Herbert Kretzmer, the Les Misérables lyricist who crafted the words to some of modern musical theatre’s most quoted songs, died October 14 at the age of 95. The musician served in the theatre industry for most of his career, writing lyrics to two other musicals and working as a theatre critic in London for over a decade.
Mr. Kretzmer’s agent Marc Berlin confirmed the news to The New York Times.
The musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel came to Mr. Kretzmer’s attention in 1980 when producer Cameron Mackintosh asked him to adapt the original French version of the show for English-speaking audiences. Rather than literally translate the libretto by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel, Mr. Kretzmer added nearly an hour of material, building on the fight for freedom themes that often rouse British and American theatregoers.
When the show debuted in the West End in 1985, it was an instant favorite among audiences, and today remains one of the most profitable theatrical entities on stage, with productions all over the world and an estimated $3 billion gross. This December, a concert version will be among the first musical productions to take the London stage since the coronavirus pandemic.
“There will no longer be three of us taking a bow on stage when Cameron introduces ‘the creators of Les Misérables,’” said Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, the musical's composer and book writer with Boublil. “Herbie was a vibrant, hard-working man, but above all a man with an exceptional moral force as well as a brilliant lyricist. Thanks to him, Les Misérables found its English voice—Herbie embraced our original version and turned it into a work that speaks to the rest of the world. On his 90th birthday, he stood on the stage of the Queen’s Theatre, by then already frail, to receive a standing ovation. There is no doubt that we, along with the public, will continue to clap for him again and again, thankful for his talent. Herbie may no longer be present, but he will always be here with us as there is more than a little bit of Jean Valjean in him.”
The musical isn’t Mr. Kretzmer’s sole accomplishment, however. The writer adapted and wrote the lyrics to an adaptation of The Admirable Crichton by J.M Barrie. In 1964, Our Man Crichton opened in London and ran for eight months. A later collaboration with French singer Charles Aznavour resulted in the 1974 musical She, named for one of Mr. Aznavour’s most popular songs.
Mr. Kretzmer was born in Kroonstad, South Africa, on October 5, 1925. Throughout his education, he wrote the lyrics to school musicals while studying at Kroonstad High School and Rhodes University.
After working as a reporter in Johannesburg, Mr. Kretzmer moved to Europe and ended up settling in London in 1954. Eventually, the writer ended up as The Express’s theatre critic from 1962 to 1978, a tenure during which he wrote over 2,000 reviews. He later worked as a television critic for The Daily Mail.
Mr. Kretzmer is survived by his second wife Sybil Sever; his two children, Danielle and Matthew, from a previous marriage to Elisabeth Wilson; and two grandsons.