BWW Exclusive Interview: Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg Discuss the Politics of Theatre and More!

By: Mar. 06, 2017
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Photo Credit: Coe Sweet
University of Virginia's Ruth Caplin Theatre

Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg were recently invited by Marva Barnett, a renowned professor and author on all things Victor Hugo, as artists-in-residence from Feb. 22 to 24 at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia; one of the top Universities in the nation founded in 1819 by Thomas Jefferson.

During their residency, Boublil and Schönberg agreed to sit down with Broadway World contributor Andrew Burrill for an exclusive interview about LES MISERABLES, MISS SAIGON, new musicals, and so much more!

In the preface of LES MISERABLES, it states, "So long as the three problems of the age -- the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night. If these problems are not solved so long as in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on Earth, books like this cannot be useless." What are your thoughts on the intersection of these words and the current political climate in the United States? Do you think the relevancy of LES MISERABLES as a story is still just as present?

Claude-Michel: That's a question that people are asking on and on. Our answer is that as soon as you are touching the human life and human kind, any work is always relevant. Because what Hugo said, of course, was it was a problem in his time, starvation of the women. We're not in an age where starvation is a problem, but...

Alain: Well, it is in some places.

Claude-Michel: With everything that is happening all over the world, the fact that you have to face a religion where women are downgraded... it's part of the problem. You quoted starvation because it was a problem during the time of Victor Hugo, but the big picture of the problem of the woman still exists. We know it and see it every day.

It's not by coincidence that a lot of protesters against the new presidency in America and in front of the Trump Tower, even in London... the protesters were 90 percent women. The image of the woman and the problem of the woman still exists. Not exactly in the same terms as 200 hundred years ago, but we still have the problem here.

Alain: Unfortunately, yes. It's very relevant to our days. Certainly when Hugo says a book like this one may not become useless, or something like that, maybe the musical has just inherited that message. And because the musical is so faithful to the novel, or at least to the spirit of the novel, and they're a different shape and medium, it certainly carries on the relevance of the book.

There is a major difference for us, to answer your question. Victor Hugo was a politically engaged person who paid dearly for this engagement. He's been fighting a King. He's been himself a law maker. He's been living for thirteen years in exile for his ideas. We are musical theater writers. We have been inspired by the epic of the novel as well as the political background in our country because we are quite passionate also about history, as well as music and literature. LES MISERABLES is a perfect mix of all three.

But we did not approach it from a political point of view. We didn't try to judge it from a political angle. Although we know what the message is and means, and we tried to translate it as clearly as we could, or as faithfully as we could, our approach was, "Let's write a good musical out of this subject matter and from this amazing novel."

I completely understand when you say that you are not politicians, that you are musical theatre writers; and that maybe your main motive for writing LES MISERABLES wasn't to be politicians, but rather to just tell the story. But inherently by telling this story at different points in time, you are somewhat becoming political?

Alain: You can't avoid it!

Claude-Michel: In that case we're in-between. It's the novel that has the message. All we did was put the novel on stage with music. Of course, we are passing the novel to the audience and the message included. We try to respect that. We had a long conversation with Marva Barnett yesterday evening about what makes the musical so meaningful to people. At the end of the day, people leaving the theatre saw the show as reflecting the novel, and the conclusion is that they want to improve their lives because the message is to be good. It's stronger than to be bad.

But it's not us! It's Victor. What we did - and, maybe we did it well, - is to respect the spirit and the message of the novel and to pass it to the audience through the music, through the lyrics, through the direction, through the lights, through the orchestration, and through everything else. They all must work together.

Alain: By the way, the same idea applies to MISS SAIGON. MISS SAIGON, when we started writing, we were inspired by the idea of updating the story of sacrifice and the doomed love story of MADAM BUTTERFLY in a modern environment.

