They gave us Les Mis. Next up: Vichy France

By John Nathan, May 9, 2008
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The new West End musical Marguerite takes a 160-year-old love story and updates it to wartime France. John Nathan asks its creators: will it be a hit?


The men behind the musical: co-writers Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg,
and lyricist Herbert Ketzmer

What 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…Wait 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 best-known 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.



Marguerite stars Ruthie Henshall and
Alex Hanson

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.

“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 fourth-rate 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.’”

Marguerite is at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, London SW1. Tel: 0845 481 1870

    Last updated: 3:01pm, February 18 2011