Farewell to the lyricist of the world’s longest running musical, Les Misérables
By David E. Kaplan
“It’s quite amazing how Jews from dorps in South Africa managed to dream way beyond their small towns and make it big in the wide world,” remarked international lawyer David Kretzmer from Kochav Yair at the time of his father’s passing in 2015.
Born and bred in the “dorp” or “one horse town” of Kroonstad in the Orange Free State (OFS), his father Elliot Kretzmer, would emerge as the mayor of South Africa’s largest city – Johannesburg.
Included in this observation of meteoric rise out of rural obscurity was his uncle visiting from the UK – Elliot’s brother, Herbert Kretzmer, the world famous lyricist who died this month in London at the age of 95.
With tributes appearing in newspapers around the world of the passing of the lyricist to the world’s longest running musical Les Misérables, the writer reflects on his 2015 interview in Israel with Herbert Kretzmer then aged 89.
Herbert’s voice was a low rumble who as one journalist had described:
“If a coffee percolator could talk, it would sound like Herbert Kretzmer.”
Charming and witty, it was a delight passing time with Herbert over copious amounts of his nephew’s 12 year-old Chivas Regal. The stories flowed as one was taken back to the world of film and stage and a ‘Who’s Who’ of the sixties and seventies. Herbert, as a top Fleet Street journalist – “before I was a composer” – had interviewed them all. He refers to a thank-you letter from Frank Sinatra, not for composing the lyrics to a song, but for an article he wrote on the singer: “Your column was most compassionate and sensitive, and I am most grateful to you,” wrote ‘ol’ Blue Eyes’.
Herbert dismisses the missive “on a loo level,” displaying as much reverence as pride, The letter appears in his publication ‘Snapshots – Encounters with Twentieth Century Legends’, a compilation of interviews with Tennessee Williams, Louis Armstrong, Truman Capote, Cary Grant, John Paul Getty, Marlene Dietrich, Marcelle Marceau, Groucho Marx, Niel Simon, Muhammad Ali, Judy Garland, David Niven the director of Exodus, Otto Preminger, Peter Sellers and many others. A Jewish angle is frequently evident. Sellers, he notes “as a supreme example of a man smothered by his mother,” while Marcelle Marceau, “the son of a kosher butcher, was in the French resistance, and escorted groups of children to safety using mime to keep them amused during dangerous crossings.” Most these ‘living legends’ would become his friends with one exception – Leni Riesestahl, Hitler’s favourite film maker. In that interview he abandoned his urbane charm. “If I had a stance, it was adversarial.”
One could hardly blame him.
Almost all of Herbie’s patrilineal cousins, grandparents, uncles, and aunts were murdered in Lithuania during the Holocaust. According to Michael Kretzmer whose late father was the songwriter’s first cousin, the mass murder took place on the 8 August 1941 in the family’s hometown of Birzai. Noting the “unimaginable sadism, torture, and rape on the part of the eighty Lithuanian murderers, fifty of them townsfolk and neighbours, Herbie Kretzmer,” asserts Michael “was the perfect response to that enduring wickedness.”
Herbert’s insights of the stars were riveting. Over breakfast with Yul Brynner – “owner of the most celebrated skull in the world” – Herbert discovered a “shy philosopher”, while Walt Disney, “the creator of the most famous rodent in the world, confided mice frightened him.”
Although journalism played a major part of Herbert’s professional life, it is as a lyricist that he will be most remembered.
“Old songwriters don’t die,” he says, “they just de-compose.”
The Write Stuff
It was way back in 1953 that Herbert moved from Johannesburg to Paris where he played the piano by night in a bar in return for a meal. A fair exchange for those struggling days but Herbert was on course with destiny.
A year later, he hopped over the Channel to the heart of the global media world – LONDON – in pursuit of his dream that would reward him with award-winning journalistic career that included stints at the Daily Express and Daily Mail.
However, while his fingers pounded the typewriter penning his world famous interviews, his mind seldom strayed from his faithful mistress – MUSIC. It was a love affair that would change his life unimaginably, “beyond my wildest dreams.”
The swinging sixties saw Herbert writing weekly songs for the BBC’s groundbreaking satirical show “That Was the Week That Was,” that helped launch the careers of such luminaries in the world of television as John Cleese and David Frost. It was no less a launchpad for Herbert who would write humorous songs such as “Goodness Gracious Me,” to more poignant melodies like “In the Summer of His Years,” a tribute to President John F. Kennedy that was written hours after his assassination on Nov. 22, 1963.
The lyricist was fired up and inspired.
