When Les Misérables hit US screens on Christmas Day, it was the culmination of a journey that stretched back to 1980, when ASCAP members Alain Boublil and Claude-Michael Schönberg first staged their creation in Paris. The two Frenchmen stopped by the ASCAP offices to describe the long journey of Les Mis from stage to screen, and reflect on the evolution of one of the world's most beloved musicals.
Etan Rosenbloom: I read that you and your producer Cameron Mackintosh had originally planned a film version of Les Mis in the late '80s. What took so long?
Alain Boublil: The first attempt came from an offer from TriStar, which belonged to Sony/Columbia if I remember. It came because Alan Parker was interested in doing a movie of Les Misérables,or considering it. So he asked us if we were willing to write the screenplay at the time, which we did, and we were more or less in agreement with that first screenplay. I think maybe Alan had not thought about the complexity of trying to put a through-sung musical to the silver screen. Little by little he realized that it was very difficult to decide how do we do it. If you film it as it is, it becomes an opera, and then it's going to be boring. And over-long probably.
Claude-Michel Schönberg: Yes, Alan was quite positive about the fact that he didn't want all sung-through. And strangely enough that's what we did with Evita.
AB: I think, frankly, he didn't know exactly how to do it. And you had all these real political problems...one day, he decided he was not going to do it. And as it happens often in the movie world, projects get to a stage and sometimes collapse. I think it's great for us, because at the time when we were going to do this movie, Hugh Jackman was six, probably. [Les Misérables director] Tom Hooper, the same...and Anne Hathaway wasn't born, so I think it was worth waiting.
CMS: [Also] the technology to do the all-live recording did not exist. Without the Pro Tools and computers, you can't do it. It's impossible. Of course you can always do the recording. But what takes three minutes now to edit would've taken three hours in those days. And with Pro Tools, you can change the position of the start of the voice and make it completely sync with the orchestra. That was quite difficult in those days.
ER: Did the two of you think that a through-sung musical could be adapted to the silver screen back in the '80s?
AB: We've always thought that it relied on the balance, where there would be no suspension of belief from the spectator. We always thought. It sounds like we knew; we didn't know. We were finding our way through. You can sing as long as you want when people express their inner feelings, when people are thinking about what just happened to them. So in fact [adapting] it had to do with the singing and the few lines of spoken dialogue that we're putting here and there in between, to achieve the same result as if it had been spoken all along. It was to give enough rest for someone to take all the singing. But at the end, you think it's been sung all along, and it fact it was not. That's a very tricky balance that probably only we can do and understand. And this is why Tom Hooper and [screenwriter] Bill Nicholson came back to us one day and said "I don't think we can write this movie without you," because they were going to at the beginning. And we were happy to come back and do what we had to do.
CMS: I don't think there is an example of a movie that has been shown on television for 20 years that's not a movie with songs and music. Take Sound of Music, Mary Poppins, Wizard of Oz...you don't have a straight theater play that people go and see again and again. It's only musicals, operas. It's a combination of the storytelling and the music that makes people want to see and see it again. So we knew that if we have to do it again and change the score for the movie, we must still have a proper score. That's [been the cause of] our pain and fight all the way through the process.
Jeff Jernigan: Were there any other incarnations of a Les Mis film project?
AB: Oh yes. There had been one short-lived project with Bruce Beresford. One dinner with Oliver Stone. ::laughs::
CMS: He had just finished a script of Evita, and he had brought us one. Oliver Stone's wife was a big fan of Les Mis, and he came over just to talk about the project of Les Mis.
AB: At the very beginning, even before Alan Parker, there was a discussion with Richard Attenborough, the English director. There was a friendly discussion with Steven Spielberg, who just said "I will do anything to help you bring this movie to life. I know it's not for me, it's too French. It's your history." The funny thing is that this year we find ourselves fighting each other for the awards. And he's here with a very important piece of American history [Lincoln], so there's a nice twist in all that.
