Not much more than a year ago songwriter Herbert Kretzmer was watching television at his home in Kensington, West London.
The news was on and the screen was full of the brave citizens of Hong Kong protesting at the threat to their liberties and independence from mainland China.
As they marched they sang a song of defiance. It was Do You Hear The People Sing? — the rousing and powerful anthem from Les Miserables, the longest running musical in the West End and one of the most garlanded shows ever staged anywhere.
Kretzmer felt a lump rise in his throat, not just because of his admiration for the courageous demonstrators but because the words they were singing had been written by him more than 30 years earlier — for a song that would later be banned in Communist China.
Few people, however brilliant, transcend their area of expertise the way Kretzmer, whose death at 95 was announced yesterday, did. Lyricist, playwright, journalist and composer of Top 10 hits, he was also a man who never forgot the inequalities of his native South Africa. He wore his social conscience easily but the paradox of that June day last year when he tuned in to those protesters was not lost on him.
He had written the tune to demonstrate the power of words when set to inspirational music — ‘a power that can mobilise millions, silence guns and lay down weapons,’ as he put it later in an article for the Mail.
Herbert Kretzmer, pictured with star Anne Hathaway at the 2012 film premiere of Les Misérables, was best known for his English adaptation of Les Misérables, and was one of the four credited screen writers as well as the sole credited lyricist for Universal’s 2012 film
Sung in solidarity, he believed, it could not only overwhelm oppressive 1830s France — where Les Mis is set — but could also apply to modern times in the form of freedom-crushing regimes of the Left and Right, and to the Apartheid that he had left behind when he set sail on his own incredible journey from his homeland to England on a decommissioned troopship 72 years ago.
Herbie, as his friends knew him, was not only one of the finest writers of his generation, he was also an instinctive observer of life whose insights were more about the human condition than simple songs.
For much of his career he combined journalism with songwriting and considered them complementary skills because they involved the ‘manipulation of language under great constraint.’
Yesterday the tributes poured in for one of the British theatre’s longest and truest friends.
To producer Sir Cameron Mackintosh, whose inspiration it was to ask Kretzmer to write the English language lyrics for a musical — now in its 35th year — he was a ‘peerless’ wordsmith. It was a collaboration that created what has been called ‘the greatest show on earth’.
Sir Cameron, who saw Herbie only last week, said: ‘I dropped in for a chat and stayed for an hour and a half. He was as he always was — lively and amusing. We had a laugh when I asked for permission to change a line on his lyric for One Day More to One Show More — because demand for the latest production has been incredible.
‘His wonderful words for Les Misérables will live on in his memory forever more and the Christmas season at the Sondheim will be all the more poignant for all of us as we hear the people sing without having him there. God bless you, Herbie.’
Fellow lyricist Sir Tim Rice described him as ‘a giant of his trade’.
Without Kretzmer it is fair to say the phenomenon of Les Mis — based on the Victor Hugo novel — from record-breaking stage shows all over the world to the blockbuster 2012 film starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway, might never have happened.
It is hard to believe that when it opened in October 1985 the omens seemed far from good. Critics had panned the production, staged at the Barbican theatre, as pretentious and confusing, condemning it for its sentimentality and absence of taste.
When Mackintosh, Kretzmer and the original French writers gathered for what they hoped would be a celebratory lunch to mark the start a long run, the gloomy notices meant that instead they were considering closing it and cutting their losses.
It certainly didn’t help that, at the time, Kretzmer was employed as this newspaper’s television critic and shared a desk with Jack Tinker, the Mail’s influential and waspish theatre critic. For Tinker had joined the chorus of disapproval, putting a boot into his colleague and friend’s show, which he nicknamed The Glums, a label that stuck.
Pictured: 2012’s Les Miserables with Eddie Redmayne (Marius) withSamantha Barks (Eponine)
Their friendship did survive — but only just. ‘Jack saw the show in Paris and elsewhere and decided it wasn’t too bad after all,’ Kretzmer later recalled. ‘He didn’t ever say, “I was wrong”, but he still had to look into my eyes every day.’ At least for a while. For if the reviewers were sniffy, the public were not.
Just before that lunch, Mackintosh got through to the Barbican box office on the phone to be told they had never experienced a day like it in the theatre’s history with over 5,000 tickets sold and hundreds queuing round the block for more.
For Kretzmer this was more than just a moment of quiet satisfaction. There had been, he noted, a similar reaction when the book had been published over a century earlier and was mocked as a work without cultural prestige.
Confounding its critics, Les Misérables was an instant publishing sensation and, it is claimed, continues to outsell all other books except the Bible.
And as happened in 19th-century France, so the public loved the powerful and sweeping spectacle of Herbie’s three-hour musical.
With a storyline set against the backdrop of revolutionary France, its central themes of social injustice and suffering, crime and redemption, love and loss, struck a chord with audiences all over the globe. But the story of how it ended up in the magical hands of Kretzmer is worthy of a drama itself.
Without Kretzmer it is fair to say the phenomenon of Les Mis — based on the Victor Hugo novel — from record-breaking stage shows all over the world to the blockbuster 2012 film starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway (pictured), might never have happened
The notion of turning this epic saga into a musical had come to a French lyricist called Alain Boublil in 1978 while he was watching a London revival of Oliver! In the streetwise swagger of Dickens’s Artful Dodger, he saw a resemblance to Gavroche, the street urchin hero of Les Mis.
Collaborating with composer Claude-Michel Schonberg, their version opened in Paris and ran successfully for three months before closing to make way for the Moscow State Circus.
Enter Cameron Mackintosh and a plan. ‘It all started in January 1985 with me picking up the phone to hear five life-transforming words,’ Kretzmer wrote. ‘ “Hello, Herbert, it’s Cameron Mackintosh.” ’
The then Fleet Street man hoped the call meant the rising star of musical theatre was interested in a revival of Our Man Crichton, a show of Kretzmer’s which had been staged in 1964 with Millicent Martin and Kenneth More.
He was not. Instead he was asking about the songs he had written for the great French singer Charles Aznavour. Herbie had written the lyrics for both She and Yesterday, When I Was Young.
Might he be interested, he wondered, in composing a libretto for a French musical called Les Misérables. ‘I had a theatre and I had a cast, but I needed lyrics,’ Mackintosh said yesterday. ‘And I needed them quickly.’ Added Kretzmer: ‘The phone call to me was Cameron pressing the panic button.’
Lyricist and journalist Herbert Kretzmer, pictured here at the opening night of Cameron Mackintosh’s production of ‘Les Miserables’ on Broadway at The Imperial Theatre in 2014
Persuading the great Daily Mail editor Sir David English to give him three months leave, he set to work at once in a Knightsbridge flat once owned by John Cleese. His ‘wretched’ French was just one of the obstacles he had to encounter.
‘You cannot translate a song,’ Herbie explained a few years ago. ‘You can translate a textbook and even a novel, but a song is no more than a compendium of nuances and references and illusions with a resonance within a particular culture.’
Working with an English version of the novel and a literal translation of the French libretto, he began to create. The finished version was an hour longer than the French production, which means a third of it was original material. One of his most famous additions, I Dreamed A Dream, only added to the show’s amazing success when Susan Boyle sang it on her famous Britain’s Got Talent audition, turning her and the song into an overnight sensation.
By then it had already made Kretzmer a rich man. All in all not bad going for a boy from the one horse town of Kroonstadt in South Africa — named after a horse called Kroon who had pulled an early settler to safety from a swollen river.
Herbie was one of four sons of Jewish-Lithuanian immigrants who ran a grocery store. Although his childhood was ‘blissful’ it was the cinema that opened his eyes to life’s possibilities.
He saw his first film aged eight. It was the musical The Gold Diggers. He was entranced and from then on immersed himself in the movies and the music of Gershwin, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin. For a boy whose parents spoke Yiddish and German, the films also educated him.
The playwright and critic enjoyed an illustrious career on Fleet Street as well as TV and backstage in London’s West End
But while Hollywood entranced, he decided journalism would give him the greatest access to those who inhabited this starry world. As a young man he moved to Johannesburg where he wrote a commentary for a cinema newsreel before joining a newspaper. At the same time he had taught himself to play the piano by ear.
After selling his piano accordion for £40 to pay for his passage, he sailed for Europe, settling at first in Paris. There he fulfilled the artistic dream, living in a garret on the Left Bank, playing piano by night in return for a meal and trying and failing to write a novel by day. Soon after he was in London and in Fleet Street.
After several years as a showbiz reporter on the now defunct Daily Sketch, he joined the Daily Express as drama critic. It was the moment his career and his childhood dream took shape.
He interviewed many of the great celebrity figures of the day — Frank Sinatra, Peter Sellers, Marlene Dietrich, Groucho Marx and Truman Capote to name only a handful. Those were the days when a writer could pick up a phone and get through to a film star without layers of publicists.
Yul Brynner — whom he described as ‘owner of the most celebrated skull in the world’ — was another, as was a ‘homesick’ Petula Clark who took him into her child’s darkened nursery to stand at the cot of her sleeping child.
And there was an encounter with Walt Disney, creator of the most famous cartoon rodent in the world who startled him by confiding: ‘Mice frighten me… you never know where they are going.’
Herbert Kretzmer, Sir Cameron Mackintosh, Claude-Michelle Schonberg, Alain Boublil and John Caird at the 20th Anniversary Celebration of Les Miserables show at the Queens Theatre on October 8, 2005 in London
In 1979, and by now married to his first wife (they divorced in 1973) and with two children, he moved to the Daily Mail and quickly established himself as a gifted TV critic with witty and wry reviews.
In between all of this he was perfecting his songwriting. He composed for satirical TV show That Was The Week That Was, and won an Ivor Novello Award for the Peter Sellers/Sophia Loren duet Goodness Gracious Me.
But the big time eluded him until Mackintosh came calling. Les Mis brought him not just great wealth but good fortune, too. He met his second wife Sybil at the opening of the show in New York and they married in 1988.
For many years they hosted generous soirees at their London home decorated with movie posters and paintings of South African landscapes.
A generous donor to charities, Herbie also remained close to his roots. A passionate supporter of Black Civil rights, he was a contributor to funds to meet legal fees of poor South Africans.
He was appointed a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by France’s Minister of Culture in 1988, and OBE in 2011.
His was certainly a life well lived. Perhaps someone will make a musical of it one day.