They gave us Les Mis. Next up: Vichy France

The new West End mu­si­cal Mar­guerite takes a 160-yearold love story and up­dates it to wartime France. John Nathan asks its creators: will it be a hit?

The Jewish Chronicle - - ARTS&BOOKS -

WWait a minute. The what? This ver­sion of one of lit­er­a­ture’s most en­dur­ing ro­mances is, as ob­ser­vant read­ers may have al­ready gath­ered, un­like many that have gone be­fore. It is not like the play which Du­mas the younger adapted from his own novel. Nor is it like any of the 20 or so screen adap­ta­tions. And it is cer­tainly noth­ing like the best­known adap­ta­tion of all, Verdi’s opera La Travi­ata.

This latest ver­sion, called Mar­guerite, has been up­dated to 1942 and is set in oc­cu­pied Paris. Hence the Nazis. The show fea­tures a keenly an­tic­i­pated new score by the three-times Os­car-win­ning film com­poser Michel Le­grand, the man who wrote the mu­sic to Yentl and the hyp­not­i­cally beau­ti­ful Wind­mills of Your Mind for The Thomas Crown Af­fair. And the ti­tle-role star is Ruthie Hen­shall, who plays the wartime mistress of a high-rank­ing Ger­man of­fi­cer.

When you look at the creative team be­hind the show, the set­ting of crises and tu­mult makes sense. “We have al­ways had po­lit­i­cal back­grounds in our shows,” says Alain Bou­blil. When Bou­blil says “we”, he means he and Claude-Michel Schön­berg, the com­poser whose mu­sic has been paired with Bou­blil’s li­bret­tos and lyrics ever since the French duo turned from pro­duc­ing pop songs to mu­si­cals in 1973.

But in this case, Bou­blil is also re­fer­ring to lyri­cist Her­bert Kret­zmer. Kret­zmer was al­ready an ac­com­plished jour­nal­ist when he wrote hit songs like Good­ness Gra­cious Me for Peter Sell­ers and So­phie Loren, and She for Charles Az­navour. But then he was asked to adapt Bou­blil’s lyrics for the English ver­sion of a French show called Les Mis­er­ables. It be­came the big­gest in­ter­na­tional hit in mu­si­cal-theatre his­tory. And now he has done the same for Mar­guerite.

In a pub­li­cist’s room in Soho, just round the cor­ner from the Queens Theatre where Les Mis­er­ables is play­ing — it is over 25 years since it opened in the West End — the three have got to­gether in a rare meet­ing to talk about their latest project. It is rare, be­cause while Bou­blil and Schön­berg have al­ways worked to­gether, Kret­zmer mostly does his part of the job (and do not call it trans­la­tion, be­cause, as Kret­zmer points out, what he does is more “re-in­ven­tion”) on his own.

For the Tu­nisian-born Bou­blil and Schön­berg, who is the son of Hun­gar­ian par­ents who moved to France just be­fore the war, there have been other big hits, like Miss Saigon. Big misses, too, like Martin Guerre (on which Kret­zmer also col­lab­o­rated). And last year, Bou­blil’s and Schön­berg’s mu­si­cal The Pi­rate Queen had to make way for Mel Brooks’s latest be­he­moth Young Franken­stein af­ter a dis­ap­point­ing run on Broad­way.

But let us not pussy­foot. The show for which Bou­blil, Schön­berg and Kret­zmer are best known, and most prob­a­bly al­ways will be, is the af­fec­tion­ately known mon­ster-hit Les Mis. “We had talked a lot about two pos­si­bil­i­ties for a mu­si­cal,” says Schön­berg about their latest project. “One was about a re­li­gious nun in a con­vent. I don’t know why, but we al­ways wanted to have a re­li­gious nun singing on stage.” “It’s been done,” chips in Kret­zmer. Next to Boul­blil’s and Schön­berg’s se­duc­tive French drawl, Kret­zmer’s ac­cent has a dis­tinc­tive clip to it that be­trays his South African roots, even though he has lived in Lon­don for the ma­jor­ity of his 83 years. “It’s called The Sound of Mu­sic,” he adds. “No, no, I mean like Sour An­gel­ica,” cor­rects Schön­berg, re­fer­ring to Puc­cini’s opera. HAT A GREAT idea. A mu­si­cal adap­ta­tion of the clas­sic 19th-cen­tury novel by Alexandre Du­mas, Le Dame aux Camelias. The pathos, the in­trigue, the scan­dal, the ro­mance, the sex, the Nazis, the…

“Ah,” says Kret­zmer, who prob­a­bly knew what Schön­berg meant all along.

“And the other sub­ject was war in France,” con­tin­ues Schön­berg.

“It started in 2000,” says Bou­blil. “Michel Le­grand, who I had never met be­fore, was work­ing with my wife Marie [Marie Zamora, the French ac­tress and singer]. He de­cided he wanted to write a mu­si­cal for her. So he asked if he could meet me and see if I could write some­thing with him. I was very flat­tered, but I had to dis­cuss it with Claude-Michel. Claude-Michel said: ‘You should work with Michel Le­grand, even if you do it just once.’”

Bou­blil speaks with care about this. Writ­ing with a com­poser who is not his long-time col­lab­o­ra­tor, Schön­berg is, or could be, a sen­si­tive thing. It must be strange to change roles from mu­sic and join Bou­blil and di­rec­tor Jonathan Kent on the li­bretto. But Schön­berg is quick to al­lay any fears. “Hav­ing to work with Michel Le­grand is not a frus­tra­tion for me,” he says. “If I was hav­ing to work with a third- or fourthrate com­poser, it might be that each stage of the score I would be think­ing, ‘My God, I could do bet­ter.’ But with Michel, there is noth­ing bet­ter I can do than [what] he is do­ing.”

And any­way, the idea to use Du­mas’s novel was Schön­berg’s. Then Bou­blil re­alised “like light­ning” that they should give their take on the Sec­ond World War just as they had with Viet­nam for Miss Saigon.

“I just could not avoid think­ing about 1942, about Paris, the Jews, about the in­jus­tice, about how the French be­haved in a way that was un­bear­able,” says Bou­blil.

“This is one of those ideas that the mo­ment you hear it, it smells of such good news,” says Kret­zmer. “Not all clas­sics are adapt­able into the mod­ern age, but those that are shed new light on old themes. And I think it’s ex­cit­ing also that there were two real-life women who [like Mar­guerite] lived openly with se­nior Ger­man of­fi­cers. The first one was Ar­letty, the most fa­mous ac­tresses of French cin­ema dur­ing the war.”

“She was on trial af­ter the war,” adds Schön­berg. “She said: ‘My heart be­longs to France, but my arse be­longs to the world.’”

“The other French col­lab­o­ra­tor who lived openly with a Ger­man of­fi­cer of the high­est rank is Coco Chanel. So you had Ar­letty and Chanel — repli­cas, in a way, of our Mar­guerite,” says Kret­zmer, who re­mem­bers well post-war Paris where he lived for a while on the Left Bank.

The hope is that Mar­guerite will one day play in the French cap­i­tal. Prob­a­bly with Bou­blil’s wife in the lead role. But would the French flock to a show that does not shirk from por­tray­ing French col­lab­o­ra­tion?

“It won’t be dif­fi­cult at all,” main­tains Bou­blil con­fi­dently. “In France, two things have hap­pened. One was the apol­ogy by [then French Pres­i­dent] Jac­ques Chirac [in 1995, on the 53rd an­niver­sary of the roundup of 13,000 Parisian Jews], and the other is that since then, there is ev­ery week a new movie, or a book about the sub­ject.”

Of course, a lot de­pends on how things go. Do they smell a hit? “It’s a very un­fair ques­tion,” says Kret­zmer. “Es­pe­cially with a show that hasn’t been tried out of town.” To sup­port his point, he quotes an­other French­man. “As Napoleon said when he was once asked how he achieved his vic­to­ries: ‘First you get there, and then you see what hap­pens.’”

PHOTO: VICKY AL­HAD­EFF

The men be­hind the mu­si­cal ( from left to right): co-writ­ers Alain Bou­blil and Claude-Michel Schön­berg, and lyri­cist Her­bert Ket­zmer

Mar­guerite stars Ruthie Hen­shall and Alex Han­son

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