CMS: [Spielberg] didn't know how to put it in music. It was - again - his wife at the time, Amy Irving. She was a big fan of the show. But we had this discussion with him one day about doing Miss Saigon as a movie, which again didn't happen, but we went as far as making a kind of short synopsis, what could have become a script. I'm glad that it died, because he said "There is nothing I can do until I finish Schindler's List," and he did Schindler's List, which is a masterpiece.
ER: You mentioned that, at first, Tom Hooper hadn't involved you in adapting it for the screen.
CMS: It's not like that. Before the arrival of Tom, the producer thought that it was going to be a movie with dialogue and the main songs from Les Mis. And once Tom arrived on the project and he started to study all the different versions - he has been reading the books, he saw all the movies about them, he went back to the original French recording, to my original French tape when I did everything at the piano - and swallowing all this information, he decided that he wanted to go back to the structure of practically all sung-through. That's when he realized that the script by Bill with dialogue and music was not an accurate version of the movie he wanted. And Bill was pushing him to go in that direction, because Bill Nicholson is a big fan of operatic work. So they were more and more in favor of having more and more music. Tom realized one day that the script would be Bill's work but the score, too, so of course that automatically me and [Les Mis's English lyricist Herbert] Kretzmer were involved in the process of writing the script.
ER: Were you involved in the auditions for the actors and actresses?
AB: Most of them, not all of them. We didn't take part in the audition of Anne Hathaway, because we knew from the beginning that she was a singer. Because we knew she was a Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey baby. Her picture is everywhere. But we attended the audition of Amanda Seyfried and Russell Crowe. You don't need to audition Hugh Jackman. ::laughs:: There was no audition for Helena Bonham Carter or Sasha Baron Cohen, because everyone knows who they are. Typical English actors who can sing anyway. Helena had done Sweeney Todd. There was no doubt about that.
CMS: Sasha too was in Sweeney Todd.
AB: Really the main auditions we did were Eddie Redmayne, and we were bowled over. He gives one of the best versions ever sung of "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables." Obviously, we pushed a lot for the idea of Colm Wilkinson being cast as the Bishop of Digne. We always thought that he had exactly the voice to sing that part of the score, and also that it would be wonderful to have the original Valjean. Even the marketing guy did. And obviously Claude-Michel auditioned the children, which I have not.
CMS: Before the official audition in London, we were completely bemused, receiving tapes of people in a room at the piano singing. I'm not going to mention the names, but [they were] the biggest names of Hollywood people. I would never imagine that such important people would send us tapes to ask "Can I be in the show?"
AB: Every major actress of the age of Anne Hathaway was contemplating the same parts, and every girl in America that you've heard of has sent a version of "On My Own" or has come to audition for "On My Own." Among them some big pop stars.
ER: Let's talk about "Suddenly," the song you wrote for the film. Was it part of Les Mis's history?
CMS: No. First of all, as a principle, we have nothing in store. It doesn't exist. I have no one melody in my drawers for the next project. It's not our way to work, and when something is not right it goes straight to the bin. And now with the computer, it's easy because you just turn it off and the program's gone. So you forget completely about it. You don't have any regrets, you can't get it back.
"Suddenly" is an idea from Tom. And to have a good version of the scene at the end after many many many tries, we decided to write a new song instead of using already existing music. But the scene is the idea of Tom.
AB: We should tell you what the scene is. It comes directly from Tom re-reading the Victor Hugo novel and finding a line about the discovery, by Jean Valjean, of a new feeling which he had never encountered before. And that feeling is a love for a young girl, whose life he is going to protect. And suddenly he loses all his anger, discovers that he's gonna be responsible for another life than his, and that he has to turn the page of his past. Discovering this bond with that young girl, which he doesn't even have a name to call, he "suddenly" changes. And that's how "Suddenly" began, by becoming a new piece of music which Claude-Michel decided was going to be a lullaby.
At the time, we didn't know he was going to sing that song in a carriage, we didn't even know that this girl was gonna be asleep in the carriage. It all came together with Tom thinking that the scene should be a very peaceful moment. Claude-Michel came up with the music of a lullaby, which dictates its own simplicity, so suddenly it's in complete opposition - or not opposition, but it blends naturally by its peacefulness with the rest of the score, which is obviously on a very high level and on a very strong musical level. Miraculously it seems to work, and to blend two big scenes. As you come from the Thénardiers [Inn], where you just had the comic relief moments with "The Bargain" and all that - it's near pantomime - and suddenly you go into that moment of angelic discovery, and then very soon we go to Paris where Javert is chasing Valjean, and again you have a noisy, very big decibel scene coming just after that.
CMS: That's totally Victor Hugo. Because a song like "Who Am I?" in the book takes 180 pages. But sometimes, in three words we can tell you the full story of a situation, and that simplicity of the song. Or sometimes it can take you 200 pages to describe what we have done in three minutes on the stage
ER: If you knew that "Suddenly" would be sung in English in the film version, did you originally write French lyrics and then Herbert Kretzmer adapted them?
AB: I didn't write "Suddenly" in French. I wrote a draft of what "Suddenly" could be in French, but it was not exactly the same. Most of the feelings which ended up being in "Suddenly," the English song, were in my draft in French, and then we had endless discussions with Herbert Kretzmer in English, and discussed what "Suddenly" could be until he came up with the title, the deceptively simple title of "Suddenly." But the funny thing is we had been saying the word "suddenly" many times, and the day after, Herbert said to me "The song should be 'Suddenly,' and then we'll see where that takes us."
CMS: There were as many versions of the lyrics [as there were of the] orchestration. And at the end we went to the very simplest version.
AB: But we tried it with 60 strings, we tried it with complicated words, we tried so many times. Because it's difficult to have a new thing and something that we know by heart, and you know exactly how it should be. Even if it had to be re-orchestrated, because the singer was recording live with a piano and that famous earpiece now [the singers listened to the orchestra on earpieces while recording - ed]. So [Hugh Jackman] gave the version he wanted, and then you have to find a way to re-orchestrate something that you have been orchestrating differently, but still you know the song by heart. You know what it can take or not take. "Suddenly" was completely new, and we didn't know what to do with it, and integrate [it] with the rest. It took a long time.
ER: Can you tell us about the new scenes you put together for the film?
AB: For the film, we have created together several moments, which are the first meeting between Valjean and Javert, when Javert arrives in the office and he comes to bring his letter of introduction to the mayor of the town. Because Monsieur Madeleine, who's obviously Jean Valjean, needs to accept him as the new police chief in the town of Montreuil-sur-Mer, of which he's the mayor.
Then we have that other new scene, which is the scene with "I Have a Crime to Declare," which is a scene when Javert comes to confess that he has doubted the mayor. All this was in the book, but Tom thought that it would add some meat to their relationship. And I think it does. It really gives an extraordinary duel. I mean, they're not fighting with swords, but it takes us slowly to what is gonna be the real fight in the hospital room. So all this has been a very exciting moment. After that, you have the new song.
ER: Claude-Michel, I understand that you did some completely new underscore for the film version. Did you have to put yourself in the same mindset that you had when you were writing the original score?
CMS: No, it's not exactly the same. First of all, we started the show with a guy called John Cameron, who did the original orchestration. We worked together, but it was in the '80s. We re-orchestrated the score in 2008, when we reopened on Broadway. And after four years we did a new work of orchestration to finalize for the concert at the O2 [Arena] that we did two years ago, and this orchestration for the movie. There were two people in charge. One is Stephen Metcalfe, who has been part of all the processes of new orchestration for the show, and he knows very well the score. Another person is called Anne Dudley, and they work together. Because Anne, she's coming from the movie world, so she has all that knowledge of writing for the frames.
JJ: She's amazingly talented in her own right.
