A conversation with Claude-Michel Schönberg

DLS Pineda (The Philippine Star) - November 1, 2015 - 9:00am

When I was informed that I would be interviewing the great Claude-Michel Schönberg  composer of both Les Misérables and Miss Saigon, as well as Martin Guerre, The Pirate Queen and Marguerite  I was prepared to write a profile. A man of his stature deserved nothing less than a well-thought-out profile, I thought to myself. But after the interview, I was so struck by his eloquence that I felt I had to quote him word for word.

Schönberg is in town to visit some of his foundation’s beneficiaries and orphanages, and to promote the staging of Les Misérables at Solaire Resort and Casino in March 2016. If our conversation was a short preview of the production, then I am willing to bet that the play will be nothing short of exceptional.

PHILIPPINE STAR: When you wrote the script 30 years ago, what were the times like? What were the conditions which inspired you to write the music and lyrics for Les Mis?

CLAUDE-MICHEL SCHÖNBERG: My collaboration with Alain Boublil had already started then. In the ’70s, we had already written our first musical about the 1789 French Revolution. In that play, we wrote 24 songs telling the story of the French Revolution, and we decided  because we were caught by the virus of the musical  that the next time, we will have a great story. Epic and operatic, so we can write something that had a kind of operatic musical structure. And in ’78, when I watched Oliver! in London, watching the little boy onstage, I thought about Gavroche. I told Alain, “Why don’t we treat Gavroche as the subject as we write?” In five minutes, we made the most important decision of our lives. And I said, “Why not? Nobody did it before.” He said, “No, I don’t know.” And as a matter of fact, somebody tried  it was Puccini. He tried early in the 1900s. But he gave up. It was too complicated.

So we took Hugo’s book  1,200 pages  it took some time to read it once, twice. And after, we started to write a script in French together. We spent several months writing the script. And later on, I was writing the music, then I was writing the lyrics in French. I did a full demo of it that I still have at home. (Tom Hooper, the director of the movie, wanted to have my original French demo from ’78, ’79 because he wanted to know the origin. So we had the tapes at home that we burned them to CDs.)

Once we finished that demo, nobody wanted to do it. So we stayed several months, waiting for a call. And one day, somebody who already helped us on the French Revolution (script) came and told us, “There is a French director, very important person in France, performing big shows in arenas. He doesn’t like music. He doesn’t want to do it. But he is curious how you dare to do it.” So, this guy, named Robert Hossein, came one day. He sat on the chair and we played the cassette. It was playing for two hours, and he said nothing. He stayed still. And at the end, he said, “Okay, guys. I’m going to do it.” That’s all he said.

At the beginning, we had to struggle to wait. And for several months, we wrote it. We worked two years and we didn’t know what to do with that.

What were you doing then?

It was in ’78. I was 34. We were songwriters. We had a job. I was writing songs. I was recording songs myself. I had big hits in France. But we wanted to stop that kind of music. We were more ambitious than that. And we wanted to do something bigger, not only a verse, a chorus, a verse, a chorus, change of key, then chorus.

You wanted to shift to complicated musicals?

Not necessarily “complicated” musicals. I had a very good knowledge of theater because I was a big fan of operas and musicals. So I wanted to put the two together. But we took the risk. Everybody thought that we were completely mad. They said, “Nobody can do it. It’s a waste of time and you’re going to lose your job as songwriters.” They were wrong. We did the show in Paris. It was a big success, three months in a big arena of 4,000 seats. But afterwards  until Cameron Mackintosh heard the record three years after  nothing did happen to us. So we went back to our jobs as songwriters. But, when Cameron called us, he said, “I heard the album. I want to meet you.” That was in ’83. The first show was given in Paris at the fall of 1980.

Congratulations, it’s been 35 years.

“I had to wait to be 41 years old not to worry about the future.” Comforting advice for the young from Schönberg, shown here with the author DLS Pineda.

Yeah. But to live off your own creation, as a creator, it’s always a risk. It’s because it’s not the will you have, it’s because there is nothing else that you can do. You have no choice. You are born like that to do it. That’s the only thing you are interested in. There is nothing else I could have done. I did studies. I went to university. Alain Boublil went to the very high French Commission School. But there was nothing else that we can do but writing lyrics and writing music. If you can spend one day of your life without thinking about it, don’t even start to do it. Because to live off your own creation, it’s definitely a difficult job. I had to wait to be 41 years old not to worry about the future. When all my friends were established as doctors, dentists, lawyers, I was still struggling. I didn’t know if I could make enough money for the end of the months. So, it’s not the beautiful fairytale story.

