[Presenter Julia Zemiro and interviewee Claude-Michel Schönberg sit in leather chairs before an audience. Behind them are the bases of architectural columns and between them is a small table holding glasses of water.]
Julia Zemiro: [Speaks French] Oh that’s right, you don’t all speak ‘the French’. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome. We are so delighted to have Claude-Michel Schönberg. Ça va, Claude-Michel?
[Julia reaches over and touches Claude-Michel’s shoulder]
Claude-Michel Schönberg: Ça va, très bien.
[Claude-Michel sits with his hands clasped in front of him]
Julia: Très bien, très bien, yes, sure, of course. To be here in conjunction with this incredible exhibition next year and the fact that of course Les Misérables is coming back in 2014 to Melbourne with a gorgeous, young, exciting, new all-to-be-stars cast. It’s very exciting.
But look before Les Misérables of course there was La Revolution Francaise, the French Revolution.
[Julia holds up an LP record called La Revolution Francaise]
Julia: I first met Claude-Michel Schönberg …
[Julia gestures towards Claude-Michel]
Julia: … in my own mind …
Claude-Michel: No, she was nine years old.
Julia: I was nine, I know! So …
Claude-Michel: And I was already 30-something, so …
Julia: He was gorgeous.
Claude-Michel: It was an impossible story.
[Laughter from Julia and audience]
Julia: And yet in my lounge room for many, many, many years I had this incredible rock opera, a French rock opera, based on the French Revolution and it blew my mind as much as Jesus Christ Superstar then did too. You come, Claude-Michel, you don’t come from an opera world, a classical music world; you started in rock and roll, which I love.
Claude-Michel: I started, I was in France, but I was a Jewish Hungarian and all my family, they were totally fond of music and I was born in love with operas, I don’t know why, and how, but that’s the way it was.
[Claude-Michel clasps and unclasps his hands as he speaks]
Claude-Michel: And when I was four years old I went to Paris, because we’re living in a very small town in the west of France, in Brittany for those who know a little bit geography of France. And my first opera I saw was Madam Butterfly and I was completely bowled over, I was struck by what I saw. I even still remember 65 years after, the set and everything. And when the curtain call, I asked my mother, but why the public is giving applause to the singers? She said it is because they just performed. I said, yes but who wrote the music of that? She told me a guy called Puccini, and I said where is he? She said, he is dead.
Claude-Michel: And I told her, why we don’t have a big picture of him …
[Claude-Michel stretches his arms in the shape of a big picture]
Claude-Michel: … and people are applauding the picture? I was already totally–
Julia: A businessman.
Claude-Michel: Focusing and concentrating. Businessman, no, because if you want to do business you don’t start trying to be an opera composer.
[Julia and audience laughter]
Claude-Michel: So I was already struck by an intrigue, by the sparkling creation of the music. How can we imagine that you are writing the score? And that was always my fascination, I always wanted to be an opera composer so when I told my parents I wanted to be an opera composer, they thought I was completely mad.
Julia: Of course.
Claude-Michel: I was living far away in a little town, but the only way to do some music in the ‘60s was to play rock and roll, and so …
[Julia reaches over to tap Claude-Michel on the arm]
Julia: What kind of rock and roll? I would just love to know, was it like a big band you’ve got? How many in your band?
Claude-Michel: No we have four, because we don’t have money to survive and we had to find a way to make some money to keep going, studying.So we were bass guitar, I was playing piano and the drum and we were doing, I don’t know what [indistinct], all the rock and roll from the ‘60s, and and I was writing my own stuff too.
Julia: So this man, not only can he write, he can sing! He sings a big hit called Le premier pas, ‘The first step’, which is a beautiful love song about a young man who wishes that the girl he was in love with would make the first step, and she never does.
Claude-Michel: It’s rare that they do it in the first.
[Julia and audience laughter]
Julia: Yes it is rare. I’ve tried it, it doesn’t work.
Julia: How long was Le premier pas number one?
Claude-Michel: Sixteen weeks and I did it because nobody wanted to sing it.
