The Musicals of Boublil and Schonberg

Les Miserables has been seen by over 60 million people worldwide, grossing over £1.4billion at the box office. To date the London production is the longest running musical in the world where it continues to play at the Queen’s Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue. Les Miserables may be Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg’s most famous offering, but with Cameron Mackintosh’s eagerly anticipated new production of Miss Saigon opening this summer at London’s Prince Edward Theatre, there is a renewed interest in their work. We reflect back over the pair’s high profile and lesser known back catalogue.

Les Miserables opened in Paris in 1980, but it took a further five years for the English language production to open, first at the Barbican Theatre in London then at the Palace Theatre on December 4 1985. The duo’s first musical ‘La Revolution Francaise’ was the first stage French rock opera, written in response to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s English rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar in 1973. Although this still exists on a premiere recording, a production has not been mounted by the team for many years.

Despite a savage critical reception, which included nicknaming the show ‘The Glums’, Les Miserables became instantly popular with audiences gaining a record advance and much respect for the production team. After the show transferred to London’s West End productions were mounted all around the world, cementing the composers within the musical theatre industry. The pressure was on for their second musical, which premiered in 1989 at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, before transferring to Broadway where it earned $24million before the show had even opened in April 1991.

Miss Saigon is a musical based on Puccini’s opera ‘Madame Butterfly’, using the same tragic story as a centre piece but instead relocating the action to the American war in Vietnam in the 1970s. The story tells the tale of Chris, and American G.I who falls in love with a Vietnamese bar-girl Kim, fathering a child before returning to America after the occupation has ended. The show ran for ten years at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane setting a new record for the theatre when it closed after 4,000 performances. The show transferred to Broadway in 1991 where it ran for another ten years, making it the 11th longest running show in Broadway history.

In a similar style to Les Mis, Miss Saigon is completely sung through, using a dramatic score to absorb the audience in the harrowing world of wartime Saigon. The production was directed by Nicholas Hytner (current Artistic Director of the National Theatre) and featured designs by John Napier. The show became famous for its high production values, which included a helicopter taking off from the roof of the American Embassy, flying GI Chris away from his new love Kim. Lea Salonga created the role of Kim in both London and the USA, winning an Olivier and Tony Award before going on to join the Broadway production of Les Miserables. Jonathan Pryce played the role of the seedy Engineer, alongside another future Les Mis star Ruthie Henshall as Ellen and Simon Bowman as Chris. The show was considered a commercial success, with investors recouping after only 39 weeks on Broadway.

Boublil and Schonberg’s third major musical did not surface until 1997, when producer Cameron Mackintosh brought Martin Guerre to the stage. The show opened initially at the Prince Edward Theatre in London’s West End in a spectacular £6million production featuring direction by Declan Donnellan. Critics were equally as harsh on the production, but unlike Les Miserables the public did not jump to the show’s defence, leading Mackintosh and the creative team to examine the problems and rewrite the show accordingly. The show closed for two weeks, opening again  after previews on November 11th gaining a more positive critical response, and the show went on to win the 2007 Olivier Award for Best Musical. Despite major rewrites the public did not take the show under its wing, and it closed in February 1998 after almost 700 performances.

The show is written in a similar operatic style with very little spoken dialogue between the songs. Cameron Mackintosh featured a number of the show’s biggest songs at his birthday concert ‘Hey Mister Producer’, which featured Maria Friedman singing ‘How Many Tears’ as well as the title song, ‘I’m Martin Guerre’. The show is set in early modern France and explores the conflicts between French Catholics and Protestants. Many blamed the subject matter on the show’s lack of commercial success, as unlike the team’s previous musicals many could not relate to either the period or the original story. The show did enjoy a life outside the original production on various regional tours in both the UK and USA, and there are constant rumours of a West End revival.

The authors were unable to match their earlier successes once again when their 2006 musical The Pirate Queen opened on Broadway at the Hilton Theatre, which closed after only 85 regular performances. Despite a huge marketing campaign and the combined efforts of producers and production team the show made a loss of around $18million. The musical is set in 16th Century Ireland and follows the true story of Irish pirate and Grace O’Malley. Stephanie J Block starred in the title role alongside Hadley Fraser, who preserved the epic score in an original cast album.

As a composer Schonberg composed a ballet score to Wuthering Heights which was performed successfully in the UK in 2002. More recently his new ballet Cleopatra was performed by the same company the good critical acclaim. To find out more about the world of these fantastic composers, visit The Musical World of Boublil and Schonberg, which has links to purchase an excellent book about their shows.