LES MISERABLES Composer Claude-Michel Schönberg Discusses His Life and Work
Not everyone knows the name Claude-Michel Schönberg, but they know his music: as the composer of Les Miserables and Miss Saigon, Claude-Michel is present in everyone's playlist, in a songbook on everyone's piano, and in every karaoke line-up.
Last night, he sat down with journalist Edward Seckerson to talk about his life, work, and inspiration, and the projects that didn't quite make it.
Pop sensation and opera fan
Before he took the West End and Broadway by storm, Claude-Michel was a pop star in France. His first hit, "Le Premier Pas", recorded in the 1970s, sold over a million copies.
But his true love was opera, especially Puccini. When Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice smashed records with their rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar, Claude-Michel took notice of the versatility of the operatic form. Along with Alain Boublil, he created a sung-through musical adaptation of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables that was not an opera, but not like most stage musicals, either.
Brilliance and accidents
Claude-Michel talked about how he and Alain construct their shows, and the emphasis they place on repetition. "A musical is like a bridge," he said, explaining that the beginning must connect to the end, and "there must be a beautiful arc". That's why the Bishop's melody in Act One of Les Miserables is so similar to "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables" in Act Two: to link the ends of the show together, and to give the audience a sense of resolution.
But just as he is methodical, so too is Claude-Michel open to chance. Some of the best moments in Les Miserables came about by accident. The iconic number "On My Own" - featuring in Glee's pilot episode, and half of all high school musical auditions - was originally written for Fontine, but as she dies in the first act, it didn't make much sense to give her two solos. The number was instead moved to the second act and given to Eponine.
"Bring Him Home", which has been covered countless times, was written after Claude-Michel overheard a male performer rehearsing in his dressing room, singing in a quiet falsetto so as not to disturb the others in the theatre. Struck by the beauty and purity of the falsetto, he got to to work on a number that would make use of the head voice.
When the cast gathered round to hear the first rendition of "Bring Him Home", one actor remarked, "You have been saying that God is in the show, but now I see that God is in the cast".
Flops and other projects
Everyone knows Les Miserables, and most people know Miss Saigon, but what has Claude-Michel been up to since 1989? Two ballets and a handful of unimpactful musicals, including 1997's Martin Guerre and the notorious 2007 flop The Pirate Queen.
When Seckerson, the interviewer, generously suggested thatThe Pirate Queen, which tells the story of 16th-century pirate Gráinne O'Malley, and which lost at least $16 million, might have done better if it had come out "now, when people are talking about this kind of thing", not even Claude-Michel seemed convinced. "Perhaps," he replied.
When asked what he thought of the Les Miserables movie, Claude-Michel answered diplomatically, "I say nothing."
A second life for Martin Guerre
Mumbled excitement rippled through the audience when Claude-Michel revealed that he and Alain Boublil were re-tinkering with Martin Guerre, their 90s-era musical about war, mistaken identity, and love in early modern France.
Whilst he didn't say what they were changing, or what their plans were for the show, there was a definite twinkle in his eye - and a real sense of confidence that he might have another hit coming...