Herbert Kretzmer of Les Misérables in English Dies at 95

Herbert Kretzmer of Les Misérables in English Dies at 95

The renowned lyricist and journalist Herbert Kretzmer who was best known for his English-language adaptation of the musical Les Misérables, has died at the age of 95.

Born in South Africa in 1925, Kretzmer moved to London in 1954 ‘with £150 in my pocket’ and embarked on a career as both a songwriter and journalist.

He went on to win two national press awards while working as a TV critic for the Daily Mail from 1979-87 and wrote weekly songs for the BBC’s groundbreaking satire show That Was The Week That Was.

He later won the prestigious Ivor Novello Award for the comedy song, Goodness Gracious Me, performed by Peter Sellers and Sophia Loren in 1989.

But he was perhaps best known for penning the score for the stage version of Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel, including the iconic ballad, ‘I dreamed a dream.’

His work on Les Mis – now the longest running West End musical of all time – garnered him praised around the world and earned him Tony and Grammy awards.

He graced the stage of the Golden Globes in 2013, when, aged 87, he stood arm-in-arm with actress Anne Hathaway as the cast scooped a string of awards.

Sir Tim Rice was among those who paid a heartfelt tribute to Kretzmer today, calling him a ‘giant of his trade.’

Sir Tim tweeted: ‘The great lyricist and man of theatre and popular song, Herbert Kretzmer, has died. From Les Mis to She, TW3, Goodness Gracious Me and so much more he was a giant of his trade. RIP Herbie.’

When we didn’t win the Award for Best Song, I thought my chance of enjoying a moment of personal Golden Globe glory had probably gone.

In fact, I’d suspected as much from the minute we arrived at the Beverly Hills Hilton last Sunday and discovered that our table, although having a clear view of the stage, was an awfully long way back.

I sat down, quietly relieved that I wouldn’t have to be making a speech, to enjoy the extraordinary — and very long — spectacle that is a Hollywood awards evening.

And then Les Miserables won the Golden Globe for Best Musical or Comedy, as I hoped it would, and I realised to my pleasure and surprise I was expected to join director Tom Hooper, the film’s several producers and stars Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway — both of whom had already won individual Golden Globes — on the now worryingly distant stage.

I’m in pretty good nick for 87 but by my calculations it was going to take me about half an hour to get there. But adrenalin and applause are potent drugs and, along with Claude-Michel Schonberg, the French composer who wrote the score, and Alain Boublil, who first conceived the idea for a musical version of Victor Hugo’s  novel and wrote the original French lyrics, I positively cantered to the stage to join the rest of the team.

It was there, amid the blinding television lights and the gratifying cheers and whoops of the audience, that something rather special happened.

As I stood there, trying both to catch my breath and to savour what I knew was a very special moment — a moment of almost infectious joy, if you like — I felt someone gently slip their arm through mine.

I didn’t look round at first to see who had made this simple, small but much appreciated gesture of support and comfort.

But when I finally did, I discovered it was the beautiful, talented and just terribly nice Anne Hathaway. Almost 30 years ago, I wrote a lyric — I Dreamed A Dream — Ms Hathaway sings so beautifully in the film that it can break even the stoniest of hearts.

But, 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 Miserables would become. 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.

The musical has run in London’s West End for 27 years and has been seen by more than 60 million people in 42 countries. And that’s just the stage production: now Tom Hooper’s riotously successful film version, which is No 1 at the UK cinema box office, is introducing a new audience to the show.

But stage or movie, there is absolutely no doubt that Les Miserables has completely changed my life.
It all started in January, 1985, with me picking up the phone to hear five life-transforming words: ‘Hello, Herbert, it’s Cameron Mackintosh.’

At the time, I was television critic of the Daily Mail and Cameron (now Sir Cameron) was the rising star of musical theatre production, still basking in the afterglow of the phenomenal success of Cats.

Put like that, you’d think we’d have little in common and certainly nothing worth a personal phone call, but Cameron knew I had another string to my professional bow.

Ever since I’d settled in London from South Africa in 1954, my career had followed two parallel paths. My day job was as a journalist working for the likes of the Daily Sketch, Sunday Dispatch, Daily Express and now the Daily Mail.

But my passion, born out of childhood trips to the cinema in my home town of Kroonstad in the Free State, was for song-writing — and lyric-writing, in particular.

This was the Golden Age of the American musical and my heroes were the likes of George Gershwin, Irving Berlin and Cole Porter. I vividly recall watching films such as Gold Diggers Of 1935 and thinking: ‘I can do that.’

So I did. I wrote some songs at school and for a couple of revue-style shows in South Africa. But it was when I came to London, and discovered that the streets were positively awash with composers far more talented than I, that I decided to concentrate on lyric-writing.

By day, as a journalist, I interviewed some of the world’s best known writers, fighters and film stars — John Steinbeck, Truman Capote, Groucho Marx, Sugar Ray Robinson, Cary Grant and Marlene Dietrich, to name but a few — but by night I wrote songs for anyone who would buy my wares.

I wrote the comedy hit Goodness Gracious Me for Peter Sellers and Sophia Loren, Kinky Boots for Honor Blackman and Patrick Macnee and all sorts of songs for the satirical, late night TV revue, That Was The Week That Was, and its star, Millicent Martin.
In the 19 years that the show ran at the Palace Theatre before transferring down the road to its current home, The Queen’s, I went to see it only two or three times.

But I did fly to first nights in distant places — Tokyo, Cape Town, Budapest . . . Seeing Tom Hooper’s film version a month ago, brought all the excitement rushing back. I loved his brave innovation of having the actors sing live in every take.

Hugh Jackman later told me it was like being ‘set free’ to find a ‘heightened reality’.

And, most gratifyingly of all, at least from a lyricist’s point of view, you can hear and understand every word, including those to Suddenly, the one new song we wrote for the film and which now has an Oscar nomination to go with the one for a Golden Globe.

And yes, that does mean that in about a month’s time we will be heading back to Los Angeles for the Oscar ceremony, a prospect that, in my current jet-lagged state, fills me with equal measures of anticipation and dread.

But whatever the outcome, I’m gratified to learn that people all over the world are coming out of cinemas, drying their tears and singing our songs.

The film has been out only a week in this country and already I’ve met someone who’s seen it six times. Mind you, they’ll have to go some to beat the apple-cheeked Canadian chaplain I met in New York who’d seen the Broadway stage show 87 times.

Les Miserables changed a lot of things for me, although I did return to my job at the Mail for a year before I realised the show was clearly set to run and run, and that I really could, at the age of 61, finally consider giving up the day job.

As a man who’d arrived in this country with only £150 in his pocket (which, by the way, I immediately lent to someone and never saw again) I marvel at the transformation in my fortunes.

But I didn’t stop writing songs. Since Les Miserables, I’ve worked with Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, of Abba fame, on a musical called Kristina and teamed up again with Boublil and Schonberg to create a show named Marguerite, this time with the music written by Michel Legrand.

And next year, I’m hoping, finally, to revive the musical that first put me in touch with Sir Cameron Mackintosh. Yes, 50 years after its first run, I’m hoping we can bring Our Man Crichton back to the London stage, this time with a harder satirical edge.

‘Do you hear the people sing?’ asks the chorus of Les Miserables. As long as the answer is ‘yes’, I’ll keep writing the songs.

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