Herbert Kretzmer: Times obituary

Mischievous if unassuming lyricist behind Les Misérables, the West End’s longest running musical, as well as Charles Aznavour’s She

Thursday October 15 2020, 12.01am, The Times

Before adapting Les Misérables, Herbert Kretzmer wrote screenplays 

Herbie Kretzmer did not so much translate Les Misérables as create an English-language version of an obscure French musical that in 1980 had played for a few months in Paris. In the process he read Victor Hugo’s novel in English and worked from a literal translation of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s original script.

“You cannot translate a song,” he explained. “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. So simply to translate the words into their dictionary meaning isn’t going to work.”

He cited I Dreamed a Dream, where the literal translation is: “I had dreamed of another life/ In which my life would pass like a dream.” In Kretzmer’s interpretation it was: “I dreamed a dream in time gone by/ When hope was high and life worth living.”

Until Les Misérables Kretzmer, a tall, slightly stooping and debonair figure, had enjoyed reasonable success, writing songs for That Was the Week that Was, winning an Ivor Novello award for the Peter Sellers/Sophia Loren Top Ten duet Goodness Gracious Me, and collaborating with the singer Charles Aznavour to bring French songs to an English audience. He also dabbled in writing screenplays, notably Too Hot to Handle (1960) starring Jayne Mansfield. It was an “exposé of sexy, sordid Soho — England’s greatest shame”. Yet the big time had evaded him.

His role in Les Misérables came about after he wrote to Cameron Mackintosh in 1984 urging the producer to back a West End revival of Our Man Crichton, for which Kretzmer had written the lyrics. Mackintosh was not interested, but invited Kretzmer to tea.

“We talked about everything and anything and then, between the sofa and door of his office as he was showing me out, my entire life changed,” Kretzmer recalled. “He said, ‘Tell me why you didn’t go on as a lyricist.’ And I said, ‘But I have.’ He asked me to name a couple of songs and I named two, both with music by Aznavour. One was She, and another called Yesterday When I Was Young. Cameron stopped, threw his arms wide, did a reasonable impression of a man in a swoon and said, ‘God, you’ve just named two of my favourite songs.’ ”

Six months later Mackintosh realised that the libretto for his English version of Les Misérables was proving unworkable. “He sat bolt upright in his bed one morning and thought of me,” recalled Kretzmer. “He said, ‘That’s the guy’, based purely on his remembering that little snatch of conversation.”

Kretzmer, who was the Daily Mail’s television critic, took six months’ leave and worked around the clock in his Knightsbridge apartment, consuming copious amounts of smoked salmon from Harrods’ food hall.

One of the casts of the French version of Les Misérables

About a third of the musical came from adapting the French, a third was a much looser translation and the remainder was entirely new songs. The finished show was an hour longer than the original.

Les Misérables, directed by Trevor Nunn and John Caird, opened at the Barbican in October 1985 to horrendous reviews, including a dismal write-up from Jack Tinker, Kretzmer’s colleague at the Mail, who described it as “the Glums”. Another critic found that “one tender death scene came blasting through the auditorium like a force-ten fart”. The public thought differently. Ticket sales soared and the show transferred to the West End, where it continued to be staged, breaking the record for the longest-running musical, until it was forced to close by the coronavirus pandemic.

The surprise success of Les Misérables, which in 1987 won Kretzmer a Grammy award as well as several Tony awards, meant that he no longer needed, in the words of his lyrics, to “charge ’em for the lice/ Extra for the mice”. Yet being an unassuming sort, he returned to his day job as a television critic until, as his fellow television critic Philip Purser noted, “it was becoming a little incongruous for a millionaire and a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres to be shambling in and out of viewing rooms with a notebook and a plastic cup of coffee”.

Herbert Kretzmer was born in Kroonstad, in the Free State, South Africa, in 1925, one of four sons of William and Tilly Kretzmer, Lithuanian-Jewish immigrants who ran a furniture store. One of his brothers, Elliot, became mayor of Johannesburg.

He was educated at Kroonstad High School and Rhodes University, Grahamstown, from where he began writing scripts for documentary films and cinema newsreels. He moved on to the Johannesburg Sunday Express before selling his piano accordion to fund the passage to Europe. In Paris he tried unsuccessfully to be a novelist, supporting himself by playing piano in the brasseries of St-Germain-des-Prés where he rubbed shoulders with Jean-Paul Sartre and became friendly with Aznavour.

On his first day in London in 1954 a thief stole all his money, but life improved when he found his way to Fleet Street, writing features for the Daily Sketch and interviews with stars such as Cary Grant, Truman Capote and Duke Ellington for the Sunday Dispatch. Of Greta Garbo he opined: “Boiled down to essentials, she is a plain mortal girl with large feet.”

In 1961 he married Elisabeth Wilson, an actress whom he had met in the theatre. The marriage was dissolved in 1973 and in 1988 he married Sybil Sever, a PR for the cosmetic queen Elizabeth Arden, whom he met at the opening night party for the New York production of Les Misérables, “what I call my late-life stroke of luck”, he said. She survives him with a son and daughter from his first marriage: Matthew, who works in the family business in Johannesburg, and Danielle, an academic.

There was a spot of trouble in 1965 when the impresario Emile Littler won £11,500 in libel damages and costs from Kretzmer and the BBC over a mischievous number he had written called The Littler Song. It had been broadcast on the David Frost show Not So Much a Programme the previous November, at the height of the so-called “dirty plays” controversy in the West End, and suggested that Littler was being insincere in his condemnation of obscenity on stage.

In 1967, the same year as his musical The Four Musketeers opened at Drury Lane Theatre, Kretzmer took over as theatre critic of the Daily Express from Bernard Levin, who had moved to the Daily Mail: the pair would file their respective overnight reviews and then meet for a midnight supper. In 1979 he too joined the Mail.

He continued writing musicals and worked on the film adaptation of Les Misérables. He also published Snapshots, a collection of his celebrity interviews. A letter of thanks from Frank Sinatra hung in the downstairs lavatory of his Holland Park home: not for a song Kretzmer had composed, but for an article he had written about the singer in his Fleet Street days. “It’s on loo level,” he said. “Halfway between sitting and standing.”

Kretzmer was thrilled in 2009 when Susan Boyle revived interest in Les Misérables by singing I Dreamed a Dream on Britain’s Got Talent. “What is it about that moment on television?” he asked in his low, rumbling voice that sounded like a coffee percolator. “This dumpy little lady walks on to a stage and within minutes she’s a universal legend. Everything about her is stardust. And she revived interest not only in the song but in the show. She gave it new life.”

As for his own career, he told The Jewish Chronicle: “Old song writers don’t die. They just de-compose.”

Herbert Kretzmer, OBE, journalist and lyricist, was born on October 5, 1925. He died from complications of Parkinson’s disease on October 14, 2020, aged 95

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