Claude-Michel: And it’s already, just after the year after The French Revolution in ’74 that Alain told me, why don’t you record your bloody song because nobody wants to do it, it was not a song; there was no chorus, no verse; it was finishing by one minute of big orchestra. And I did it. It was five minutes long – too long for the radio. And suddenly I was number one during sixteen weeks.
[Julia holds up the album La Revolution Francaise]
Julia: I love it. So you made La Revolution Francaise before Le premier pas?
Claude-Michel: Yes, one year before.
Julia: And so where do you meet Alain Boublil, your co-conspirator?
Claude-Michel: I met him in ’67 because I was a songwriter and he was a music publisher, and one day he heard on the radio a song I wrote for a young girl. And he was quite interested by the song; he was talking about a young girl being brought to do every day the same thing, that was already my nature. So he called me and we met, and that’s more than 40, I don’t know how many years, 46 years.
Julia: And when you met, did you feel that there was going to be a very long friendship and a long working relationship? Could you imagine that, or did you think this might last a couple of songs?
Claude-Michel: No, it never happens like that. We started to speak and he loved very much the musicals, I was in love with opera, we were writing songs for everybody. But that’s very important to write a song, very important, and for a musical it’s very important because there are so many musicals today I’m watching, and the people writing the music, they don’t know how to write a proper song.
Julia: What’s missing? What are they not doing?
Claude-Michel: It’s a knowledge. You have to write one hundred stupid songs before you start to write a very good song.
Claude-Michel: You have to learn. And Andrew Lloyd-Webber, you say what you want, but he knows how to write a song. Stephen Sondheim too, he knows how to write a song. George Gershwin, he started writing songs for a publisher in New York; they had little boxes with soundproof piano inside, and there was ten or eleven composers working like in an office, writing songs. He wrote for Al Jolson ‘Toot toot Tootsie’, plenty of very famous, popular songs. And that’s very important in a musical you have to, you’re facing the moment, no I have to write a song, but a proper song.
Julia: Look, I could sing this whole album to you now, Claude-Michel, but that would be dull.
Julia: [Sings a snippet of a song in French] I won’t do them all, just one.
[Audience and Claude-Michel laughter]
Julia: [Sings a snippet of a song in French] Anyway, I would like to do them all.
[Claude-Michel pretendes to pull the album away from Julia, as they and the audience laugh]
Julia: I’m getting him to sign it later.
Claude-Michel: We never rehearse this, eh. Never.
Julia: We didn’t. But the French are not known for loving the musical. The musical is not something that’s in their culture, necessarily. What makes you and Alain think a rock opera about the French Revolution … will people go?
Claude-Michel: We didn’t know; we just did it because we wanted to do it, because Alain saw Jesus Christ Superstar and he realised that Tim and Andrew, two guys who are not part of the musical world like the very famous composer of Showboat, West Side Story, Bernstein, they were not as sophisticated as those guys; and he realised that two guys were writing songs and each to do a musical show with 20 to 24 songs.
I’m a little bit not right because one section of the cast here …
[Claude-Michel tries to turn to face the audience to his left and Julia does the same to her right]
Claude-Michel: … I’m not looking at them.
Julia: I know, I’m doing this as well. We’ll face out in an awkward way like that.
Claude-Michel: So we realise that people writing all these songs can create a musical, and we say but that’s the way we have to do it because we were completely bored by the format of the songs, it’s three minute maximum: one verse, one chorus, one verse, one chorus, change of key, one chorus and fade out. That’s it.
Claude-Michel: It was always the same thing and we wanted to do something bigger than us, bigger than life, more important.
I’m ambitious by nature so I wanted to do something that nobody did before. And when you’re living in a country where the musical – despite the fact that France was a country of tradition of operetta, a big country for operettas, and a lot of people writing for Broadway, they all claim the legacy of Jacques Offenbach who wrote plenty of what we call opera bouffe, very funny and short pieces – and it all disappeared, because there was no change in the system. Nobody thinks about renewing the operetta, so it disappeared completely. And when you are in the desert and you find a little bit of water, you are the king. So we thought that a good way to do something new and we did that, totally unconsciously, we did The French Revolution and suddenly it started to be a big hit.
Julia: Claude-Michel plays the part of the king, Louis XVI, in this actual production. How many shows did you do of the live show?
