Magazine article The New Yorker

Songs of Angry Men

Magazine article The New Yorker

Songs of Angry Men

Article excerpt

On March 1, 1985, Herbert Kretzmer, a droll, rangy South African lyricist, came home from his day job as a TV critic for the Daily Mail, climbed the steps to his London flat, put a Teddy bear--a Christmas gift from Terence Stamp--on his desk, lit a candle, and tacked a motto onto the wall in front of him. "Tell the story," it said. The story was "Les Miserables." The hit songs that Kretzmer had written for the French crooner Charles Aznavour ("She," "Yesterday When I Was Young") had brought him to the attention of the producer Cameron Mackintosh, who had hired him to reimagine a two-hour, sung-through tableau vivant, written five years earlier, in French, by the composer Claude-Michel Schonberg and the lyricist Alain Boublil.

Kretzmer's voodoo worked. To say that "Les Miserables" became a "gold mine" is misleading: it became a gold mountain. The musical, which ran for seventeen years on Broadway, is in its twenty-seventh year on London's West End; it has been seen by sixty million people and has been staged by more than a hundred touring companies, and has earned around three billion dollars. The movie version is up for eight Academy Awards and has already grossed more than three hundred and sixty million dollars.

Kretzmer, now eighty-seven and a little shaky on his pins, still views the musical as a kind of miracle. In the capacious living room of his Kensington town house the other day, he held up his arms as if to embrace the art-covered walls. "Look around you, my people, and despair," he said, laughing.

Despite his carefully managed mask of savoir faire, Kretzmer has not been sleeping well these days. His complaint is an ancient malady that afflicts theatrical collaborators. Although the film's credits list him as "lyricist," in the hubbub over the movie and the Oscar nomination for its new song "Suddenly" (which Kretzmer wrote), he has found himself erased from the public story. In recent BBC and ITV documentaries, he was not even mentioned. (The BBC added an acknowledgment of Kretzmer's contributions in a later showing.) Boublil, talking about the genesis of "Suddenly" to a Sunday Times reporter, said, "I conveyed my enthusiasm to Herbert Kretzmer, who was working with me on the English lyrics." Boublil went on to discuss how he was inspired by a line from Victor Hugo: "That was the exact line and I turned it into 'Can two anxious hearts beat as one?' " According to Kretzmer, Boublil's contribution to the lyric "was one three-letter word: 'can. …

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