You can raise the stakes and the music can follow and all that. It was amazing for us when MISS SAIGON opened in New York last time, not this time. We suddenly found ourselves in the middle of controversies. One was the equity controversy and the casting and importing of English actors to America, or non-Asians playing Asian characters. But the second one which was as important was that we realized that the Vietnam War wounds had not healed yet and we found the show had become a show about the War- and the love story and the sacrifice at the heart of the show were, like, unimportant. Some journalists were only talking about our opinion of the Vietnam War, which we didn't have an opinion about really.

The great thing with this production, which is a complete new production coming to Broadway, is that we have kind of taken back our story to its roots. The love story, the sacrifice, the mother's story with her child, are all again at the heart of the story and the war and events are back in the background where they belong. I hope that the people coming to see MISS SAIGON this time, and especially the young people too young to see it the first time, are going to see what we have written and not just another show about the Vietnam War. We've never written a show about the Vietnam War because we don't feel entitled to do that.

Claude-Michel: The fact that it was possible to take MADAME BUTTERFLY's story and update it in the 70's is the best proof that the problem in the era of the original story could be used today to write the same because there is still value. It can happen tomorrow between an American G.I. and girl in Syria or Iraq. I learned yesterday that there were 700 American soldiers fighting in Iraq. It can happen anywhere. Originally, I wanted to set it when the American Army invaded the island of Grenada.

Alain: And no one says today that THE SOUND OF MUSIC is a musical about World War II. And it's the same! Hopefully, now MISS SAIGON is going to be a musical about a doomed love story in the time of a war. It happens to be the Vietnam War.

Many greats of musical theater are known for their "sound." You have Andrew Lloyd Webber, Stephen Sondheim, Kander and Ebb, you guys, and so many more! I think what we're seeing right now in the modern musical theater age is a redefining of the musical structure and what a new musical can look like. With that, HAMILTON has been selling out, but those themes of revolution and freedom that are present in HAMILTON are just as present in many of your works.

Alain: And for good reason. Lin-Manuel Miranda was very influenced by our work, and confesses it in every interview.

Do you think moving forward musical theater has to adapt to the new millennial generation and younger generation who may not be interested in the classic format?

Claude-Michel: Musical theater must adapt to the fact that music is done by people. The new generation will do something different. That is great! That is good. DEAR EVAN HANSEN is a new form of musical theatre, a very sophisticated subject that 25 years ago nobody would dare to approach for a musical. Back then, it needed to be very simple and straightforward, a performance that the audience understands.

DEAR EVAN HANSEN is very sophisticated. Ben Platt is great. The music is average. It's not Andrew Lloyd Weber or Stephen Sondheim or us. But it's serving well. At the end of the day, you spent a beautiful evening. HAMILTON is something different. HAMILTON is a hip-hop/rap show but follows exactly the rule and tradition of musical theater. That's an evolution that NEXT TO NORMAL was and SPRING AWAKENING was. That's a new shape and form of musicals, the same way you have a new form of theater plays like CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME. There are a lot of new plays like that which are a new genre. It's good. It's sane! We don't have to adapt. They are creating musical theater. Each time it's important that each team is adding a stone to the monument or building.

If you don't add a new stone, you better do something else. Andrew Lloyd Webber was adding a stone to the building. We did our job. Stephen Sondheim did it too. But new people like Lin-Manuel... I learned something when I saw HAMILTON. I left the theatre differently than when I entered. I didn't think it was possible to write a musical like that. DEAR EVAN HANSEN is the beginning of something else, something new, and I appreciate seeing that kind of show. The tradition is not to do what Rogers and Hammerstein, Jerome Kern, and other were doing in their day. The tradition is to do what they should have done if they were alive today! I wish and pray there are a lot of young people who have the technology and ways of thinking that enable them to create a brand new kind of musical theater.

Alain: I agree completely. The only difference is that these new musicals are very interesting because they do something that was unthinkable some fifteen years ago. This kind of subject was more for plays, and not for musicals. Now obviously Stephen Sondheim opened the way for that in a lot of musicals like ASSASSINS. Before, they were not considered subject matter for musicals.