CMS: And she's a wonderful person, and I'm very grateful to her because she's a composer too but she embraced my score like if it was her own music. She was very bold and willing to get it right. We knew from the [beginning] that we had non-professional singers, and not singers of the stage, singing in the movie. And as you have a camera in front of you with close-up, you can't sing out the death of Éponine in a movie. You have to [sing it out] on a stage, because the people are very far in the auditorium. But in a movie, Éponine dying she whispers, so I knew that we had to rethink completely the score. Because sometimes the movie and the feeling of the performance, it's completely different. It's not presented like a stage show. They don't sing to the audience, they sing always to somebody else, so the angle, the approach, the feeling is completely different.
Even if we had been using some orchestration from the stage show, or from the concert at the O2, there is always a lot of rewriting and rethinking. The main section that Anne had to take and to work a lot was the main street battles, because we re-organized the existing music, but she had to link everything and make it all together. We even added a third orchestrator, who came at the very end for the eight minutes and thirty seconds of credit music at the end. We did it very late in the process and Stephen and Anne didn't have time to work on the credit music. Another guy came just to orchestrate the medley of the credit music at the end that we recorded not even one month ago on a Saturday morning.
ER: Did you have to work with Foley artists to imagine how the score was going to interact with all of the noises and sound effects?
CMS: No, that's another process that we did with a very clever guy called Andy Nelson, who loved the show. That was a full process, very hard work, but we did it and Andy understood quite fast that the first step of the mixing of the movie was the music soundtrack. It was the music, not the soundtrack, the music itself, with the singers and everything else was built around that. But the base was the orchestra and the singers, and all the additional sound effects and everything had to serve the score and the singers. So it's completely different, because in a movie you start with the sound effects and you finish with the music of the soundtrack. So it was all the opposite.
JJ: Was it difficult to watch, for example, Russell Crowe speed up the tempo then slow down? As composers, did you think "No, it should be done like this?"
CMS: We had our limits. We knew when he was right or wrong and we knew the flexibility he was able to have, but in that kind of big production when sometimes you have 600 people working, you can't say "Okay stop, it's not right - it's a B flat and not a B natural." You can't do it! So you have to let it go, and you pass six hours thinking "My God, how are we going to do the post production?" ::laughs::
So we knew all the problems. We were trying to preempt the problems [in] a full section like the "ABC Café." The students have been re-edited in such a way that we were back practically to the tempo of the stage, but it means we had to rewrite the orchestration, rewrite the music so it doesn't sound like it's a straight cut.
ER: Does it feel any different, the fact that it was recorded live?
CMS: It's not the same performance at all, because they are actors, and they speak, and they are whispering sometimes. They don't have to sing out like on stage. It's quite difficult for us to judge which one is the best way. We know that when we wrote it, it was for the stage. If the very first time back in 1980 we were supposed to write for a movie, maybe we would have written a completely different way. But we were writing [for] someone to deliver and to project something on stage.
AB: And in a way we were back to what we wrote at the beginning. What we wrote at the beginning was for the drama - we never thought that "I Dreamed a Dream" would become a hit song or anything like that, and even less "On My Own," which was originally called "L'air de La Misère," "The song of misery." Imagine that as a pop song! Imagine every young girl in America who wants to sing that song. Fortunately, we turned it into something a little more intimate and acceptable. But it's the first music that was ever composed for the show and it had to be emblematic of what the show was about. So naturally "On My Own" was called "La Misère."
The way things have now turned, the implementation of Anne Hathaway of "I Dreamed a Dream," which now will become the definitive version of that song probably, has really gone back to the first version. My French girl, called Rose Laurens, was singing that kind of drama, a song which was never meant to become a song that other artists in the pop world record. And look how things can turn and change! You never know the life of a song, what's going to come out of a song. And that's why Claude-Michel often says "It's good that in a musical you have some well-crafted songs. Because even if they have been written of a dramatic idea and with a dramatic purpose in mind, if it's a real song one day it could find another life or several other lives." Look what happened to "Somewhere" when Barbra Streisand recorded it. But it took, what, 20 years? And it took 20 years and more for "I Dreamed a Dream" to suddenly explode and free itself from the show. And now it's back into the show, which is a great gift Anne is making us.
