Twenty-five years ago they created what is arguably the most beloved musical in theatre history. Now Claude Michel Schönberg (composer) and Alain Boubil (lyricist) are in Toronto to oversee rehearsals for Mirvish Productions’ Canadian version of Les Misérables. In an interview, the Tony-decorated duo discuss tweaks to the new production, the long-time Phantom of the Opera rivalry and whether calling the show “Les Miz” is blasphemous. The show is slated to open at Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theatre September 27.
Do you guys sit in on rehearsals for every production of Les Misérables or is this one special?
Boubil: We are here because there were some little changes implemented in the movie, so we want to see if any of those changes work on stage. For example, in the show Fantine sings I Dreamed a Dream after she gets fired from the factory [and before she begins to work as a prostitute], but in the movie it’s after she has her first unwanted customer, which added a lot of emotional poignancy. It’s just little things, but of course a lot of people see any changes to the show as sacrilege.
Speaking of sacrilege, there is a debate about whether the shortening of the musical’s title to ‘Les Miz’ is affectionate or blasphemous. What’s your take?
Boubil: We have noticed. It’s funny – more and more Americans pride themselves on calling it ‘Les Misérables.’ People originally started calling it ‘Les Miz’ because when we opened in London nobody knew how to pronounce it.
Schönberg: I remember seeing a ticket seller in London yelling, ‘The Mis-er-a-bles. Get your tickets for The Miserables.’
Boubil: Maybe you know, being from a bilingual country, but most people don’t know that Les Misérables doesn’t mean the miserables, it means both the thieves and the poor. It doesn’t really translate, but Victor Hugo’s title is a double entendre.
Did you study the novel in high school?
Schönberg: I read excerpts, but not the whole thing. It’s a 12,000-page book. What I remember more was the movie versions and how I was caring for that little girl being poorly treated by the Thénardiers.
Boubil: I remember I was very romantic at that age, and I read the Cosette and Marius storyline, but not necessarily the rest.
You skip the 50-page history of the parish priests in France?
Schönberg: Or 80 pages about the Battle of Waterloo, or a 200-page description of the sewers in Paris.
When you were writing the musical, was there a particular moment where you thought, okay, we’ve really got something here?
Schönberg: It doesn’t work like that. When you are writing, if you don’t feel like you’re writing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, then you don’t even start. You have to always feel like what you’re writing is the best, most beautiful thing in the world. What experience and time give you is instinct. When I started, it would take me sometimes one month to know if something I was writing was not good. Now, I know in about two hours.
Was there a song that came easily or that almost seemed to write itself?
Schönberg: The easiest for me was Bring Him Home. I wrote it in one afternoon. I was so motivated and I knew what it needed to be.
Boubil: The music for On My Own came naturally and it came at the very beginning. It was like a melody that hung over us while we were writing.
How do you feel about the Les Miz versus Phantom of the Opera feud? It’s a pretty definitive question for musical geeks.
Schönberg: I’m a big fan of Phantom.
Boubil: We both are. These two shows have been living together for so long. Les Misérables was about putting gritty reality on stage, and The Phantom is a fantasy. You may prefer one or the other, but I think they [function together to] define musical theatre at the end of the 20th century.
Schönberg: Last year I was at a party with Andrew Lloyd Webber and he was telling me what he was planning for the 25th anniversary of The Phantom: this and this and this. I said to him, ‘Andrew, you can do whatever you want, but we are still one year ahead of you.’
If I ask you about the greatest musical ever, you would say…
Boubil: To me there is only one. It is West Side Story. It is something we look up to, but I don’t think we have done anything that touches that level.
Schönberg: For me the show that gets me every time is Showboat. To have written Ol’ Man River. For that I would give a section of my little finger.