I have a guest blogger today, who I have never met, I have not invited to be a guest blogger, nor did they ever agree to be one. Which is another way of saying I am reproducing an interview I found in the newspaper (L.A. Times, Wednesday, February 20) without anybody’s permission to do so. It feels illegal, or at least wrong. But whatever it is, you are about to be a part of it. (The charge: Receiving stolen information.)
The reason I want to include this purloined material is that the man being interviewed voices opinions and feelings that resonate with my own. Call it the “‘You see? It’s not just me’ Factor.” My plagiarism is also in support of a talented man who seems to be receiving less credit than he deserves, that credit going instead to French people. So, in a way, I’m a fighter for justice, as well as a plagiarist. (On second thought, I’m not sure it’s plagiarism if you don’t claim undeserved credit. It may just be stealing.)
Anyway, here it is – an interview with Herbert Kretzmer, who wrote the English language lyrics to “Les Miserable.” I hope you enjoy reading it. Maybe even a little more so, because of the illicit quality of this communication.
By Amy Dawes (I steal, but I give credit.) Abridged by Earl Pomerantz (I steal, but I edit. And also, apparently, rhyme.)
Okay, here we go.
To speak with Herbert Kretzmer, writer of the English-language lyrics for Les Miserables is uncannily like being let in on his creative process. He chooses his words – considering one, tossing it out, employing another, while muttering asides like “yes, that’s better” – as if he were composing on the spot. Kretzmer was 60, and the longtime theater and television critic of the U.K.’s Daily Mail when he took leave to tackle the Les Miserables project on a five-month deadline before the London debut of the musical in 1985. He’s now 87, and last year he and French composers Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Bourbil collaborated once again, to add a new song to the musical – “Suddenly”, sung in the movie by Hugh Jackman – which has been nominated for an Oscar.
I’ve seen side-by-side comparisons of some of the original French-language lyrics and the ones you wrote, and they are markedly different, though the ideas and the emotions are the same.
I’m not a translator. I don’t believe a song can be translated; it is something too ephemeral. You can’t get hold of it with your fingers; it’s like a collection of references and allusions. Some of the most memorable lines are the most ephemeral.
There’s that striking moment in “I Dreamed A Dream” where these line come in: “But the tigers come at night/ with their voices soft as thunder.”
I remember the exact moment when those lines came to me: It was 2 or 3 in the morning and I was standing at the corner of the desk in my flat in Basil Street, looking over a couple of lines, about to go to bed, when those words just jumped into my mind. I’m still not entirely certain what they mean. Obviously, the tigers are the bad news, the troubles, but there’s a resonance to those words that might not achieve the same effect in another language. Tom Stoppard said in a lecture that when he came across a great phrase, he’d simply drop the pencil, clap his hands together, and say, “Thank you, Lord, keep ‘em coming.” That’s what I thought of then. It was a gift from somewhere, and I’m grateful for it.
When you approach your work, do you take on the responsibility of telling the whole story, the way the playwright or the screenwriter would?
Absolutely. On the day I began work on Les Miserable, I wrote out a slogan of three words and pinned it to the wall at the corner of my desk: “Tell the story.” My job is to distill the essence of the novel in song, and to never stray from the mood and thrust of the original text. If we’ve succeeded, it’s because we’ve stqyed close to Hugo.
Before you took on Les Miserables, you wrote some enduring songs, such as “Yesterday When I was Young” for Charles Aznavour. How would you say your career as a newspaperman prepared you?
Journalism and lyric writing are compatible professions in that they involve the manipulaton of language under great constraint. I tried to write a novel once, and though I finished it, I did not enjoy the experience; it was too free, in a way. Something in me psychically needs to express what I have to say in a tight situation. It’s within that cage that I’ve looked for and found my freedom.
Note: I learned from another article (in The New Yorker) that, in recent British TV documentaries about "Les Miserables", Kretzmer was not even mentioned. Also, when the show was transferred to the West End (London’s Broadway), Kretzmer reports that he resisted the “adaptation by” credit he was offered, holding out for the “lyrics by” credit he believed he deserved for expanding a two-hour musical to a running time of a over three hours. During the credits negotiation with producer Cameron Macintosh, Kretzmer recalls saying, “Cameron, if you go ahead with that billing, you have my blessing, but that is the show you do. You do the show by Bourbil and Schonberg. It’ll be a two-hour show and it’ll be in French.”
I like that guy. And that’s why I appropriated the interview.