see around the world?
We just opened a wonderful production of Miss Saigon in Stockholm with a new compact set which will allow us to reach smaller theatres. We won't have to build a special theatre like in Stuttgart and Toronto. Les Miserables will open in Anvers in Flemish, but we hope to have it performed in French once a week like we did in Montreal where it was performed in English and in French. There will be a big production in Toronto with Colm Wilkinson, and there will be a production in Ireland with Colm Wilkinson, who is Irish and who hasn't sung there for twenty years. There will also be a production of Les Miserables at the Helsinki Opera.
And what about the film versions of Les Miserables and Miss Saigon that were once mentioned ?
With the semi-success of Evita, screen musicals projects seem to have frozen. It seems difficult to make screen musicals work. Saigon seems easier to me. For Les Miserables, I don't know because there's the new film directed by Bille August. I saw the trailer and it says "the story which inspired the musical seen by 40 million people"... The projects that Spielberg had for Saigon and Alan Parker for Les Miserables are not mentioned anymore.
I heard that Alain and you have been asked to musicalize Polanski's Dance of the Vampires ? (Read our July feature on Polanski's Vampires in Vienna)
Polanski asked me that years ago. I watched the film but honestly, I don't know what to do with it. Not that it didn't interest me, but some stories are better for certain composers. The Dance of the Vampires didn't bring me any visions. I'm sure it might be very nice.
So your very next project is, in fact, the new version of Martin Guerre?
Absolutely. And to find a story for our next musical. . .
-- By Stephane Ly-Cuong