Herbert Kretzmer: The lyricist behind Les Miserables’ phenomenal success

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


A South African journalist who sold his accordion to buy passage to Europe, Kretzmer failed as a novelist in Paris, playing a piano for meals in a brasserie. A thief stole all of his money on his first day in London. He wrote features and columns for London newspapers, and became a critic for The Daily Express for 16 years and then a television critic for The Daily Mail for eight more.




But he loved music and starting in 1960, while still writing for newspapers, he began developing a second career as a lyricist and songwriter. He wrote music for the BBC’s satirical television show, That Was The Week That Was and collaborated with the French singer Charles Aznavour on about 30 songs, including the hits “She” and “Yesterday, When I Was Young.”


The 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 five years earlier, in 1980. It was not an alluring prospect.


France had no tradition of musical theatre, and Les Misérables was based on Victor Hugo’s epic tale of 19th-century student uprisings, with teeming streets, brothels, sewers and a vast panorama of episodes and characters who love, fight and die at the barricades.



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. That might have been impossible. Songs, like poems, with their subtle nuances, references and allusions, are notoriously resistant to translation. And Kretzmer’s French was spotty anyway.


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.


“Words have resonance within a culture; they have submarine strengths and meaning,” . Kretzmer told The New Yorker in 2013. “Translation — the very word I rebut and resent, because it minimises the genuine creativity that I bring to the task.”


© 2020 The New York Times News Service

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