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Boublil & Schönberg: The French Duo Behind Two Broadway Megahits

Miss Saigon’s 25th anniversary celebration in London

by Liam Hoare

The helicopter has landed—again. Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s musical behemoth Miss Saigon returns to Broadway this March after a 16-year hiatus. Few creative teams can boast a megahit, let alone two, but with Les Misérables and Miss Saigon, this French Jewish songwriting duo has created two enduring, passionate melodramas that have inspired a near-devotional following.

Composer Schönberg, 72, was born in Brittany to Hungarian Jewish émigrés. His father was a piano tuner and a member of the French Resistance who, because he spoke German, was able to bring messages and weapons to communities along the northern French coast. Interviewed by Margaret Vermette for her 2006 book The Musical World of Boublil and Schönberg, Schönberg spoke of a family home with “a kind of Jewish spirit and a special warmth.”

Lyricist and librettist Boublil, 76, was born and raised in a Sephardic Jewish enclave in Tunisia. The son of a shopkeeper, Boublil left for Paris at 18 to pursue a degree in economics. Tunisian independence in 1956 caused most Jews to flee. Although Boublil’s family remained, he knew from the age of 12 that he would spend the rest of his life elsewhere. “I was getting bored in such a small town, where I certainly wouldn’t be able to fulfill all my ambitions,” he tells Vermette.

The two men met in Paris in 1968 after Boublil heard one of Schönberg’s songs on the radio and immediately called in to find the composer. At the time, Schönberg was singing in a band, though he would soon become a talent scout for a record label. Boublil was managing the music publishing department at a record label and writing lyrics on the side. Both had written pop songs independently, but what drew them into the theater was seeing the stage version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1971 rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar.

Unlike, for example, the Gershwins or Rodgers and Hammerstein, Boublil and Schönberg have not found fame equal to that of their shows. Their absence from the list of recognized and recognizable Broadway composers has something to do with being from France, not the United States, and the fact that they have refrained from doing personal interviews. But perhaps they also remain enigmas because little of Boublil and Schönberg is discernible from their shows.

Les Misérables, after all, is saturated not with Jewish but with Christian themes. Jean Valjean is a redeemed sinner who ascends to demigod-like status, with superhuman strength and capacity for forgiveness. Javert, the earthly law, is corrupt and unyielding; for the wretched, Fantine and Eponine, life is futile. The second act’s failed revolt revolves around New Testament ideas such as “blessed are the poor” and “all men shall come before judgment.” In closing, the cast sings, “To love another person is to see the face of God.”

Miss Saigon, meanwhile, is based on the Puccini opera Madame Butterfly and tells the story of a rapturous but ultimately tragic romance between Chris, an American GI, and Kim, a Vietnamese bar girl, in Saigon during the final throes of the Vietnam War. Compared to the lyricism of Les Misérables, Miss Saigon speaks a different vernacular, mixing simplistic rhymes with earnest proclamations and vague Eastern mysticism (“You are sunlight and I moon / joined by the gods of fortune…”), although both shows seek to tackle big themes and feelings on an epic scale.

Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg. // © Nick Kozak

Boublil and Schönberg’s backgrounds do inform their work, though, in two ways. Boublil believes the Second World War left its mark on him, and his lyrics do display a penchant for musicalizing traumatic historical events. Neither artist feels defined by place: Boublil says, “I am a true cosmopolitan,” and Schönberg tells Vermette, “What I feel from my childhood is that I don’t feel attached to anywhere. I’m not very attached to France.”  This gives them, Vermette writes, a freedom to “invent, reinvent, innovate, and create without fear.”

With Miss Saigon, Boublil and Schönberg plugged into an American musical tradition, pioneered by Jewish composers such as Rodgers and Hammerstein, of writing and utilizing Asian stories. Andrea Most, author of Making Americans: Jews and the Broadway Musical, tells me that while guilty of “indulging in a lot of Asian stereotypes,” Rodgers and Hammerstein were attracted to Asian themes as “a way of talking about race” and “voicing a liberal idea of equality” while transposing Jewish stories and concerns onto another people. Their 1958 musical Flower Drum Song “could be a Jewish immigrant story,”  says Most.

Miss Saigon has been controversial since its inception. When the original production opened in 1991, the casting of British actor Jonathan Pryce as the Engineer—a Eurasian character and the emcee of the piece—was decried as yellowface. Actress Erin Quill, whose writing tackles diversity in casting, told me many Asian actors object to Miss Saigon’s Asian pimp and prostitute characters as well as its central love story, which borrows “the ‘she falls in love with the white guy’ trope.”

Quill, though, believes Miss Saigon is about “love and finding someone that you can hold onto when things go horribly awry,” and adds that the show “has had a defining impact on the Asian American talent pool in musical theater.” This new production—which runs until January 15, 2018, before launching a national tour—marks the Broadway debut of Filipina-Mexican-American actress Eva Noblezada in the role of Kim.

Indeed, it is the emotional power of these shows that accounts for their longevity. Les Misérables has been running in London for more than 30 years, and the rousing final chorus of “Do You Hear the People Sing?” still has audiences rising from their seats. A new, imaginatively directed revival in Tel Aviv, with standout performances from pop star Harel Skaat as Marius and veteran actor Yigal Sadeh as Javert, is the hottest ticket in town. When Chris and Kim dance anew to the song of a solo saxophone, doubtless Broadway audiences will rediscover what there is to love about Miss Saigon, too.

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