Claude-Michel: Personally I did 45 shows, it means I was beheaded 45 times.
Julia: Forty-five times. I read somewhere that you said, Claude-Michel, after doing even just a few performances you were thinking, I could never be a performer full time, I don’t have the patience. Is that the–
Claude-Michel: No it’s not that, it’s that when it’s written it’s not very interesting.
Julia: But you wrote it, it’s yours.
[Audience and Julia laughter]
Claude-Michel: No, but I always say I don’t know a painter in love with his own painting. Once you finish it you know how you did it, the tricks you have been using and how difficult or how easy it was. And it’s finished. That exciting moment, the sparkle of creation, is when you are sitting at the piano and you’re thinking and concentrating on something, and suddenly you start to hear something coming from very far, you don’t know. It’s not yet here, but that’sthe best moment. It’s like before love, you know when you take the lift and you go to the floor, it’s the best moment of love, because after, everything is there.
Julia: I can’t remember the last time.
[Julia reaches across towards Claude-Michel]
Julia: [Speaks French] Such a long time ago.
Claude-Michel: Forty years.
Julia: Forty years, I know.
Claude-Michel: So that’s the best moment of it and that’s, it’s the best one because it’s only for you, and you know that you feel that something is coming. It’s wonderful. So what was the question?
Julia: Yeah I know.
Julia: Just in love. So La Revolution Francaise, you do that, and I remember years later when I heard Les Misérables and I recognised the names and I was thinking, this is an English musical but Boublil and Schönberg, I know those names. I go back, I get the album, I check and I couldn’t quite get, I couldn’t quite understand it. How did Les Misérables come about? Because it’s a huge novel, it’s obviously very well known around the world; it seems insurmountable. What do you choose? What do you keep? What do you keep out? Pourquoi Les Misérables?
Claude-Michel: Because after The French Revolution we wanted to do something else. We were caught by the virus of writing something for the stage, but in France there was no tradition of musicals, so we didn’t have any rule to break. We were totally free to invent our own style. And we thought that, as I was a big fan of opera, the singing-through was perfect for us: no spoken dialogue like an opera with reprise of melody, and because I had a very good knowledge of the structure of an opera it was not a big problem for me.
And one day Alain saw in London, already it was a prodiction of Cameron, revival of Oliver by Lionel Bart that Cameron was producing, and when he saw the little boy on stage he thought about Gavroche and he came back to me and he told me, what do you think about Les Misérables? I said, that sounds good. It took me five minutes to say yes let’s try to do it.
[Julia smiles broadly]
Claude-Michel: And we took the book – 1,200 pages – and we had to decide what story we’re going to show on stage, but there was already what, 32 versions as a movie?
[Julia nods in agreement]
Claude-Michel: So we knew that it was possible to tell that story in two hours and thirty minutes. And we started to work, avoiding 200 pages about the Battle of Waterloo, 200 pages about the description of the sewers of Paris …
[Audience and Julia laughter]
Claude-Michel: Simon, where he is?
[Claude-Michel points to someone in the audience]
Claude-Michel: He’s singing a song called Who am I; in the book it takes 180 pages.
[Audience and Julia laughter]
Julia: Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I should tell you that Simon Gleeson is in the front row and he is of course Jean Valjean next year, which is great.
Julia: So great! Yes, go on.
[Increasing audience applause]
[Claude-Michel applauds and Julia smiles broadly]
Julia: That’s good news for modern man, isn’t it?
Julia: Yes, so it’s easier, well no it’s not. Then you have to, as you say, to reduce that whole thing of Who am I into a great song. Lucky you!
Julia: And so how long does it take? And you write it all in French, don’t you? This first version is all in French.
Claude-Michel: It was all in French. It took us more than one year and of course everybody thought we were completely mad, because as pop song writers we had to stop and they said, ‘But how are you going to have a life, how are you going to make money if you stop writing songs?’
Claude-Michel: But we were believers and we had faith in what we were doing, and we say, ‘No, that’s what we want to do, because songs is fine but we want something a little bit bigger.’ And after one year I did a demo – a tape, a cassette in those days – where I play the whole show in French, doing all the parts on the piano.
