Nobody can call them "les miserables" anymore.
For most of their adult lives, Alain Boublil, 49, and Claude-Michel Schonberg, 45, toiled away in relative obscurity as pop songwriters in France."In 1983-84, I was waking up in the middle of the night. I was wondering whether I could afford to keep my house and feed my family. The song business is a very fragile business," Schonberg says over the phone from his home in Paris.
By 1985, his sleepless nights were over. That's when "Les Miserables," the musical he created with Boublil, based on Victor Hugo's classic 19th-century novel, became a smash hit in London. The story of a fugitive relentlessly pursued by a fanatical police inspector, "Les Mis" arrived on Broadway a year and a half later and is still selling out in both cities. Subsequent foreign productions have taken "Les Miserables" to audiences in Japan, Australia, Canada, Israel, Hungary, Poland, Norway, Iceland and Austria, with openings in almost 20 more countries slated for the next two years. Worldwide gross revenue totals $300 million.
These days Boublil and Schonberg are busy preparing for the Broadway production of their most recent London hit, "Miss Saigon." (See related story on this page.) A retelling of "Madame Butterfly" set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, it is expected to reach Broadway next season. They're also beginning to develop the screenplay for the movie of "Les Mis," to be co-written and directed by Alan Parker, director of "Mississippi Burning."
The pair had a small taste of musical theater success in Paris before "Les Mis" took London by storm. They staged their first musical in the early 1970s; it was a daring move in a country where musicals are virtually non-existent.
As a young man, "I knew the opera existed. I knew there was an ugly thing called the operetta, but I didn't know there was anything in between," Boublil says from his Paris office.
Then at 19, he saw a touring production of "West Side Story," which he believes changed his life. However, he says, "It was not something I felt I would be able to do. It was much too complicated."
In 1972, he saw the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice collaboration "Jesus Christ Superstar" on Broadway and realized this style of through-composed pop musical was within his reach.
"I spent the whole night walking in New York and decided not to go to sleep until I found an idea for the first French musical." The idea he came up with was an "epic rock opera about the French Revolution."
He approached Schonberg, who was eager to participate. "Despite the fact that we were songwriters, we always thought it was not the right shape for us," Schonberg says.
As had been the case with "Superstar," "La Revolution Francaise" made its first appearance as a record album. The record was an almost immediate hit, and the decision was made to try the show on stage. However, because there are no commercial musical-theater houses in Paris, "La Revolution" was booked into the 4,000-seat Palais des Sports.
"La Revolution Francaise" opened in 1973 and ran for three months. After that, Boublil says, "We went back to our normal work."
Later, "Les Miserables" occurred to him after seeing a revival of "Oliver!" in London and deciding there was a parallel between Dickens' Artful Dodger and Hugo's gamin, Gavroche.
Following what has become their usual practice, Schonberg composed the score, Boublil wrote the lyrics, and they collaborated on the libretto. This time around, when the record album was released, plans for a theatrical production were already under way. But once again, the only place to stage the show was the Palais des Sports, where it opened in 1980.
"Les Mis" played to sellout crowds for 16 weeks but was forced to close to make way for the Moscow Circus.
In 1982, "almost by chance," as Schonberg puts it, Cameron Mackintosh, the British producer of "Cats," heard the record and decided to produce "Les Mis" in London. To remount it for the British stage, he brought in the Royal Shakespeare Company team behind "Nicholas Nickleby" - co-directors John Caird and Trevor Nunn and designer John Napier, the latter two of whom had also collaborated on "Cats."
"From being provincial, marginal musical-theater writers in a country which has no musical theater, we found ourselves transferred into London with some of the best people in the world," Boublil says.
For "Miss Saigon," which skipped France entirely and premiered in England, Boublil co-wrote the lyrics in English with an American lyricist, Richard Maltby Jr.
The genesis of "Miss Saigon" was a photograph Schonberg saw in a French magazine of a Vietnamese woman handing her child over to an American stranger. The caption explained that the child was the daughter of a U.S. soldier, and the mother somehow hoped the father and daughter would be reunited in the United States.
"The mother knew it was the last time she would see her daughter," he says. "That kind of sacrifice from an Asian woman seems to me exactly the same as Cio-Cio-San in `Madame Butterfly' committing suicide for the future of her son. That gave me the parallel between the stories. I told Alain, I know a place on Earth where the `Madame Butterfly' story keeps going on and going on - Vietnam."