“It all happened because I made small talk with Charles Aznavour”, Herbie Kretzmer tells Alison Kervin.
Anne Hathaway lifted her award for best supporting actress high into the air and thanked her fans for their continuing support, then swept off the stage clutching her Bafta to her chest.
She smiled for the cameras, posing in her elegant dress. Then she did something rather less predictable: she slipped her arm around an 87-year-old man called Herbie Kretzmer and kissed him lightly on the cheek. “You’re a star,” she told him. “A clever, shining star.”
“What a lovely moment,” says Kretzmer, back in his Kensington home. “I imagine I blushed a bit – you know – she’s very attractive. She’s also very talented; she gave such a lovely performance in the film. I was so proud of her. And when we were having photographs taken, she kept putting her arm through mine to make sure I was OK. Probably worried I was going to collapse. I’m an old man, you know. An old man hanging out with the youngsters.”
Kretzmer laughs to himself and, to be fair, the man has much to be jovial about. A few weeks after the delight of the Baftas, he looked on with pride as Les Misérables scooped three Oscars, including one for Hathaway.
Without Kretzmer, Les Mis could well have been confined to a brief footnote in history. For he was the person who took Victor Hugo’s novel – and a two-hour long, mildly successful French version of the musical – and transformed it into a rambunctious, passionate and moving three-hour musical that captured the attention of the world. And he did it in six months.
“I was 60 and living in a small flat on Basil Street in London, working for the Daily Mail, writing lyrics in my spare time. I didn’t think I’d ever leave journalism. I was a newspaper man – that’s what I did. But I did like lyrics, and the feeling of lyrics put to music. It always moved me. Not that I thought I’d be a great lyricist then – I was 60 for goodness sake. Then, one day, everything changed for ever.”
Kretzmer’s world shifted on its axis in the strangest of circumstances. He was preparing to leave Cameron Mackintosh’s home after a disappointing meeting with the theatre impresario when the conversation took a fateful turn.
“It was the mid-80s, and I’d written to Cameron to persuade him to get involved in a revival of a 60s musical called Our Man Crichton. I’d written the lyrics and thought it was due for a comeback.
“Cameron wasn’t interested so I was leaving. Out of politeness and small talk he asked me what other songs I’d written. ‘I wrote She and Yesterday When I Was Young for Charles Aznavour,’ I explained. Cameron stopped and said, ‘My God. Really? You’ve just named two of my favourite songs.’ He looked delighted. But he still didn’t want to back a revival of my musical, so I left and went back to the office.
“Six months later, he called me and said he’d woken up in the middle of the night and thought of me. He remembered the songs I’d written, and that I’d worked with Charles Aznavour … a Frenchman.
“OK, I thought…this sounds strange. He asked me whether I could meet him for lunch at The Ivy. We met and he asked me to write the lyrics for Les Misérables. I devoted the next four weeks to reading Victor Hugo’s novel, in English, then said yes.”
It wasn’t the easiest of projects, though. He was told the English version of Les Misérables would be a third longer than the French original, so Kretzmer had to add a new prologue, half a dozen new songs and then had to change the original French lyrics into English.
“I don’t believe a song can be translated. I am a lyricist, not a translator. You have to write the song in English. I barely speak French anyway, so I was directed by Hugo’s original novel – I had the pages pinned up on the walls, and listening to the score – what was the music saying? What was Hugo saying? That’s what I had to write.”
Kretzmer had to persuade his newspaper editor to allow him six months off before he could begin, and then locked himself away to write day and night.
Les Mis opened to mixed reviews, but to popular public response. It’s now been running for more than 25 years, and has been seen by more than 60 million people. It’s the longest-running musical in the West End and the third-longest running Broadway musical. The lyrics are credited as one of the key reasons for the musical’s longevity.
So what’s the lyricist’s favourite lyrics? “Very hard but, to be honest, I like Master Of The House rather a lot, because it hits exactly the right mood and does exactly what’s needed – it breaks the tension. It makes people laugh and relax which lifts the whole thing.”
One of the most intriguing lyrics he wrote must be: “But the tigers come at night…” in I Dreamed A Dream. Where on earth does that come from? “Too much late-night working, probably,” he says. “I remember the thought of tigers coming into my head and I couldn’t get rid of it. It’s about dark forces which can creep up and destroy lives.”
Nothing to do with William Blake’s poetry? “Ah – undoubtedly – that too: Tiger, tiger burning bright…that must have been another reason why I chose the image.”
Now the film has brought the musical to a whole new audience. “I’m a big fan,” he says. “They’ve done a tremendous job. I went on to set twice, other than that I kept away, but I’m very fond of it.”
One final question – has he ever met Susan Boyle? He laughs at this. “I haven’t, but she did wonders for the musical, didn’t she?” he says. “I’m sure she brought it to a whole new audience…like the film. I’m very grateful to her for that.”
Kretzmer says his life has been “a joy and a delight” thanks to Les Mis. “I’m the kid who came to London from South Africa with just £150 in his pocket and made a great life for himself,” he says with a smile.
“Hell, I’m nearly 90 and I was on the stage being kissed by a beautiful Hollywood actress a few weeks back. And what’s strange is that it all happened because Cameron Mackintosh and I made small-talk about Charles Aznavour.”