Claude-Michel: Tom Hooper, for the movie, used those demo tapes to reconsider the script and the story.
Claude-Michel: And that was funny because they did a CD of it, it was very funny for me to listen to it. So I did that tape and nobody wanted to put the show on stage. During two months we were waiting for a phone call.
Julia: Are you panicking, are you starting to think we might have wasted a year?
Claude-Michel: We thought that we are to go back to write pop songs. That’s it. And two months after, a French director called Robert Hossein, famous in France, came to see us and he said, ‘You know guys, I don’t want to do something on stage with music, I’m not interested, but I heard that you’ve done Les Misérables with music, and I’m very curious to hear that. How dare you to do that?’
I said, ‘Robert we have a tape of two hours if you want.’
Claude-Michel: And he sat down, and for the first and last time in my life he stayed still. He say nothing. And after two hours, we finish the tape and he just stands up, he says, ‘Okay guys, I’m going to do your stuff.’
Julia: Comme ça? Just like that?
Claude-Michel: Just like that, and he did it. And we did; of course because of his fame and reputation we had the money to do a concept album. And we did a show in Paris because we had a slot of three months in an arena, because Rudolph Nureyev, who was the director of the Paris Opera, wanted to a big show in an arena, of the ballet of the Paris Opera, but he started to be ill with HIV and they had to cancel the three months of the run and we took the opportunity to put the show in this big arena.
And two years after when we closed the show, because it was a limited run of course, a young director from Manchester, a guy with an Hungarian name, called Peter Farrago, came to see Cameron with the French album we did of Les Misérables and told him, ‘There is a French musical here, I saw it in Paris two years ago; why don’t you listen to it because I would like to direct it.’ And Cameron took the record, ‘French musical, it doesn’t exist. It’s a contradiction in terms, a French musical.’
Claude-Michel: And he just left the record and a few weeks after, on a rainy afternoon, having nothing to do, it was Sunday, he was cleaning his bookshelf and checking the records and he found the record of Les Misérables and he just put it by curiosity on his record player and he told me, ‘After two tracks,’ he said, ‘I was struck like the first time when I heard West Side Story and I had immediately a vision of the show I’m going to produce.’
Claude-Michel: That’s why I told you sometimes it’s the most important day in your life and you don’t know it. Because we were in Paris, nobody was interested by us, and I was starting to write pop songs again and again. And Cameron was looking for us, and he called us in Paris and we had a lunch together in February 1983.
Julia: And did you think you would have to hand the whole thing over, or did you feel that it would be a collaboration with him in terms of translating, in terms of getting the mood of it, in terms of, it still being the French show.
Claude-Michel: We didn’t know, we were already quite happy that somebody was interested by … because nobody ask us, are you going to do something with it? We knew that he was a producer of a strange show, whose title was Cats.
[Audience and Julia laughter]
Claude-Michel: A show with cats? And after we understood that it was a human being pretending they are a cat.
[Audience and Julia laughter]
Claude-Michel: Or it can be a show like War horse too, with a puppet, but that we didn’t know.
Anyway he came to see us and he said, okay, the first thing he told us, ‘You do not realise what you have done.’
And he was a very young producer in those days but he was already, at 39 years old, the Cameron Mackintosh we know, the people working with him, you know. And when he had a vision he was quite straightforward.
He said, ‘You don’t realise what you have done. It’s a wonderful draft, good for a French audience very familiar with the novel, but not at all for internationals; so we’re going to rewrite it.’ And he told the guy, the director, ‘You’re not going to direct that show anyway.’
Claude-Michel: ‘But you will get something because you introduce me the idea.’
Julia: Oh that’s so …
[Julia gesticulates dramatically]
Julia: Those stories are terrifying!
Claude-Michel: Because he saw a few months before a very big production of a Dickens novel, Nicolas Nickleby. It was kind of eight hours …
Julia: Yes it’s wonderful if you ever see it, I’ve seen it twice.
