By Steve Schonberg (@CntrOnTheAisle)
Is Miss Saigon a criticism of the refugee crisis today, as much as it is about a love story decades ago during the Vietnam War? Does Les Misérables have hints of #OccupyWallStreet in it, deep in its rousing songs and student uprising? Well, of course not. But in some ways, by nature of being incredible pieces of art that transcend their actual subject matters and reflect the nature of our humanity, as much as they do our history — then well, yes.
Tonight, the work of the collaborators behind these iconic shows, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, will be celebrated by the New York Pops as part of the orchestra’s 33rd birthday gala at Carnegie Hall, called “Do You Hear the People Sing?” taking its title from the famous song in Les Misérables.
The show will feature works from this show, Miss Saigon, and others with a star-studded guest line-up including, Stephanie J. Block, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Montego Glover, Jeremy Jordan, Patti LuPone, Lea Salonga, Laura Osnes, and more.
In advance of the gala, Center On The Aisle’s (#COTA) editor-in-chief, Steve Schonberg spoke with lyricist and librettist, Alain Boublil to get his perspective on the ever-evolving nature of musical theater and this honor ahead of him and Claude-Michel tonight from the New York Pops.
For more information about the gala and the New York Pops, visit www.NYPops.org.
#COTA: Congratulations on the New York Pops celebration. What a great acknowledgement of your work and collaboration with Claude-Michel [Schönberg]. How honored were you when [conductor] Steven Reineke called to let you know?
Boublil: Well, excited would be an understatement obviously… Both of us worked together with Steven and Nikolai [Joaquin, Director of Artistic Operations] at the Pops in order to put together the best possible gala for that evening, which is an amazing honor for us… something that obviously we never expected and never thought of. That’s completely sincere because I never imagined something like that.
#COTA: Well, when the show was announced, of course it’s perfectly timed to the 30th anniversary of the English version of Les Misérables. But, what struck me is how current the work remains, and how the themes seem timeless. That Miss Saigon, while being about Vietnam, being revived now as it is, could be about the refugee crises happening in the world. And, how Les Misérables, albeit by Victor Hugo, resonates in your musical in a way that could be transplanted to a story like Occupy Wall Street. Did you specifically create the work with that in mind, to make it flexible so that it resonates beyond its actual subject matter?
Boublil: No we had not thought of that at the time cause then we would be prophets or politicians. Or gurus. We just thought that we needed to tell that story at that time because we we’re both moved by what was happening at that time in that part of the world… We we’re moved by Victor Hugo’s novel about a timeless experience. Which we at that time thought was repeating itself and probably would repeat itself forever.
Whether we had seen that. Certainly not. We just thought that we were trying to write musical theater with a strong historical background as two passionate students of history as well as of music and theater.
This is why were are re-working Martin Guerre in a way which has to do with not trying to make it relevant to our times, because it is relevant to our times [a musical, based on the historical account of a French peasant, turned imposter – but through a story of religious persecution]. And because intolerance is looming everywhere… This is certainly giving us the strength and the will to re-work Martin Guerre, even more faithfully to the original times because we are realizing how much, sometimes, history is repeating itself in some very sad ways.
#COTA: You had such momentum with Les Misérables and then with Miss Saigon. Why do you think Martin Guerre at the time [in the late 1990s] didn’t have as much? Or why do you feel now that it’ll have much more momentum?
Boublil: I don’t know if it has momentum. It has more momentum for us to keep working on it and try to finish the kind of operatic version, which we think the subject matter lends itself naturally to. Whether at the time [it had less momentum], well several reasons … One the subject matter is very different. Much harder to deal with. After all, it’s a story of liars. And not heroes or people you are supposed to like immediately. And they are raising questions about, is it more important to be in love? Or is it more important to lie? Is it better to love people who are not in love but who don’t lie? Or is it better to love people who are liars, but who are honestly and sincerely in love with each other? I mean you’re opening a can of worms which certainly… doesn’t have the emotional arc of stories like Les Misérables or Miss Saigon. Not that they are simple, but they are simpler than this one. And maybe it will take 20 years to give a satisfactory musical version of this story. Or maybe more.
