Composer Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyricist Alain Boublil, the French songwriting team behind one of the world’s most successful musicals, Les Misérables, were recently celebrated by the New York Pops in a gala concert at Carnegie Hall.
Days before the star-studded event, which included original Les Miz star Patti LuPone and Miss Saigon star Lea Salonga, the writing team sat down with Playbill.com to speak about how they adapted Victor Hugo’s epic novel into a theatrical evening.
Looking ahead to Miss Saigon’s 2017 Broadway return, Schönberg and Boublil also revisited the controversy that surrounded the Vietnam-set musical, what they’re reworking for the revival and what’s in store for Martin Guerre—their musical project that they still feel remains unfinished, despite several staged adaptations.
There’s a great deal of talk right now about how Lin-Manuel Miranda condensed a 731-page tome of American history into a theatrical evening with Hamilton. You’ve tread similar territory with Les Miz, which clocks in at over 1,400 pages. Take me back to that challenge and how you worked to dramatize and condense Hugo’s text?
Claude-Michel Schönberg: The biggest challenge is the book because it’s twelve-hundred pages. So the biggest challenge was, [to ask] “Can we musicalize that kind of big book?” We knew already that there were 32 movie versions of the book, so you could contract everything into 2 hours and 20 minutes, but is the music going to fit with the story? And the book, we used to say that that book was already written as an opera.
Alain Boublil: Still it remains a huge undertaking. Usually the subject, the novel whatever you start from, tells you after a few drafts if it wants to be musicalized, or if it doesn’t. And that’s why you give up on many projects. On this one, fortunately, since day one it looked and sounded like it needed to be musicalized. It turned it into what maybe it’s last incarnation should be. The biggest example is the song “I Dreamed a Dream.” This is a 50-page chapter in the book, which is called “Descent Into Hell.” The song sums up the story of Fantine from being an honest woman who had been betrayed by a man, has a daughter Cosettte, has to keep feeding her daughter, and goes down the social scale into becoming a prostitute. The song can do in three minutes what 50 pages can do in a novel. So that’s a good example of how you compress.
CMS: Even more than that is “Who Am I?” It’s called, in the book, “Storm in the Brain.” It’s 200 pages. In the book it’s a full chapter, you spend two days reading it, and on stage it is only two minutes and 31 seconds.
AB: When you have this kind of personal success with these songs, and you can feel that you can achieve that, you know you are on the right path. I’m sure that’s what Lin-Manuel was feeling when he was doing when he was doing his own compression of the book, especially in such a special genre as rap. That’s what he was feeling.
You’ve continued to return to work on Miss Saigon since it premiered in 1989, especially Ellen’s song in Act Two. What inspires you to continue to refine your work?
AB: There’s one very simple answer. Les Misérables was a show in Paris before. It started and was a huge success in Paris in 1980 and it was also a concept album, which preceded the show. So we had the experience of the album, then went into rehearsal and did the show at Palais de Sports, which was a huge success. Then we met Cameron Mackintosh, who said, “Guys, I think you have written something which you don’t realize you’ve written, but there is a lot more work to do on it.” It went through all the stages: when we got to rewriting we had this team with us to try and see what would be missing to make it an acceptable evening however sad, however epic, however new because nothing like that had ever been done on a musical stage. Then we did a little more work before Washington and the American premiere [in 1986]. The overture was not written, it didn’t exist before then. That was created in Washington and was played for the first time in America. Since then, obviously, we can say the rest is history.
CMS: With Miss Saigon we started in London. It was not the same process because we were opening straight at the Drury Lane Theatre in London and there is always one song or something that you’re not completely happy with. And sometime you take the opportunity to use the rehearsal to change it. That’s what we did with one song. It was created in 1989 and we opened [the revival] in London practically 20 years after. So one song in 20 years isn’t bad. And we are still ready to maybe change some bits and pieces.
Miss Saigon has been trailed by some controversy since it premiered. To this day members of the Asian community in America find fault in the show’s depiction of Asian characters. How do you respond to this as artists?
CMS: At the very beginning we have been quoted as being two Jewish writers giving a bad image of Asian women. What they don’t know is that one of my daughters is Asian. [The criticism] is totally irrelevant, quite simply, it’s the story.
AB: The opening of Miss Saigon there were protests outside saying, “Don’t Go In” on opening night and something like, “The lyricist is a pig.” Something like that. Journalists had also written that the show was going to tear up the fabric of the USA. All of this is so silly. At that time, most of the people who were writing that we were writing demeaning characters for Asian actors had not seen the show and didn’t know what they were talking about. By now they must have seen it. I don’t know, were they asleep when they saw that this show is about a woman who, through thick and thin, and all of these events, succeeds in what she wants to do? And they should also not forget that this show is based upon a classic tale, which is based on Madame Butterfly, which itself is based on a French novel Madame Chrysanthemum by Pierre Loti and that [Miss Saigon] is a very realistic attempt to keep intact the sentiments and the emotion which are contained in this classic tale.
CMS: There is not one Asian actor working in this show who is going to tell you that we are giving the wrong image. We did more for the community of Asian actors in this country or in Europe than any other show did.
AB: I think the good thing about Miss Saigon now is that the war is far away. It’s part of American history, not of American hurt or bleeding, which it was when we were opening in 1991 at the same time when all these movies about Vietnam were coming out. Vietnam was something where everyone had lost a son or a parent. Now it’s further back in history and we can talk about it in a more reasonable, or pragmatic way and even emotional way.
What’s next for Martine Guerre? There’s talk that you continue to work on that project as well.
AB: It’s no secret at this moment that we are reworking very seriously on Martin Guerre. We still think that we have not cracked the story of how you make two liars into two heroes, because their love is stronger than their lie—and that’s something that we’re working on. Also, as a format, now that there is a big trend in opera houses to welcome musicals of a certain level, we believe that Martin Guerre might become one of them. We still think that we can improve and we have something to bring to the contents and to bring to the character of Bertrande for sure, and also because now there are new opportunities for this kind of serious subject matter musical maybe to be started not necessarily in a Broadway-type West End house.