Claude-Michel: … by two guys, Trevor Nunn and John Caird, and he saw that they are the right people to do that. And he said, ‘But I want you to rewrite it because it’s a style, it’s a flavour that we don’t have in England, so I will introduce you to people, but it’s you, you have to do the job.’ And over one year, more than one year, we’ve been working with Trevor Nunn, John Caird, an English writer called James Fenton, Herbert Kretzmer and practically one third of the show we opened in London was completely brand new.
[Julia nods and smiles]
Claude-Michel: The French show was two hours and the preview in London was three hours and 45 minutes.
[Julia points to someone in audience]
Julia: Are you ready for that, are you? Good, Paul, good.
[Turns back to Claude-Michel]
Julia: Yeah, so, what I find interesting though is that this is, for me Les Misérables, I mean I was never going to be a, I’m not good enough to be a musical theatre performer but for me it seemed like a musical for really good actors who can sing. It’s not about dancing necessarily or anything. What’s so great about it – because it is indeed, I mean Victor Hugo says with Les Misérables it’s about evil to good, it’s about justice to injustice, corruption to life, from nothingness to God – there are some really big stories in there, but the acting has to be done through the songs. So you’re asking quite a lot from your performers.
Claude-Michel: That’s what their job is about.
Claude-Michel: I remember very well a very famous person still working on Broadway, and she was part of the original production of Les Mis in London. And during the recording of the casting bunch she came to me and she told me ‘You know, Claude-Michel, it’s very difficult to sing that note of music.’ I say, ‘You know, what’s difficult is to work in a coal mine … ‘
[Julia turns to face audience. Audience laughs]
Claude-Michel: ‘… but not to sing that note. It’s your work and you have to do it’. But of course it’s difficult when you want to do something at the top – when you want to be the best baker in the world, the best actor, the best singer, the best concertist playing piano or violin, it’s always difficult, it’s a lot of work and those people here, they are hard workers and they have to work hard, but it’s all part of the work, we all know that and that’s why it’s so interesting and what passion and love is involved.
Julia: You were saying you’ve always wanted to write opera and be a composer – is Les Misérables opera?
Claude-Michel: Les Misérables is not an opera; opera is another convention, another approach of the music of the score. It’s not an opera, it’s not really a musical, that’s why it’s a problem for the critics when we opened it, they didn’t know what kind of animal it was. It’s a kind of operatic musical if you want, because the old [indistinct] and it’s based on the operatic structure but at the same time it’s for normal voices, not for that kind of monster, muscular performance that you have in opera. And the spirit and the convention we’re using is not at all the same, so it’s not an opera, and it’s very rare to meet people who can do the crossover.
Claude-Michel: I met two or three people like, people like Alfie Boe, or – very few people who can do both, very rare, because generally – because of the training, the coaching and the way they learn to approach music – opera people, they are not in their comfortable zone working with us.
Julia: It’s funny with, there’s that version of West Side Story with Kiri Te Kanawa and Jose Carreras and it’s actually, I find it a very strange thing to listen to because it completely misses the whole tone of the original musical, and it’s funny, opera people sometimes aren’t right for those kind of musicals.
Claude-Michel: I have a very funny story about it.
Julia: Great, tell it to us now.
[Julia reaches over to touch Claude-Michel’s chair and smiles out across the audience. Audience laughs]
Claude-Michel: And I can tell you the story today because he is dead, the poor guy …
[Claude-Michel rubs his hands together, Julia feigns looking shocked with wide eyes and mouth]
Julia: Great! Superb!
Claude-Michel: I was in Barbados having a vacation and in the next bungalow there was Luciano Pavarotti …
[Julia smiles and takes a sip of water]
Claude-Michel: … there with a lot of people and one day his butler came to me and said ‘Luciano would like to have lunch with you, private’. So I said ‘Okay, alright.’
So I went to the bungalow the following day, he was cooking pasta and he explained to me – he was calling me ‘Maestro’, so I called him ‘Luciano’ …
[Julia laughs heartily and audience joins in]
Claude-Michel: … so we established immediately the relation.
[Audience and Julia laughter]
Claude-Michel: He couldn’t read music, and I can’t read music, so we were kind of same level, but I didn’t tell him that.
Claude-Michel: I knew he couldn’t read music. And suddenly he told me ‘Maestro, I have a piece to learn for the suite [indistinct] at the Olympics.’ I said, ‘Alright, okay.’ So he came with the music and I said my god what am I going to do?