There were further songs, including “She” which he wrote with French singer Charles Aznavour and which topped the British singles charts for a month in 1974. (*see below the lyrics)
While speculation as the song’s meaning ranged from about a lady who’d had a particularly volatile relationship with Charles Aznavour as “She sounded like quite a handful” to intended as the theme tune for a television series called “The Seven Faces Of Women”, Herbert would later reveal otherwise.
No, it was not about Charles but a British woman with whom Herbert had recently broken up following a yearlong affair!
“She may be the song that summer sings
Maybe the chill that autumn brings…”
Just His Cup of Tea
However the really ‘big time’ was still in the future – as they say, written in the tea leaves. This time quite literally, when Les Misérables producer Cameron Mackintosh invited Herbert to tea in June 1984, a meeting that would transform his life.
Mackintosh would later express that Herbert was instrumental in bringing Victor Hugo’s classic tale of defiance and redemption in early 19th century France to the stage in English in October 1985, five years after it had opened in Paris. “His wonderful words for Les Misérables will live on in his memory forever more,” he said in a recent statement.
While the expanded English version of “Les Misérables” had mixed reviews initially, it would emerge one of the biggest successes of 20th century theatre.
Were it not for the COVID-19 pandemic, it would still be running in London, testament to the enduring popularity of the story as well as the songs, such as “I Dreamed a Dream”, “One Day More” and “Do You Hear the People Sing?”
Glowing at the Globes
Arriving at the Beverly Hills Hilton for the 2013 Golden Globes, Herbert noted that his table “was an awfully long way back,” from the stage. No matter he thought, “I will not be making that walk.” How wrong he was when the announcement came that ‘Les Miz’ won the award for Best Musical. “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,” he said. So 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.” It was there, amid the blinding television lights “and the gratifying cheers and whoops of the audience, that something rather special happened.”
As he stood there, catching his breath and savouring the moment “I felt someone gently slip their arm through mine – a much appreciated gesture of support and comfort.” It was academy award winner Anne Hathaway. “Almost 30 years ago, I wrote a lyric — ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ – and Anne sings it so beautifully in the film that it can break even the stoniest of hearts.” Recalling when he sat in his Knightsbridge flat all those years ago, “agonizing over whether the line about ‘but the tigers come at night’ would work or not, I never dreamed of what Les Misérable 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.” And yet, without Herbert, there might have not been the award winning movie.
‘Les Miz’ had been ticking along very nicely – the longest-running musical in the West End (27 years), the third-longest running Broadway musical (16 years) and the second-longest running musical in the world, with openings in every major city having garnered eight Tony Awards – and then something phenomenal happened that even Herbert could not have “dreamed” possible. “This dumpy little lady walks on to a stage and within minutes she’s a universal legend. Everything about her is stardust as she revived interest not only in the song ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ but in the show. She gave it new life.” Susan Boyle’s show-stopping rendition of Herbert’s lyrics on Britain’s Got Talent in 2009, brought Les Miz to a new audience globally. “It proved too “irresistible” not to take the stage production to the next level – Hollywood!
Nearing the much depleted bottle of scotch, I wondered how many of Herbert’s famous interviewees – captured in “Snapshots” – would have guessed that he would become as celebrated as any of them by writing the English lyrics for the stage behemoth Les Misérables.
“I am not a religious man,” Herbert reflects, “but I do feel I am in some way born under a rhyming planet,” one whose celestial path passed over Kroonstad.
As a 12 year-old country boy, Herbert had a dream.
“I saw myself on a hilltop with a microphone in my hand and the wind blowing in my hair. I knew that somehow, somewhere, I would be a communicator.”
A communicator he was.
Seen by more than 70 million people in 44 countries and in 22 languages around the globe, the stage production of the world’s longest running musical, Les Misérables is still breaking box-office records well after 30 years.
The boy from Kroonstad would emerge a worthy recipient of the Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters from the French government and an OBE (Order of the British Empire) from the British monarch.
The song that made him most famous – ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ – probably best encapsulated Herbert Kretzmer’s life!
As I sat opposite the great lyrist throwing back our last scotch, all that was left to say was – L’Chaim (“to life”).
She may be the face I can’t forget
The trace of pleasure or regret
May be my treasure or the price I have to pay
She may be the song that summer sings
Maybe the chill that autumn brings
Maybe a hundred different things
Within the measure of a day
She may be the beauty or the beast
May be the famine or the feast
May turn each day into a Heaven or a Hell
She may be the mirror of my dreams
A smile reflected in a stream
She may not be what she may seem
Inside her shell
She, who always seems so happy in a crowd
Whose eyes can be so private and so proud
No one’s allowed to see them when they cry
She may be the love that cannot hope to last
May come to me from shadows in the past
Charles Aznavour – She 1974
While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves. LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs