It's been more than 30 years since Les Misérables had its debut in London and on Broadway, and five years since its last visit to Philadelphia. And now it's back. The national touring production of Les Mis opens Tuesday night (through Jan. 21) at the Academy of Music.
Claude-Michel Schönberg, who wrote the songs for the enduringly popular musical based on Victor Hugo's novel, spoke with the Inquirer by phone from his London home about how the show got started, how he himself got started in musical theater, and what excites him about recent directions in U.S. musicals, including Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen.
Along with lyricist Alain Boublil, Schönberg has created musicals such as Miss Saigon and Martin Guerre. Now 73, he continues to work on theatrical and ballet projects, and he teaches at Cambridge University in England.
You tell a beautiful story about when you were 6 and the event that really got you hooked on opera and musicals.
It was my first time away from my little town of Vannes in Brittany, when my mother took me to the Paris Opera to see Carmen and Madame Butterfly. Nine hours by train, and plenty of coal smoke, so you had to keep the windows closed. It was another world; I had never been to a big city in my life. In those days, 500 kilometers was a much longer distance than 500 kilometers is today.
I can still describe the set at this very moment, and the singers. I was struck with what I was watching. At the end of Madame Butterfly, the people were applauding. And I asked my mother, "Why are they clapping?" And she said, "Because these are the singers."
And I said, "But who wrote the piece?" And she said, "His name is Puccini, but he has been dead for many years." And I said, "Why can't we have a big picture of him at the end and clap for that?" Even then, I was totally obsessed by the creators, more than the entertainers. I can't tell you why. It's part of my genetic makeup.
It seems as if you and Alain Boublil did the first draft of Les Mis, so to speak, in about two years. That seems awfully fast.
In 1978 we started. We had already done The French Revolution , which was a rock opera. But I wanted to write a musical with more of an operatic score, and Alain and I were very interested in making a theatrical musical that would appeal to a French audience. There is, you see, no tradition of the musical in France as there is the United States. We just did not have this. So we based it on this great novel. The audience knows the story very well.
In two years, we did an album of the songs, and in 1980, we did the earliest version of it. It ran at the Palais des Sports, this very big arena in Paris. We had found Robert Hossein, a French director who would do the show. We sold out the run, but we could not find another place sufficiently big. After that, nobody heard about us for two years.
But just by chance, [in 1982] the English producer Cameron Mackintosh, who had recently produced Cats, was given the album of the songs. He listened to it for two weeks, not knowing what to think, because he felt that "a French musical" was a contradiction in terms. But then he came to Paris to see us, and he said he loved this music, but he asked us to do a rewrite of the show. "But you have to keep your style," he said to us. "That is the only way this thing will work." And this revised version of Les Misérables opened in London [in 1985] – and it is still running.
After all this time, surely you must sometimes be amazed at the legs this show has, its enduring popularity.
Well, I don't think about this all time, but, yes. Every day, we see reports from the tours, and hear about its continued success, and still I am surprised. Frankly, I don't understand it. Each time I pass in front of the Queens Theater in London where it is playing, I feel as if I am passing in front of Madame Tussauds. But there are a lot of people, in productions around the world, who are working to keep the show fresh.
You both injected the musical into French culture, and injected Victor Hugo into U.S. culture.
But the book was already a worldwide success in America. It was a huge success during the Civil War. It is very well known in Asia, all throughout the world. And several things drew us to it. It is, of course, very well known in France. And it is also a book written very much like an opera: It is a very large book, with big characters and big emotions that are very operatic. And it is one of the first to speak of the poor people … Before that, novels were about the upper classes, or the bourgeoisie, but never the people who work or the poor. What attracted us was that no one ever thought to write a musical based on this amazing book, which is written like an opera.
You've said that many new musicals don't have proper songs. What goes into the making of a proper song, and how do you, Claude-Michel, know when you've heard one?
I know it because I was a pop songwriter first, and I wrote at least 300 songs before Les Mis. Before you can write songs for a musical, you have to have the experience of doing this. And to write proper songs for a musical, there are special theatrical things you must master. Your songs must always be telling the story, which is very tricky, and you must learn how to do it. And the transitions between spoken dialogue and music are very hard; you can always tell when these transitions are awkward.
Gershwin knew how to do it because he was a professional songwriter for many years before he wrote Porgy and Bess. Of course, there are several shows now that have a lot of proper songs. There is Hamilton. Lin-Manuel Miranda knows how. Andrew Lloyd Webber knows.
I will say there is a new kind of American musical. Rent [by Jonathan Larson] was one of the first to try to integrate rock into a musical about contemporary life and its issues in this new way. And Spring Awakening [by Duncan Sheik and Steven Slater] is very interesting, using pop music in a new way to explore new issues and themes.
Dear Evan Hansen does that, too. What do you think of the music in that show?
I love the show, and I like the music. The songs perhaps are not everlasting. I know they are written by Pasek and Paul, the same who wrote the songs for La La Land. Those are good songs. If people are still singing it in 20 years, I'm not sure. But Evan Hansen shows how you can now in a musical approach so many more subjects than before, and with such subtlety.
This was not true of musicals before. Once, musicals were all about putting on musicals. Now the evolution of subjects is amazing. We have a huge range for subjects. This is the difference between 42nd Street and Dear Evan Hansen.