But at the same time, my feeling is that the way they are written, with the music serving only the action, almost like a movie, none of them will become classic musicals in the sense of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR or EVITA.

Claude-Michel: That's true. That's true.

Alain: They will stay what they are. With each team who comes along adding a new stone to the monument or building.

Alain: That someone, somewhere will produce the thing. That's fine. It's a new trend. You had musical revolution like that in the past. HAIR was like nothing else. But the problem is it's like nothing after, either. It's remained one of a kind, and could not be replicated in any way or shape. With these small musicals now, I think, we're going to see more and more.

Is there anything we can look forward to coming up from you both? Any new works or projects to expect?

Claude-Michel: It's quite difficult to have projects because a project is at least eight to ten years. We might have projects, hoping that we can achieve. But we're not completely sure.

Alain: The only project which is not completely new, but which is old and I hope to make new, is MARTIN GUERRE - very rightly called THE RETURN OF MARTIN GUERRE. We hope to make a return with MARTIN GUERRE and maybe in a different format, recreated in an opera than rather in a typical Broadway theater. We've just finished a very extensive rewrite of it in this format.

We will hopefully be working on that for the next three years. It's been seen on tour in America, quite successfully. It had a decent run in England, but it never played Broadway. We are trying now to start it again, but from an important opera house in this country.

What are your favorite foods?

Claude-Michel: It's definitely what my mother used to cook for me, and I think it would be the same for Alain.

Alain: Food?

Yes, food.

Alain: Ah!

Claude-Michel: We were Hungarian. It's definitely a goulash or Hungarian cake or something like that.

Alain: Apple strudel!

Claude-Michel: I'll say I'm very happy when I can find somewhere with some very good matzo ball soup, tasting exactly the same as the one my mother used to do for me.

Alain: I was born in Tunisia. In Tunisia we had two influences. One was obviously the North African influence, so the couscous. But we also had a very important Italian influence because before being French, Tunisia was Italian and there was a huge colony. We also had both influences and learned to speak some Italian, as well as French, at a very early age. I think pasta remains my favorite when it's done in a very sophisticated and natural way. The couscous and pasta my mother was doing at least once or twice a week.

What is your favorite vacation?

Claude-Michel: Egypt.

Alain: Italy.

Claude-Michel: There is no hesitation because you have the weather of Italy but such an infinite background of culture. And when you imagine that history, it's still on the ground. You have so much to discover. It's so moving to be related to some images, statue, or object done 5000 years ago. The expression of the people, couples holding hands, 5000 years ago! It's very moving and the most wonderful treat. I hope I can go back again in a peaceful time.

Alain: The same can apply. Italy is a mix of old culture everywhere you go. The history under your feet, on the wall in a city that is new and old. I'm lucky enough to have been able to buy a house there which dates back to the ninth century.

Claude-Michel: In front of his house he has a tower where Dante was jailed. Three hundred meters in front of your house?

Alain: Yes, just next to it. It's a mix. It's still the most generous food and wine country. Plus, the culture is everywhere.

Let's imagine, just for a moment, that while you were growing up, there was no option for you all to have a career related to anything in the arts. If you had to pick an alternative career, that was not in the arts, what do you think you would be great at?

Claude-Michel: A pilot.

Alain: You would be a pilot? I don't know, sometimes I think I could have been the guy who invents these formulas for advertisements.

Claude-Michel: A publicist?

Alain: Yes, ad campaigns and things like that. I'm pretty sure I could have invented a few taglines.

Claude-Michel: Make America Great Again?

Alain: Make America Great Again. Not this one.

Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg's visit was funded by the University of Virginia's Arts Endowment, a permanent fund established in 2014 to expand, improve and promote excellence in the arts at the University, and was co-sponsored by the Office of the Provost, the Vice Provost for the Arts, the Department of Drama and the Department of Music.