Claude-Michel: And I saw the title, The music of the night. I said, ‘Alright Luciano, it’s [sings] tee, da, da, na, na…’ and I was starting to, because I know very well the song of course, and he was starting to sing ‘tee, da, da…’ [sings same notes but more stilted]. And I said, ‘No Luciano, it’s not opera; you are free, you have to sing it the way you feel it, you don’t have to follow exactly the music the way it’s written.’
So that’s the whole difference between the opera world and the musical world. And on top of that, I’m always very careful that when I’m writing music it’s written on the speed and the phrasing of the spoken language, so after five minutes, you forget completely that they are singing.
And I’m not the first one to do it, there is a lot of people that use - all the recitative by Mozart in The magic flute or everything he has been writing, it’s based on the spoken language. I had a friend called Georg Solti, he was an important conductor, and once he told me a story that he had a problem to conduct the Rosenkavalier so, because he was Georg Solti of course he did something that we can’t do, he went to see Richard Strauss.
Claude-Michel: And he rang at his door, he said, ‘Maestro, I have a problem conducting the Rosenkavalier,’ and Richard Strauss told him ‘Don’t worry, Solti, just think that they are speaking and you will get the right rhythm to conduct.’
[Claude-Michel gestures like he is conducting]
Claude-Michel: And it came to me by instinct because I thought it was ridiculous to sing ‘Can I have a glass of wine?’ or ‘Are you coming tonight?’ with the music not related to the words. So I’m always writing and the people who are here tonight from the cast – we have Javert, we have Fontine, [points out the cast members present in the audience], we have Patrice here, Mr Javert the bad one is here too, so …
Julia: It’s so good, Hayden, good luck to you with being bad. That’ll be fun! [Julia bounces up and down in her chair]
Claude-Michel: I don’t know if they have started to work on the part, but everything is written on the spoken language.
Claude-Michel: So it’s a very natural way to deliver it and to act it too. There is no contradiction between the words and the lyrics.
Julia: Over 65 million people have seen a production of Les Misérables in over 42 different countries. When they made the film, were you apprehensive about what might come out of that in terms of taking it away from a place where we suspend our disbelief, which is the theatre, to film where, you know, naturalism comes into it a bit more and you’re seeing a kind of a different story, in a way?
Claude-Michel: Even when we are doing a production here in Melbourne we are apprehensive. So you imagine when I heard there is a project for a movie, I had thousands of questions in my mind. Overall when they told me that ‘You’re going to discover the movie on the first screening.’
Claude-Michel: So I said, ‘My god, what do they want to do?’ And because the director Tom Hooper is a very smart and clever boy, he realised very fast that the script was not a written script, the script was a score. So each time he wanted to do a cut or to change a scene he had to deal with me.
Julia: How did that go, Claude-Michel?
Claude-Michel: Very well at the end of the day.
[Julia laughs heartily]
Claude-Michel: We had our moments, but it was private together and the rest of the time he had to face Cameron and me, so there was quite a team for him to cope with.
But we knew that the stage show is not the movie, so we knew that we have to adapt what we had done for the screen, and thank God it’s something we did 30 years before, so it was not something brand new that we were still bound and linked to it.
Claude-Michel: We have a lot of distance, we knew what we can do, what we can’t do. But of course we had to rethink – when Eponine is dying – she’s not here today? [Looks around the audience] Where is she? Oh Eponine …
Julia: No, I don’t think so.
Claude-Michel: When she is dying on stage, of course she is dying, but she has to project to reach the second balcony. In the movie, the camera was there [brings his palm close to his face, and then moves it close to Julia’s face] just there, like that, so she was able to whisper that the natural way, and when someone is whispering the orchestration can’t be the same as when they are projecting. So everything has to be reconsidered and rethink.
And there is some moment that you can show in a movie, just shooting the eyes or that new song we did in the carriage was a section, a chapter in the book; beautiful chapter, but on stage it means nothing – we tried. But of course in a movie you just shoot the hand of a man stroking [gestures stroking with his hands] the forehead of a little girl, and you understand immediately what’s happening. On stage when everything is just big like that [indicates a small square with his fingers], it means nothing and it’s not working. It’s not theatrical – it’s good for a movie, it’s not good for theatre.
