How We Met: Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg

Daniel Rosenthal
Sunday 23 October 2011 06:46

The lyricist Alain Boublil, 57 (right), was born in Tunisia and moved to Paris at 18. He began his musical career as a publisher and producer. Now he lives in London with his second wife, the singer Marie Zamora, and their two children. Claude-Michel Schonberg, composer, 54, was born in Brittany of Hungarian parents, and wrote and performed pop songs at university. He lives in Paris with his wife, Beatrice, a TV newsreader, and their two children. Boublil and Schonberg's partnership is one of the most successful in musical history, producing Les Miserables, Miss Saigon and Martin Guerre, which won the 1996 Olivier Award for Best Musical and is about to reopen, in revised form, in Leeds

ALAIN BOUBLIL: One day in 1968 I was driving across Paris with my car radio on, tuned to the Europe 1 station, when I heard a pop song performed by a young girl called Patricia. It was called "Tous les jours a quatre heures" ("Every day at four o'clock") and I loved it.

At that time I was working as an A&R man for a music publishing company. It was my responsibility to attract new songwriters and I wanted to buy the rights to "Tous les jours". Europe 1 put me on to EMI who told me the song had been written by Claude-Michel.

I invited him to see me and we did the simplest of deals to publish the song. He looked very different back then. He was much heavier, he had big hair. At that first meeting I was amazed by the contrast between his appearance and this very sweet little song he had written for a sweet 16-year-old girl.

That was the start of our friendship. Pretty soon, we found out that we came from fairly similar backgrounds. We had both done economics degrees, partly to please our parents, and partly because, although we both knew that we wanted music to be our careers, we didn't know how or where to start.

Claude-Michel was born in France of Hungarian Jewish parents who had to flee Hungary. It turned out that they might have gone to Tunisia, which is where my family is from, rather than Brittany. If they had gone to Tunisia we probably would never have met. That was the first big coincidence.

The second coincidence was that soon after doing the deal, I met, through another channel, the woman who was to become my first wife: Francoise Pourcel. She was the daughter of the conductor Frank Pourcel - who was Claude-Michel's boss at EMI.

We did not talk about working together at that stage, but we saw each other a lot socially because Claude-Michel was so close to Frank, who had become my father-in-law. We realised that we spoke exactly the same language about popular music and songs - and that's something you find very rarely in a lifetime.

In New York, in 1972, I saw Jesus Christ Superstar, and the ambition which had been in my mind for years - to tell a story with words and music - suddenly crystallised. A through-sung musical in operatic form, like Superstar, was the answer.

I walked the streets of New York for a night, and by morning had found my subject: the French Revolution. Back in Paris, I told an old friend, Raymond Jeannot, that we were going to write this rock opera. He said: "Claude-Michel is the one to write the classical side of the music - and he's dying to work with you."

Raymond, Claude-Michel, Jean-Max Riviere and I worked together on 24 songs in a studio, but it was only with Claude-Michel that I felt this great sense of complicite. The double-album of La Revolution Francaise became an overnight hit in 1973, and the stage version was a success in Paris, with Claude-Michel playing Louis XVI. It was a very naive work, but a good draft for Les Miserables.

A few years later, I came up with the idea of doing Les Miserables. When I told Claude-Michel about it, he left his job to join my company, so that we could control the work completely.

On the opening night of Les Mis at the Barbican in 1985 he and I shared the kind of thrill you get once in a lifetime. To see 1,000 people give a 10-minute standing ovation when everyone had been predicting a catastrophe went beyond words.

We help each other immensely. We learnt long ago that you must put your egos far, far behind you when you are working. If an idea does not get unanimous approval from both of us, for music or lyrics, we reject it. It's as simple as that.

When we first became friends, Claude-Michel said he couldn't see himself ever getting married. He lived in a dark apartment, and loved all the bachelor habits you think condemn you to be single all your life. But he's been happily married for 20 years - so that's the most drastic change in him. He's always been a very strong personality who knows when to make the proper compromise - but without ever compromising his integrity. I think I am the same.

I am very fatalistic and believe that one is meant to meet certain people in this life. I cannot imagine what my life would have been like without Claude-Michel. In 30 years, the longest I have gone without seeing him is perhaps a month. We are so much a part of each other's lives that our wives call us "the other couple".

CLAUDE-MICHEL SCHONBERG: I don't remember why I wrote this song in 1968 about a young girl who is bored with her life. What matters is that Alain had a crush on it. I was very young, and when he called me into his office it was the first time anyone had really shown an interest in me as a songwriter, so I was flattered.

As Alain's relationship with my boss's daughter, Francoise, developed, he and I became very good friends. But it was only when we started writing La Revolution Francaise that we caught the virus of the musical. When we worked on that show, the two of us became the team that we are today.

Alain is a slow-motion, thinking person and likes going through the details, while I go straight to the point very fast. So there is a kind of complementary relation between us: I know where we have to go, he shows me the way.

There are only two people I listen to when we are working: Alain first, and Cameron Mackintosh second. Whatever advice other people might give, I'm just not interested. If we have to finish something by a deadline, Alain knows I will do my share, and I know he'll do his. I hear so many colleagues complaining about the laziness or slowness of their collaborators, but that will never happen with Alain. If we have to fight against a director it's always two against one, so that makes us stronger.

We are just as complementary on the business side. Alain is very involved in all of the contracts, I'm much more involved in travelling around as a composer to check that a show that's been running for a few years is still in good shape. We have never really fallen out over an artistic decision.

About a year after our success with La Revolution, I was still writing songs that nobody wanted to sing, and Alain said "Why don't you sing them yourself?" It was not what I wanted to do, but he persuaded me. He and Frank Pourcel produced my album Le Premier Pas, which was number one for 16 weeks in France and sold 850,000 copies. That was another very happy experience together, and I'm pleased that he pushed me like that.

Both of us were ambitious when we were young and we went to Paris to fulfil those ambitions. When I was a little boy I used to say to my parents: "If tomorrow I become a butcher, it's to be the best butcher in the world." But there was no choice about what I would become. I was born a composer.

It took Alain longer to decide that he was going to make lyrics his life's work. He was not as sure as I was that there was a strong artistic capacity within him.

He used to be very, very insecure about his talent and his position in society. After what we've achieved, he's become a much more secure person, more relaxed and open to the whole world. I would like everybody to have the second chance that he has had, to be as happy as he is with his second wife and children, and his work. He is blooming.

For the last two summers, my family has spent time with his family at his house in Tuscany, with all the children together, and they sometimes come to my place in the South of France.

I'm not someone who talks very easily - that's more Alain's style. But when we are in company socially, neither of us talk much about our work.

We are both getting older, so there's a little bit of wisdom coming to us, although I feel my defects becoming worse and worse. I'm more and more paranoid about the music in our shows. When someone doesn't sing well or play well, I take it very personally. Maybe that is a necessary flaw if standards are to stay high.

Money is no longer a worry for either of us, but I don't think that has really changed us. As a good Jew I always feel guilty about what's happening. Money gives me an opportunity to help people - not because I'm generous, but so that I can have the image of myself that I want to have.

When people ask me why Alain and I collaborate so well, I say it's because our wives are very good friends. If problems arise when two men work together as closely as we do, they usually come from the wives' jealousy of that relationship.

Through my collaboration with Alain I achieved what I wanted to do. Before meeting him I wanted to be Leonard Bernstein or Andrew Lloyd Webber. After Les Miserables, for the first time in my life I wanted to be myself.

! 'Martin Guerre' is at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, 8 Dec-13 Feb (0113 213 7200).

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