It’s a struggle. Every day you have to dig. Keep going, keep working. And you don’t listen to what people say.

Yes, it’s definitely a struggle. So, how is your writing process? Do you have any rituals before you write?

I’m sitting down at the piano, the same way I’m sitting down at the theater. And then there, I say, “Okay, the curtain is opening.” What I’m going to see, and what I’m going to hear. And if I can’t see  if there is nothing I can see  the music is not coming out. It’s very visual. I have to imagine. That was when  later, when I was composing ballet, in my mind there was always dancers and pirouettes. That helped me a lot. I have to see something. And once I get inside, it’s like a whirlpool. You stay inside. You don’t go out.

The whole day you write?

Oh, yes. I can arrive in my room at 9 in the morning in my nightgown. And at 7 p.m., my wife, she’s shouting, “Come down! Dinner is ready!” and I’m still there in my nightgown.

(Laughs) Now that the musical is in Hollywood…

What do you mean “Hollywood”?

I mean, shown in a big production.

The movie, you mean? That was not a Hollywood movie. The movie was produced by Working Title which is English, and directed by Tom Hooper who’s very English. And in Hollywood, Universal handled only the distribution. But the creation team was totally European. The costume designer was from Spain. There were plenty of foreigners in the production because we wanted it to be European, not to be a big Hollywood… you know what I mean.

Sorry, I’ll rephrase. So, now that it was adapted to the big screen, what changes did you feel you had to do to the original script? I notice, you added the song Suddenly?

It was Tom Hooper, the director, who said, “Okay, I love every scene. But there is in the book a wonderful moment, when he is taking Cosette off the Thenardiers and he’s looking at the little girl asleep in the cart. And he feels a connection, a kind of tenderness and love he’s never felt before.” And I told him yes, Tom, that’s fine. But onstage, you can’t make that onstage. But of course, with the camera coming toward your eyes, you can show introspection. And if you see their eyes and the tenderness onscreen, then you can do it.

So we say, okay, we’ll try to use other music from the show to fit the scene. Then one day, I called him up and asked, “Let’s write a new song for that because it is completely new and there is nothing from the show that fits this moment.” We did it like a lullaby. We knew it was not a big voice song because he was seeing with love and tenderness, the emotion he was feeling for that little girl was something he had never felt before. So we knew it was not a big song for competition.

But it was a very good song. It brought my mother to tears.

Very good.

Whenever your productions are brought overseas, do you see them in a different light?

I don’t see all the productions. This production that you’re going to have in the Philippines, it’s not the original production. It’s the 25th Anniversary production. It’s completely brand new. The music and the lyrics are the same. The production  the physical production  is totally brand new. And it’s the first time in Southeast Asia that you will see this production, which comes from Australia. It’s a wonderfully new production that uses all the technology and the capacity of theater today that we couldn’t use back in the day when there was no computer, no cellular phone, and no iPad.

For my last question, I noticed there are oppressor-oppressed, rich-poor dynamics in the plays that you write. It’s almost like Bertolt Brecht’s plays, but of course, the handling is very different. More than 30 since, do you still believe in the same ideas? Have the ideas changed for you?

It’s frightening how the world today is closer to the subject of Les Misérables and Miss Saigon than it was when we wrote them 30 years ago. Everything happening in the world today is a justification of what happened in Les Misérables and Miss Saigon. You still have plenty of barricades. In the Philippines, in Turkey, in Taiwan, in Hong Kong, you know what the protesters are singing in the streets? They are singing, “Do you hear the people sing?” They are angry men.

The world today is a frightening world. You have terrorism. You have the migrant situation in Europe. Like the situation in Miss Saigon, people shattered and destroyed by the war. We’re not telling the story of the war again like in Miss Saigon. We’re showing something  simple people’s lives  completely destroyed by the war. And it’s frightening and appalling that today, the world is even more this kind of story. More relevant than it was 30 years ago, 25 years ago, when the world was more simple. You had the East and the West. You didn’t have all the problems in between.

I don’t know if you see it like that. But we still have so many stories to tell.

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