Happy Miserable: An interview with the genius behind Les Mis
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