#COTA: I most recently asked this of Elaine Paige in reflection, and ask of anybody who was a major star at the time of the mega-musical, which is when Les Misérables and Miss Saigon really hit its peak. Times have changed so much and musicals have changed. What do you think of the trajectory of musical theater and what has changed, both as an artist yourself and a creator, but also the evolution of the industry and what fans can look forward to?
Boublil: I was born, and so was Claude-Michel, out of West Side Story, and Fiddler on the Roof, and Jesus Christ Superstar. So, out of that we have written what we thought was the natural path. And we’ve been lucky enough to be credited for re-inventing the art form. Which for us was a strange thing to read when we discovered that.
But today when I see Hamilton, which also comes from classical upbringing, I know how much Lin-Manuel Miranda was inspired by all the classic musicals, including Les Misérables, as he said it himself in interviews. I think this is wonderful. Because again, it has a strong subject matter [Hamilton], it has a political opinion, it has everything that could have been written in another time differently by other musical writers.
And to me I could watch in the same week The King and I in it’s new production with Kelli O’Hara [who left the production last Sunday after this interview was conducted]… which is wonderful … and Hamilton and think that I’m still seeing musical theater. And you could put Les Misérables and Miss Saigon in-between. For the rest I don’t know. Because it’s not the kind of thing that I would write or I would do. Sometimes I enjoy an evening watching musicals which are not politically oriented… which are pure entertainment. And I might enjoy myself, or sometimes I don’t.
#COTA: I think you raised a point, which is that you have been a huge part in the progression of musicals that both educate and entertain which are our best musicals. If you go back to “Showboat”, the very first modern American musical…
Boublil: [Interjecting] Exactly… all the messages which are in between songs in The King and I [for instance], I was amazed. Because I didn’t see all that in the movie. Or maybe I was too young to understand it. And that’s what I like, exactly. Educational and entertaining. And its a very fragile balance between the two that makes a successful evening in musical theater. Because too far in one direction and no one will come and see it. And not enough in the other makes it a boring evening.
That’s why you are allowed to have “The American Dream” coming where it comes in Miss Saigon, in the most tragic moment of the evening. And obviously you have to present it… you have to find that idea which makes it political at that moment. And the idea is to make it happen inside the head of The Engineer.
#COTA: Right, because you have to humanize these political stories…
Boublil: You have to humanize it and you have to find your trajectory to go into an audience mind just not being as direct as you would be in a TV series or even in a film. Where the medium allows you to be realistic for two hours. In musical theater you have to find a kind of bridges in order to go from realistic to fantasy. And back from fantasy to reality.
#COTA: Well you mentioned Hamilton, which I think was a great point. You now have all these teenagers who may not have cared about history, as many teenagers tend to do, who are obsessed with Hamilton, which is a humanization of this historical figure’s life. I had reflected on being a teenager myself. And I had learned about Vietnam in school but… it’s factual. And then I heard Kim’s story [in Miss Saigon] and then realized these are actual people. And there were lives being lost. That there was interactions going on and it became real to me. And I think that’s what you and Claude-Michel, and others like Lin-Manuel, have done and what great theater does is that it puts people in those people’s shoes.
Boublil: Absolutely. And you may have never seen our first musical The French Revolution. Which by the way we just work shopped recently at Northwestern University for the first time in English. But when we wrote it, 1973, this was a rock opera with a rock band on stage. Much more like what Hamilton is today… We made them just young human beings with long hair, which is the way they were wearing at the time [in the ‘70’s]. And it was a huge hit in France at that time because for the first time people could see people behaving on the stage [like this], as opposed to characters in history books with old fashioned images, which no one could care less about.
We are working on it at this moment. Developing it to several things. One idea would be an animated film. And the other one would be a concert version. But even if you listen to it in French you will feel what I’m telling you.