ER: What is it like to experience these characters and stories in a new way after living with them for so long?
CMS: It's a new way, but it's still the same. Fantine, she's still Fantine. And Cosette, she's true to Cosette. It's a different interpretation of the same character. We've had several productions of the show all over the world; the persons are not the same playing the same part, and you have some Japanese Fantines, some Fantines singing in Hebrew in Israel, some Spanish in South America. They are all different people and different interpretations, but the novel is so strong that they are still Fantine. And even Anne doing a version of "I Dreamed a Dream" one minute longer than the version that we have on stage, she's still Fantine. [It's] the miracle of creation and heart, that each time, you imagine what you're doing is definitely an intimate version of some scene, and the next time it's still an intimate version, but completely different.
AB: And don't forget, we started with Patti LuPone singing "I Dream," and it was not a small thing. That version seemed to us at that time the potential definitive version of that song, and then we went through 20, 50, 100 new incarnations, because the show has been cast and recast so many times, and among them some of the most talented Broadway talents, western talents, Australian. The Japanese Javert, who is one of the best in the world. We've been through so many.
But here what you have is actors who are acting first and who are [singing] for the first time, with a lot of stage fright because they were scared to death, all of them. Because for the first time they had to act through singing, and there was no net. They had to sing and they were trying to look at each other, and that's why they were all there. Very often when you are singing, Anne was not far, Russell Crowe was around, they were behaving like a company. That had never happened in their lives. That's not what they do in the movies. Each one does his scene, and the other one is in his trailer. Never happened on Les Misérables.
CMS: They were very very nervous. It was kind of as if they were completely exposed and naked. It was such a courageous team.
AB: There has been a lot of work, two months of rehearsals, for them to get used suddenly to expressing themselves, through that new medium. Although they are great singers, they had never used [their singing voices] other than in a cabaret, or when they were much younger or in their bathrooms. So it was a big big challenge for each of them to take that gamble.
CMS: But they loved it. Strangely enough, Anne was telling us that her mother, she was part of the ensemble of the second touring company of Les Mis. And she was covering Fantine. So Anne was seven years old and she was following her mother, and she was able to sing the old show even in her sleep.
AB: I was discussing it with her mother two days ago at the New York opening. I said "What did you feel tonight?" and she said "To me it's like the continuation." It seemed to her that there was some kind of fate involved here, that her daughter was giving the definitive, or quasi-definitive version of the song she had been singing very often on tour.
JJ: Had Aaron Tveit [Enjolras in the film] done a previous incarnation of the show?
CMS: No, he's never worked with us. But there is something in his face, a natural authority and charisma that we all loved. And he's a very good singer. We were very interested. Once we saw him he was the definitive Enjolras for the movie.
AB: The only actor who did not go through all this process was Samantha Barks, because she came to play Éponine directly from the stage to the screen. So for her, she brought the innocence of that experience because she didn't have to think about it. She sings the song, she belts like no one else, and she just very naively and without thinking too much came to be directed for the movie. She was asked to sing the song like 57 times for one take.
CMS: Don't forget that when all this promotion of the movie is finishing, she's going to be back in Oliver in Dublin.
ER: This film version may end up being the definitive version for younger people who haven't seen the stage musical. Is that a comfortable idea to you?
CMS: Let's hope that it will bring the younger generation to the theater.
AB: The older-than-13 [generation]. We are very comfortable with it. Maybe we would not have been if the movie had been a foreign project which we would have approved, written by other people, like it happens in the movies all the time. But having been there from beginning to end, rewriting our own show, means that we have re-invented ourselves in some kind of way. So it's a wonderful way to introduce new people to it, because we cannot reinvent a show anymore. We've been blessed, because it's an opportunity that so few people get in one lifetime. Usually you do the movie because the people who have written it are dead, or they are not, but they buy your rights, and they deal with it.
