Herbert Kretzmer: Lyricist behind stage phenomenon ‘Les Misérables’

Kretzmer’s ‘Do You Hear the People Sing?’ would go on to be a protest song around the world

Emily Langer
Monday 19 October 2020 12:56
Kretzmer decided to try his hand at penning lyrics while making a living as a journalist
Kretzmer decided to try his hand at penning lyrics while making a living as a journalist

Herbert Kretzmer was a newspaperman who moonlighted as a lyricist and produced the libretto for the English version of Les Misérables, the epic musical that remains an international sensation 35 years after its barricades first rose up from a London stage.

He died on 14 October at his home in the capital. He was 95. His agent, Marc Berlin, confirmed his death and said he did not know the cause.

Millions of theatregoers around the world have seen Les Misérables, the musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel about crime and redemption, liberty and struggle, and gone home with the words of such numbers as “Master of the House” and “Do You Hear the People Sing?” still ringing in their ears.

If fans could not stop hearing the people sing, they owed the experience in part to Kretzmer’s facility with words, a talent he said he honed as an ink-stained theatre and television critic for the Daily Express and the Daily Mail.

“In rhyming and journalism, you work under constant stricture,” he once said. “You are held loosely behind bars. There is something about being constrained that appeals to me: the freedom inside the cage.”

A South African-born son of Lithuanian Jews, Kretzmer first sailed to London shortly after the end of the Second World War. He had grown up going to the movies and idolising such composers as George Gershwin and Cole Porter, he recalled in an essay for the Daily Mail published in 2013, and aspired to become a songwriter.

But he found London “positively awash with composers far more talented than I”.

He decided to try his hand at penning lyrics and, while making a living as a journalist, “wrote songs for anyone who would buy my wares”.

He shared a credit for “Goodness Gracious Me!” recorded by Peter Sellers and Sophia Loren in 1960, and wrote a number of songs for the BBC satirical show That Was the Week That Was. But he was best known musically for his collaboration with Charles Aznavour, the French balladeer for whom he provided the English lyrics of such hits as “Yesterday, When I Was Young” and “She”.

Kretzmer's work with Aznavour impressed British theatrical producer Cameron Mackintosh, who in 1985 was planning an English version of the French-language musical Les Misérables, with music by Claude-Michel Schönberg and text by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel. With opening night only months away, Mackintosh called Kretzmer to ask whether he might be able to write an English libretto.

Kretzmer agreed, took a leave of absence from his newspaper job and set to work. He laboured so intensely that he said he sometimes forgot to eat.

“As I sat in my Knightsbridge flat all those years ago, agonising over whether the line about ‘but the tigers come at night’ would work or not, I never dreamed of what Les Misérables would become,” he wrote in the 2013 essay. “Like Hugo’s novel, it’s one part chase story, one part moral fable and one part love story, but when you put those elements together the result has proved irresistible.”

At its premiere, the production was largely a dud among London theater critics, with Kretzmer’s colleague at the Daily Mail panning Les Mis as Les Glums. But theatregoers were of another mind entirely, and the show quickly proved a phenomenon. Drawing crowds for decades, it became the longest-running musical in the history of the West End – its reign interrupted only by the onset of the coronavirus pandemic this year.

A 2012 film version starring Hugh Jackman as the hero Jean Valjean, Russell Crowe as his antagonist, Javert, and Anne Hathaway as the tragic Fantine proved a box office megahit.

Kretzmer took pains to say that his contribution was not one of translation.

“If I wanted a literal translation, I would go to the dictionary,” Kretzmer told the New Yorker in 2013. “Translation – the very word I rebut and resent, because it minimises the genuine creativity that I bring to the task.”

Moreover, the original French version ran for two hours, and the English one exceeds three. “You don’t need to be a maths whiz to calculate that at least a third of the play did not exist before I got my hands on it,” he observed. “I feel the show belongs as much to me as it belongs to the French.”

His lyrics ranged from Fantine’s heart-rending “I Dreamed a Dream” and Valjean’s prayerful “Bring Him Home” to the rousing ode to liberty, “Do You Hear the People Sing?”, which took on a life outside the theatre as a protest song.

“Although I never envisaged going to the barricades myself,” he later wrote, “I was undoubtedly influenced by the inhumane apartheid system that I witnessed when I was growing up.”

At the opening night of a ‘Les Mis’ production on Broadway in 2014

Herbert Kretzmer was born on 5 October 1925, in Kroonstad, a small town southwest of Johannesburg. His parents ran a grocery and later a furniture shop. “I soon became aware,” he wrote, “that even as a boy in short trousers I could enjoy a life of privilege for no better reason than that I was born a wit baasie – a ‘little white master’.”

After studying at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, Kretzmer began his journalistic career in South Africa. He spent a period writing a novel in Paris before settling in 1954 in London, where he developed a specialty interviewing visiting celebrities such as John Steinbeck, Truman Capote, Marlene Dietrich, Rosemary Clooney and Cary Grant.

Kretzmer wrote Our Man Crichton, a musical based on a play by JM Barrie, which premiered in London in 1964, but he had to wait two decades to achieve genuine fame in the theatrical world, with Les Mis. He was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 2011.

Kretzmer’s first marriage, to Elisabeth Wilson, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife, Sybil Sever, whom he married in 1988; two children from his first marriage; and two grandchildren.

Recently, demonstrators in Hong Kong have sung “Do You Hear the People Sing?” to protest against Beijing’s encroachment.

“I believed that such a protest song, sung in solidarity, could overwhelm not only the repressive 1830s French police state depicted in Les Miserables but also the mighty dictatorships of our own times,” Kretzmer wrote, reflecting on the development.

“Remember, I wrote the lyrics some years before Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1990 and before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1991,” he continued. “But I never imagined ‘Do You Hear the People Sing?’ might become an anthem for protesters everywhere, from Venezuela to Taiwan, Turkey and Hong Kong.”

Herbert Kretzmer, writer, born 5 October 1925, died 14 October 2020

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