I was born under a rhyming planet,” the lyricist and journalist Herbert Kretzmer, once told The New York Times. “I had a knack — I was grateful for it. I tried to play by the rules: no false rhymes, and avoid a cliché like the plague.”
Whatever star Kretzmer was born under, the constellations were clearly aligned in his favour. Nothing seemed retrograde in his chart. He was the theatre critic who could make or break a show’s reputation with a flick of the mouse (or the typewriter, in his day). But he was also the award-winning lyricist who lifted Les Misérables out of the doldrums in Paris and into long-running international fame in London’s West End. Apart from a break imposed by the pandemic it remains the capital’s longest running West End musical. But he could not have imagined that Victor Hugo’s 19th century revolutionary cry at the barricades against poverty and injustice, transformed into his memorable lyric — Do you hear the people sing?/Singing a song of angry men –— would earn him $20 million in royalties for turning a disregarded French musical into an international blockbuster.
Kretzmer, who has died aged 95, achieved earlier lyrical success. He co-wrote with Charles Aznavour the dreamily nostalgic She for the 1974 TV series, Seven Faces of Woman, a No 1 hit for four weeks, and the North American hit, Yesterday When I Was Young for Roy Clark. But he played another award-winning role as the Daily Mail’s theatre critic, one of the urbane and witty bunch of Jewish writers working in Fleet Street in the ’60s and ’70s, including Bernard Levin, Milton Shulman, Robert Muller, Clive Hirschhorn, and the JC’s own David Nathan. News was imprinted in his blood. He described himself as a newspaperman first and a lyricist second. Indeed, his TV criticisms in the Mail won him two national press awards, including TV Critic of the Year in 1980.
Kretzmer was born in Kroonstad, South Africa, one of the four sons of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants, William and Tilly Kretzmer, who had fled the pogroms of Tsarist Russia to settle in South Africa in the early 20th century, where they ran a furniture store. He matriculated in the local high school before attending Rhodes University and began writing newsreels and documentary films for African Film Productions, Johannesburg. He sold his accordion to buy his passage to Europe, but his Parisian interlude was not a romantic one. He tried and failed to write novels and earned his bread playing jazz piano in a brasserie before joining the now-defunct Daily Sketch in London in 1954 as a feature writer. Five years later he moved to the Sunday Dispatch, followed by the Daily Express in 1952, where he worked for 16 years as a feature writer and film critic.
Lyric writing was just a sideline. But a pivotal moment came when he joined Bernard Levin, David Nathan, Ned Sherrin and David Frost on the Saturday-night satirical TV game-changer That Was the Week That Was in 1962. When, the following November President John F Kennedy was assassinated, TW3’s Saturday-night script was scrapped in favour of a last minute tribute show with Kretzmer’s song, In the Summer of His Years, written within hours of JFK’s assassination and memorably delivered by Millicent Martin.
Kretzmer won an Ivor Novello Award for the song Goodness Gracious Me, co-composed with David Lee and immortalised by Peter Sellers, in the role of an Indian doctor, and Sophia Loren as the female lead in the 1960 film adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s The Millionairess. The song had made audiences laugh at the time, but was later considered politically incorrect and cut from the film. In 1964 Kretzmer wrote the book and lyrics for the West End musical Our Man Crichton, starring Kenneth More and Millicent Martin. Based on JM Barrie’s play The Admirable Crichton, it caught the attention of producer Cameron Mackintosh, who admired its lyricism but refused to revive it when approached later by Kretzmer. However, Mackintosh then invited him to write an English version of the French musical Les Misérables by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schõnberg. Kretzmer expanded the original two- hour show into a three-hour operatic tour de force. He did not intend to translate the original French libretto. His French was not good enough and he would not have managed to reflect the nuance of the original songs. “Words have resonance within a culture,” Kretzmer told The New Yorker in 2013. “They have submarine strengths and meaning”. But in his own way he expressed the desperate longing for freedom and justice of the angry young men and women at the barricades. Les Mis spoke to many who identified with the theme of oppression and liberation. That — and the music, of course — was its magic.
Nevertheless Les Mis English-style, with the Kretzmer lyrics augmented by James Fenton and the original Schõnberg score, was slated when it opened at the Barbican on October 8, 1985. The Sunday Telegraph condemned it as “a lurid Victorian melodrama”. “Witless and synthetic” pronounced the Observer. And even Kretzmer’s own newspaper, the Daily Mail, called it “Les Glums.”
But audiences that first night turned the tables on the critics. They loved it. It took the sanguine Benedict Nightingale to put his finger on the pulse in The New York Times. “Rarely has there been an occasion when so many nasty reviews counted for so little.” And the box office sold out for months.
There were other musicals, among them Marguerite in 2008, set in Nazi-occupied Paris to a score by Michel Legrand and shortlisted in that year’s Best Musical category in the London Evening Standard Drama Awards. And his finale, Kristina, based on Vilhelm Moberg’s novels about 19th-century Swedish emigrants to Minnesota.
Kretzmer was appointed OBE in the 2011 New Years Honours for services to music. He was made a Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1988 and received honorary doctorates. His marriage to Elisabeth Margaret Wilson in 1961 was dissolved in 1973 and he married Sybil Sever in 1988. She survives him with his two children from his first marriage, Matthew and Danielle and two grandsons.
Herbert Kretzmer: born October 5,1925. Died October 14, 2020