The creation of 'Les MisÚrables,' the musical

Published: Friday, January 24, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 23, 2003 at 10:55 p.m.
Tunisian-born songwriter Alain Boublil started setting "Les MisÚrables" to music in 1985. But making something new out of a classic has its complications.
"You must respect ... the novel, and, at the same time, you have to forget about it," Boublil explained during a recent interview.
So he enlisted the help of composer Claude-Michel Schonberg. This unlikely partnership of Schonberg, a composer and opera aficionado, and Boublil, then a pop lyricist, had a chemistry no one predicted.
"Michel Schonberg had been going to the opera since he was a young boy, going with his parents. I was more influenced by 'West Side Story' or 'Jesus Christ, Superstar' than I was by opera," Boublil said. "I took Claude-Michel to the musical theater, and he took me to the opera. It's a partnership where we both interact and influence each other."
Boublil said journalists now ask him how it felt to "reinvent the form" of musical theater. But, in fact, his vision was never so far-reaching. They didn't plan on re-inventing anything.
"We were trying to achieve a serious musical. You think it'll be easy, and in fact, it was easy when we first created the work," Boublil said. "It all came at once. There is a state of innocence when you start, when you don't realize how big and how long and involved it is going to be. There are such serious stories, such dramas, destinies crossing each other."
Boublil started out with a synopsis of the story, some of Schonberg's music and some lyrics. But he found that plot holes had to be filled and began to flesh out the musical version of Hugo's story.
Boublil said he strove to create a work that would live in its own rite, with "the same strength as the novel."
But in order to create something new, he said, "You have to rediscover the rules of the story."
Schonberg realized the story was largely a tragedy, but he wanted to add some comedy to the drama of revolution, death and moral dilemma. Enter Thenardier, the inn keeper, an unmistakable scoundrel who becomes a source of humor.
To characterize the inn keeper, Schonberg said, "I wanted a melody as heavy as a pint of beer."
And did Boublil have any objections? "We write unanimously," he said. Boublil and Schonberg took music and lyrics to the other, and if the other partner didn't like it, "We'll think about it again, and write something else," Boublil explained with a laugh.
The two have written several other musicals together, including the award-winning "Martin Guerre" and "Miss Saigon."

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