On Thursday, just after his 90th birthday, Herbert Kretzmer, the man who wrote the English lyrics to the musical Les Misérables, asked me: “Do you want to hear a joke?”
Of course, I told him over the phone. Kretzmer cleared his throat. “Old songwriters don’t die,” he said, pausing briefly for effect. “They de-compose.”
In addition to his birthday, this week marks the 30th anniversary of Les Misérables, one of Broadway’s longest-running musicals. And yet, it’ll likely be a surprise to even the biggest theater buff that the show opened to cruddy reviews when it premiered in 1985 at London’s Barbican Theatre. One critic called the show “a load of sentimental tosh,” an opining Kretzmer did not fail to mention. (Of Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel, upon which the musical is based, Baudelaire called it “a vile and inept book”).
This is all moot, of course, because Les Misérables has been seen by over 70 million people in 44 different countries and in 22 languages. And yet, despite the musical’s inarguable triumph, Kretzmer remains grounded. “I’m not one who lives on cloud nine,” he said.
Kretzmer was born in Kroonstad, South Africa in 1925 to Jewish Lithuanian parents who owned a grocery shop and spoke Yiddish at home. A “convinced atheist,” said Kretzmer, “I never deny or disguise my Jewishness.” Though his older brother stayed put, eventually becoming the mayor of Johannesburg, Kretzmer, in the early 1950s, moved to Paris, the setting of Les Misérables. He entered into what he called his “wandering years,” which he described in a 2013 interview with The South African:
“In Paris…I tried to write the “great South African novel,” [and] played piano in a Left Bank bar in return for food and painted murals for rent money.”
Paris is also the place his lyrics came to life:
“Writing song lyrics for me was a spare-time, part-time kitchen table job. By day I’d be interviewing celebrities like John Steinbeck, Louis Armstrong, Cary Grant and Duke Ellington. By night I’d write lyrics. I’d written them for years.”
In 1954, Kretzmer moved to London where he became a television critic for The Daily Mail. But even as a journalist, Kretzmer dabbled in songwriting, penning popular ballads for Charles Aznavour such as “Yesterday When I Was Young” (1967) and “She” (1974). These songs became favorites of Cameron Mackintosh, an influential British theater producer, and it’s through Mackintosh that Kretzmer would land Les Misérables.
Six months before Les Misérables premiered in London’s West End, Mackintosh called up Kretzmer and asked if he could write the English lyrics to a French show he was bringing to London. “I wasn’t the first choice, you see,” he said, three decades after scribing the unforgettable “Master of the House” and “On My Own.” The original writer hired for the job, as Kretzmer put it, “had not come up with the goods.”
It took five months for Kretzmer to interpret the music for the show. “I don’t translate,” Kretzmer said in 2013. “I recreate. Songs cannot be translated. They can, however, be retold.” But one song posed a particular challenge to write. In fact, 17 days before opening night, at 5 a.m., he put the final touches on that taxing tune, “Bring Him Home,” arguably one of the most heart-wrenching songs in the show.
At the age of 60, Kretzmer traded in his career as a newspaper man (a compilation of his interviews have been published in a book titled Snapshots: Encounters with Twentieth-Century Legends), for songwriter. Of both jounalism and songwriting, he said: “What they have in common is that they both entail the manipulation of the English language and constraint.”
As he looks back at his 90 years, beginning in South Africa and ultimately leading to present-day, including his marriage to his wife of 27 years, Sybil, and numerous Tony and Grammy Awards, he said: “Everything makes sense when you look back on it. Nothing makes sense when you’re living it…You realize that it wasn’t all haphazard, your life seems to have some shape after all. It never seems like it at the time.”
“I don’t wake up in the morning and say to myself, ‘I have a hit show, ain’t life grand?’” he said in his signature South African lilt. “That’s for Hollywood movies.”
Previous: 10 Things We Loved About 2012