Les Misérables – Two Schönberg and Boublil Collaborations

Les Misarables

Hollywood’s take on the long-running Broadway musical Les Miserables opened in U.S. movie theatres in the U.S. on Christmas Day 2012. It stars Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean, Russell Crowe as Inspector Javert, Anne Hathaway as Fantine, and Amanda Seyfried as Cosette.

This opening has us thinking about the history of the production, and about the phenomenally successful collaboration behind it all, that of Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boubil.

Music while reading this article

Les Miserables (Musical London Cast) At the End of the Day

Les Misérables (2012 Movie) Soundtrack – I Dreamed a Dream – Anne Hathaway

Les Misérables (Musical London Cast) lovely ladies

Schönberg and Boubil first worked together on a rock opera, the first ever French rock opera, La Révolution Française, (1973) something conceived by Boublil apparently while he was watching Jesus Christ, Superstar on Broadway in New York.

But their partnership really hit its stride with Les Mis, first performed in Paris in 1980. It was in London five years later and in New York two years after that. They have kept busy since then, composing the music for Miss Saigon (1989), Martin Guerre (1996), The Pirate Queen (2006), and Marguerite (2008).

Arnold Schoenberg (13 September 1874 – 13 July 1951)

Schönberg is a distant relation of the Arnold Schoenberg who epitomized modernist atonal music in the early 20th century. Pictured left.

But there is no modernist atonality or experimentation for Michel. His musical style moves in a straight line from high Romanticism to post-modernism and in interviews he has candidly named his influences: Bizet, Verdi, Gounod.  He might have mentioned Puccini, too – but we’ll get to that!

We’ll say something today about each of the two best known of the Schönberg and Boublil musicals, Les Mis itself, and Miss Saigon.  As with most of their collaborations, these two are through-sung, that is, there is no spoken dialog moving the plot along between songs. In this sense their creations are more like operas than are the canonical Broadway musicals of, say, Rodgers and Hammerstein.

Through-singing aside, Schönberg and Boublil don’t like the word “opera.” As a label, it seems conservative to the point of staleness, and they’ve certainly had such great success marketing their operas as “musicals” one can hardly blame them for that choice! They may have helped reinvigorate both worlds.

Les Mis

Victor Hugo (26 February 1802 – 22 May 1885)

Les Mis (as most music lovers by now know) follows the plot of Victor Hugo’s sprawling novel of the same name.  Like the novel, the musical begins in 1815 with the audience invited to follow a newly paroled prisoner named Jean Valjean, who has a back story that entails another twenty years. It is in 1815 that a holy man’s generosity turns Valjean onto the path of righteousness. But nothing can secure the forgiveness of his implacable pursuer, Inspector Javert.

Schoenberg treats of this opening expository material in less than five minutes.  You can see many takes on these opening minutes at YouTube. Here is one of them.  (This is from Take-One Theatre, an art academy at Ronkonkoma, New York.)

The bishop of Digne takes Jean in from the streets at 1:47 in that clip. “For you are weary, and the night is cold out there/ Though our lives are very humble, what we have we have to share.”

Again referencing the above clip, Jean is in trouble with the gendarmes by 3:20. The real act of generosity follows from that, when they take him back to the Bishop to check on his claim that he was gifted the silver (we in fact have seen him steal it). The Bishop’s lies get Jean out of trouble. He then says, “You must use the precious silver to become an honest man, by the witness of the martyrs….”

Boublil had assistance from Jean-Marc Natel in creating the original French lyrics, and they were re-worked into the English language by a South African, Herbert Kretzmer, pictured below.

Herbert Kretzmer

Let us pause here and observe that Les Mis would seem to be inherently resistant to the sort of condensation that makes a staged or filmed version possible – or successful. We have no less of an authority than Victor Hugo himself for this. A biographer of Hugo’s, Victor Brombert, has paraphrased Hugo’s view thus: “At the end of his career, surveying his own works, he was more than ever convinced that the novel, his kind of novel, was a drama too big to be performed on any stage.”

There is a common story that Giaccomo Puccini toyed with the idea of writing an operatic version of Les Mis, but passed on it.  If this is so, then Schönberg and Boublil deserve some credit for daring to take on the task that Puccini would not!

Indeed, when he received his Tony Award in 1987, Schönberg posthumously thanked Puccini for leaving this one undone.

“You’re Welcome,” Puccini Says

Giacomo Puccini (22 December 1858 – 29 November 1924)

Boublil and Schönberg soon thereafter began work on a project that Puccini hadn’t left undone – he was their source material for it.  Puccini in effect reached out from the grave to assist them in taking on Vietnam, still largely a taboo subject in musical theatre in the U.S. in the mid-1980s.

Richard Maltby Jr., who assisted Boublil with the lyrics for this musical, told an interviewer flatly that every prior Vietnam-related dramatization “had died at the box office.”

Boublil and Schönberg broke such inhibitions by in essence taking over the plot of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly and setting it in 1970s ‘Nam. A U.S. marine sergeant, Chris Scott, falls in love with a prostitute, Kim, as the Viet Cong are closing in on the city of Saigon. But we see him three years later, in bed with his American wife, Ellen, in Atlanta, Georgia; and we see Kim at that same time, still believing that Chris will come back for her, as the communist government of a now united Vietnam stages its three-year anniversary victory celebration.

Here’s a performance of I Still Believe, the duet sung by the two women on opposite sides of the world that conveys that moment in the plot.

And here we may fittingly end with the (roughly) equivalent point in the source material, Madama Butterfly:

Un bel di, vedremo.


So we at JustSheetMusic send a hearty Congratulations to Boublil and Schönberg as the mass audience available to the cinema discovers their work on Les Mis, and we offer congratulations too, to the members of that mass audience who may be seeing and hearing it all for the first time.


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