Les Miserables lyricist gave musical new life

LONDON • Herbert Kretzmer, a London theatre critic who wrote the English lyrics to an all-but-forgotten French musical called Les Miserables in 1985, giving new life to what has become one of the world's most successful theatre productions, died on Wednesday at his home in London. He was 95.

A South African journalist who sold his accordion to buy his passage to Europe, Kretzmer wrote features and columns for London newspapers before he began developing a second career as a lyricist and songwriter.

British producer Cameron Mackintosh took notice and asked Kretzmer to reimagine an obscure musical that had opened and closed after a few months in Paris in 1980, five years earlier.

France had no tradition of musical theatre and Les Miserables was based on French novelist Victor Hugo's epic 19th-century tale of oppression, liberation and redemption. And it was all sung in French.

Kretzmer's task was not to literally translate the original libretto, by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel. What he tried to do instead was to capture, in English, the spirit of Hugo's tale of revolution - the songs of angry men and women yearning for freedom.

"The show I inherited from Paris ran for just two hours," Kretzmer told The New Yorker in 2013. "The show I wrote in English ran for just over three hours. You don't need to be a math whiz to calculate that at least a third of the play did not exist before I got my hands on it."

With the Kretzmer libretto, additional lyrics by James Fenton and music by Claude-Michel Schonberg, Les Miserables opened in London on Oct 8, 1985.

Audiences were moved nightly to sob and scream. Fan mail poured in. The box office was swamped.

The London production ran continuously from 1985 until this March, when the coronavirus pandemic shuttered London's theatres, making it the West End's longest-running musical.

Kretzmer is survived by his second wife Sybil Sever, his two children with his first wife Elisabeth Wilson and two grandsons.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 16, 2020, with the headline 'Les Miserables lyricist gave musical new life'. Print Edition | Subscribe