So we knew that we have to deal and work on it and it was one year and a half of work, and exhausting sometimes. Some days I wanted to kiss them, some days I wanted to kill them.
Julia: Mmm, and that’s just the creative process, isn’t it – going from one thing to another, a different medium?
Claude-Michel: Yes, and that’s quite difficult. Because at least in a theatre we have a common place – the stage, and when you have the run through you see a complete version of your work. In a movie it’s so fragmented that you have to think in advance, my god, what we can do to fix that, how it’s going to be, it’s going to be alright, it’s wrong; and when it’s wrong there’s nothing you can do, it’s too expensive to stop, so you have to keep going. It’s like a 747 taking off – after a certain distance you have to take off even if the four engines are not working. You have to go on.
Claude-Michel: But I must say, at the end it was a wonderful experience and the big success of the movie is the best proof.
Julia: Mmm, yeah Oscar nomination and everything, yeah. I saw Les Misérables in the ‘80s with my dad in Sydney, the Theatre Royal, and then didn’t see it again until I was in Paris and saw it there. It was an English version …
Claude-Michel: It was a tour, English tour, yeah.
Julia: … English touring with some of the best, so-called, you know – but I’d never seen it with a French audience. And it was interesting to see, even though it was in English, there’s that moment just before interval where that first sort of flag goes up [Julia demonstrates hoisting an imaginary flag] and there was a woman in front of me who was like standing already clapping [Julia stands, applauds, then sits back down], you know. And it was wonderful to see it because I must say I had never seen that reaction before anywhere else. Have you noticed different reactions between different countries to the work, or say particularly the French, do they feel ownership over this story because it’s a Victor Hugo story?
Claude-Michel: Yeah they feel some ownership of course because when it’s Paris on stage it’s Paris outside, so the feeling is completely different. But I must say, the story as the book when it was released in 1861 is such a universal story that in each country they take what they want in the show related to their own story. We gave the show in Poland during the Communist regime so you can’t imagine what was the repercussion for them watching a revolution on stage because that was the time of Solidarność and Lech Wałęsa and everything, so they were right into the story. The show was in Israel, in a lot of countries. The novel is responsible for everything, it’s stronger than you, the characters are stronger than you. You have to follow them and you have to enter their world.
Julia: On YouTube there’s a Turkish resistance group who do a version of ‘Do you hear the people sing’ with the Chapuller Choir, it’s live from Gezi Park and it is wonderful to watch, they sing half of it in English and then they sing it translated into Turkish and it’s a very rousing song, much like ‘La Marseillaise’.
I went to a French primary school in Sydney and you’d have to sing the Australian national anthem first and we’d all be there with ‘God save the Queen’ and ‘Advance Australia fair’, and then the little French school, there were about 60 of us, would sing ‘La Marseillaise’ and you could see all the Australian kids thinking ‘That’s got a lot of energy’.
Julia: ‘Ours doesn’t sound like that!’ And if they could speak French they would hear that the words were bloodthirsty and it speaks of war and blood and you know … [Julia gesticulates]
Claude-Michel: But for the Olympic Games in Sydney, when they had the parade of all the teams coning from each country, there was an orchestra playing music related with the country of the team and when the French people entered into the stadium they played ‘Do you hear the people sing’.
Claude-Michel: So everybody knew why, except French people.
[Julia and audience laughter]
Claude-Michel: I’m sorry.
Julia: Zut alors.
[Video cross fades]
Julia: Well your deep, deep connection with music has given us so many beautiful things, and we’re going to get more of those beautiful sounds and stories next year here in Melbourne and obviously nationally as well. Ladies and gentlemen, would you please thank the incredible Claude-Michel Schönberg.
[Julia claps, audience applauds loudly]
Claude-Michel: Thank you, thank you, thank you.
[Claude-Michel leans over to kiss Julia’s hand]
Julia: Oh, you!
[Screen shows white logos for State Library of Victoria and State Government of Victoria against a black background.]