Happy Mis­er­able: An in­ter­view with the ge­nius be­hind Les Mis

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - JOHN NATHAN

LES MIS­ER­ABLES lyri­cist Her­bert Kret­zmer was hop­ing that his 90th birth­day would be a mod­est af­fair. “Maybe a small lunch party,” he said as we climbed the stairs to his of­fice at the top floor of his tall Kens­ing­ton house ear­lier this month. This was said with per­haps more hope than ex­pec­ta­tion. For mod­est cel­e­bra­tions must be dif­fi­cult when your words have ar­tic­u­lated the thoughts, feel­ings and fears ex­pressed in Les Mis­er­ables, the most suc­cess­ful show on earth.

Kret­zmer has reached the time of life when, as some­one once said, the brain makes ap­point­ments that the body finds hard to keep. The stairs are steeper than they have ever been for the nona­ge­nar­ian pins. His birth­day was not the only im­por­tant date be­ing marked this month. It fell a few days be­fore Les Mis­er­ables’ 30th an­niver­sary cel­e­bra­tions.

“They will prob­a­bly have to wheel me on from the wings in or­der for me to take my bow in front of the ador­ing hordes,” said Kret­zmer with a typ­i­cal mix of sangfroid and self-dep­re­ca­tion. He was, though, be­ing more ac­cu­rate than he meant to be. Ador­ing hordes have been flock­ing to Les Mis­er­ables for three decades now. There are 42 shows across the globe, 60 mil­lion have seen it and there is no sign that this in­ter­na­tional jug­ger­naut of a mu­si­cal is go­ing to pull into the sid­ings any­time soon.

So a birth­day cel­e­bra­tion, whether it is Kret­zmer’s or Les Mis­er­ables’ is un­avoid­able. Al­though it prob­a­bly won’t be like the sur­prise 80th bash at the Ivy or­gan­ised by his Amer­i­can wife Sy­bil.

“Ev­ery­body was there. I was so touched. Bjorn [yes, ABBA’s Bjorn Ul­vaeus with whom Kret­zmer col­lab­o­rated on the mu­si­cal, Kristina] came over from Stock­holm, and there was David Frost and Trevor Nunn, among oth­ers. Talk about be­ing flat­tered by the com­pany one keeps.”

Hav­ing ar­rived in his stu­dio, Kret­zmer sits be­hind a hand­some, wooden, leather-topped writ­ing desk. The walls are fes­tooned with ev­i­dence of a stel­lar ca­reer. Not so much the years as a top Fleet Street jour­nal­ist dur­ing which time he served as theatre critic for the Daily Ex­press and TV critic for the Mail, but of the lyric writ­ing that re­sulted in the plat­inum and gold Les Miz cast record­ings that sit in frames next each other. To the right, is a pic­ture of Kret­zmer with Charles Az­navour for whom Kret­zmer wrote the lyrics to the French star’s big­gest hit, She. And, over there, is a pic­ture of an­other Charles — the fu­ture King — pre­sent­ing Kret­zmer with his OBE.

Not bad for a — to use Kret­zmer’s own de­scrip­tion of him­self — “Jewish boy from a small town in South Africa.”

He ar­rived in Lon­don in 1954. While work­ing as TV critic dur­ing the day, the song-writ­ing was mostly un­der­taken at night in his Knights­bridge flat (for­merly John Cleese’s). It was there he wrote Good­ness Gra­cious Me for Sophia Loren and Pe­ter Sell­ers and Kinky Boots, a term he coined for a song writ­ten for Avengers stars Honor Black­man and Pa­trick Mac­Nee, but which is now also the ti­tle of an un­re­lated hit Broad­way show.

Though they con­tinue to be played, he has in the past dis­missed those hits as nov­elty songs. Yet lis­ten to the words and, of­ten, what’s novel is the lyri­cal el­e­gance. Take one of the lines al­lo­cated to Seller’s In­dian doc­tor: “From New Delhi to Dar­jeel­ing, I have done my share of heal­ing…” It’s funny and beau­ti­ful in its con­struc­tion. And so, look­ing back, it’s clear that there was a tal­ent wait­ing for the chance to be fully ex­pressed. And that Les Mis­er­ables was that chance.