CMS: And for us, because of the close collaboration of Tom and everybody, the movie's another production of our show. It's not something strange for us.
AB: We've been involved with the movie for a year and a half nonstop. And it's as much a new production as the show, as would be the first time we went to Tokyo, and spent a month or two there, putting together the first Japanese incarnation of the show.
CMS: Except that on stage, you have altogether 250 people working. There it was 1000, and the budget must have been 25 times the budget of the stage show.
JJ: Religion is such a strong component of the musical. Is that subject a huge part of the Victor Hugo book?
AB: There are two things I must tell you. Religion and politics seem to have a great place in our musicals. Funny thing is that neither Claude-Michel nor I is very religious - maybe we have some kind of belief, but we're not religious. And, we are very non-political. But strangely, we see that we can only write when we are into this kind of epic moment of the life of a country or a character, of people who are dancing on the volcano. You know, big turmoil. Which obviously involves the deeper feelings that people have inside them, and this is what we like to write about. Not because it is what guides our own lives, but because we understand exactly what's happening in the minds of the people who are carrying these kinds of problems in their minds.
CMS: Or more practically, the religion and the politics help the fact that you are singing. Because it's generally bigger-than-life. The story you are telling is always very simple, peoples' stories. Miss Saigon is about a girl and a boy that are in love.
AB: Let's say it's normal people in abnormal situations, all the time, which are exciting us, and bring themselves to be musicalized naturally. Because it's grander than life, what's happening to them. Like in the operas. So far, Martin Guerre is the same. You are talking about two liars who love each other in such a way that they take that risk. In places that nothing happens, in the smallest village in France. Where superstition is the name of the game, and rules the town forever. And suddenly, two liars live there, the most amazing love story, and that's obviously very exciting to it.
Pictured (l-r) are Cameron Mackintosh, Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg
ER: Have you thought about the future? Are there irons on the fire?
AB: There are two different sectors of the future. One is that all our past work seems to be getting a complete new life. Each of the shows we have written seems to re-start exactly as if it had been created yesterday. Les Misérables has been redirected and reproduced in a completely different way by Cameron Mackintosh, with two young directors. It's been on tour for the last two or three years. The show in London, little by little, is going to become the new production. And you know, it's celebrating its 28th year this year. So it's the longest-lasting show ever. And then Les Misérables is going to re-open on Broadway in two or three years. The movie's probably going to help all this.
If you are talking about our next real new project, we are just starting to think about something, because our last three years have been incredibly busy with actualizing the past, which kind of stopped us in our tracks of going forward. Because none of these projects would have been done without us being completely involved. And honestly, I don't think Cameron would have done it without us. It's been like that for 30 years. We have done it together, or we would not do it. So we are starting to think about what might be our next project, and hoping to come to some decision soon.
JJ: Every true artist says "A masterpiece is never finished." Are you proud of the fact that Les Mis has kept evolving from that first French production?
CMS: We didn't have any clue what the future of the show would be. Even Cameron and [original Broadway director] Trevor Nunn, nobody thought that the show would be such a worldwide sensation. From the French show, we thought nothing. We thought we did our best, for the time. We didn't have the culture; we didn't have the tradition. We needed some more people to work with us and to show us that it was a real professional job to write a musical. Because we did it only by instinct.
AB: But I must say that when Cameron came to Paris for the first time in 1983, to discuss with us about acquiring the rights to Les Misérables, he said something that I will never forget. He said "You don't realize what you have written." So he was seeing in it something that we didn't at that time. But we were very proud of what we had done. And we had done something that was amazing for France. We had a sold-out hit, which 500,000 saw, in a big arena, in three months. And I personally thought it was going to stop there. I really didn't think we would receive the call one day, but we did.
JJ: And your success hasn't been replicated yet.
AB: This I don't know. Okay, if you say so!
Les Misérables came out in theaters on Christmas Day, 2012. Find out more at www.lesmiserablesfilm.com.
Read about the musical at www.lesmis.com.