Does he see him­self think as be­long­ing to the great lyri­cists of mu­si­cal theatre? “My wife does, bless her heart,” he chuck­les. “She thinks I un­der-sell my­self. I cer­tainly don’t see my­self as a great man. I’m aware that some of the lyrics I’ve writ­ten are re­ally worth­while and that, if they live on af­ter me, they have to have some­thing go­ing for them. It would be idle to pre­tend that they haven’t reached a cer­tain sta­tus in the cul­tural fab­ric of our time. That is as close to im­mor­tal­ity as I ever have to get.” He pauses, and in one fleet­ing mo­ment pri­vately en­joys the line he is about to say out loud.

“Some­one said that the trou­ble with im­mor­tal­ity is that you’re never around to en­joy it.”

Woody Allen, I re­mind him, wanted to achieve it not through his work, but by not dy­ing. But is dy­ing a source of anx­i­ety at 90?

“There is such a thing as talk­ing too early of course. At the mo­ment, you can’t help but think about your own death when it hurts to walk around the cor­ner. And I have to say, speak­ing as of this mo­ment, it holds no anx­i­ety for me what­so­ever. There is also such a thing as enough is enough, and as hav­ing lived your time. I might feel very dif­fer­ently when the ac­tual old man stands at the bed­room door and beck­ons me across the hori­zon. I’m not kvetch­ing. I can’t say I’m look­ing for­ward to it. But I don’t fear it.”

On an­other wall of Kret­zmer’s stu­dio, above the (sur­pris­ingly) elec­tronic key­board, hangs a se­ries of in­nocu­ous­look­ing framed hand­writ­ten notes. On closer in­spec­tion, some of them have mu­sic no­ta­tion, one with the words ‘‘Night and Day’’. Pen­cilled be­low the stave, is the sig­na­ture, “Cole Porter”. In song-writ­ing terms, this is a bit like see­ing a hand­writ­ten “To be or not to be” fol­lowed by the Bard’s au­to­graph.

“It’s a bar of mu­sic of Night and Day in his own no­ta­tion. I never met the man

but I’m very proud to have it. It’s beau­ti­ful isn’t it.”

There are other framed mes­sages and mu­si­cal pas­sages writ­ten in the hands of Richard Rogers, “To Her­bert, with de­light at hav­ing met you,” and an­other one from Kurt Weil, plus a bit of Danc­ing in the Dark from Arthur Schwartz. Kret­zmer is now di­rect­ing me to a dif­fer­ent part of the wall.

“That one, higher up, in front of you. That’s Yip Har­burg,” he says, guid­ing me to a hand­writ­ten note by the author of Over The Rain­bow.

“I met him at din­ner with Arthur Schwartz. We talked for a while and at the end I said, ‘I’d love you to write out one of your lyrics for me.’ He sat down and did a man­ful job. Wrote the whole thing. I couldn’t be­lieve it.”

I be­gin to read and the slanted hand­writ­ing en­ters the mind while still at­tached to the mu­sic it was in­tended for.

‘‘Once I got a rail road, made it run, made it race against time, Once I got a rail road, now it’s done, Brother can you spare a dime.’’ Like most great lyrics they be­lie the graft that goes into writ­ing them. Some­times it is hard graft. For Kret­zmer it was never harder than writ­ing Bring Him Home, for Les Mis­er­ables, the show whose lyrics he wrote over five fevered months in that Knights­bridge flat. That song was what he calls the fi­nal stub­born piece of the show’s jig­saw.

“Of all the songs in Les Mis­er­ables, that one hov­ered over me like some­thing wait­ing to be claimed; like an old suit­case in lost and found. It was as if I had lost the ticket and I needed to re­claim the bag be­cause it was all in there. John Caird the co-di­rec­tor [with Trevor Nunn] left my place one night af­ter an­other failed ses­sion work­ing on the song. And as he left he said, ‘Sounds to me like a prayer.’ It was like the an­gels had flown in through the win­dow.

“Orig­i­nally it was to be a song about a jeal­ous fa­ther, or of ag­i­ta­tion, or jeal­ousy, or of a man los­ing his beloved quasi daugh­ter to a young ri­val. But, with Caird’s words, I knew it was a song of pure love call­ing on the Almighty to save this boy and bring him home. And sud­denly all the prob­lems fell away. That night I stood at the cor­ner of my desk and be­tween one and three in the morn­ing I wrote it. I didn’t even sit down.”

“It’s the kind of mo­ment that doesn’t of­ten hap­pen in a writer’s life. Tom Stop­pard said once that when it hap­pens it makes you want to drop your pen­cil, look at the sky and say “Thank you. Keep ’em com­ing.’ Or words to that ef­fect.”


Suc­cess: But Her­bert Kret­zmer prefers to un­der-sell him­self

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