The project had been in development for over six years with Michel Legrand writing the music, Alain, Claude-Michel and Jonathan Kent working on the book and Herbert Kretzmer writing English lyrics drawn from Alain’s original French lyrics.
Michel Legrand: We wanted to try a new musical version of La Dame Aux Camélias as I’ve never liked Verdi’s La Traviata. I always go for melody first because melodies come to me effortlessly; I have a very strange melodic gift. So I write maybe 50 melodies and then cast them off until I have the two or three I need. If I can’t decide on the last few I let the director decide.
Claude-Michel Schönberg: It’s not a frustration at all not writing the music for Marguerite because of my admiration for Michel Legrand and my long association with Alain. I’ve written the book based on harsh fact. The story is set in a dark time in French history. It was a time of collaboration and corruption, with some businessmen making their fortunes while the rest of the population were starving. Marguerite is a privileged courtesan doing well out of the Nazi occupation and shielded from its harsher realities.
Alain Boublil: Although Michel Legrand and myself have always been accustomed to writing sung-through musicals, we immediately realized that by setting Marguerite in Nazi occupied Paris some parts of this story could not, and should not be sung. It was Claude-Michel who came up with the original idea for updating the story of La Dame Aux Camélias and I chose the period in which to set it. After working unsatisfactorily on a few versions of the script I asked Claude-Michel to join me in the writing of the book. Jonathan Kent had already been working with me and after we recorded the French demo, he went on to write the English version of the book and dialogue, while Herbert Kretzmer came on board to write the English lyrics.
While making the French demo Michel was playing the piano and singing Armand and Marguerite, Claude-Michel sang Otto and the three of us sung the company numbers. One song from this demo “Paris est Libéré” has been added as a Bonus Track to the Marguerite CD.
Herbert Kretzmer: This story has inspired 20 movies, eight of them including the name Camille in the title, since Alexandre Dumas first told it in a global best seller in 1848, under the name of La Dame Aux Camélias. Setting the story in war torn, Nazi occupied Paris, with Marguerite living with a powerful German officer, struck me as a very brave and original idea. I knew that such women existed during the war, scandalous women who shared their beds with the hated enemy, and I remembered the stories about Coco Channel and the film star Arletty.
Few composers on the planet write more drenchingly romantic music than Michel Legrand and I have long been accustomed to writing English lyrics for French composers. I started with a word-for-word translation of Alain’s French lyrics, which I used as a road map to tell me where the song’s narrative line was heading and I preserved, where I could, any particularly catchy key words and images. There was no such thing as an “easy” song to write for Marguerite. Some lyrics may sound easy and simple, but they needed days and even weeks to complete.
Jonathan Kent: I’ve never directed a completely new musical before, and Marguerite was an exciting challenge. Working on the book did affect the way I directed the piece in so much as I knew it so well, and from the inside – it was like a film running in my head. Deciding to stage the whole show as a flashback was in place right from the very beginning. And it follows the original structure of Dumas’ book, which opens after Marguerite has died with the sale of her effects. I think it increases rather than decreases the tension and the emotional impact of the ending.
The cinematic staging was certainly an intentional way of intensifying our short scenes and the huge emotional journey. My biggest challenge was to ensure that everything cohered, so that it had a dramatic arc, a logic and unity, which is difficult to achieve. Music, lighting, design, musical staging, performances – everything has to be brought into the same sphere.
I worked very closely with Paul Brown, the designer, who I’ve worked with over the years. There is really very little difference between a set designer and a director because in many ways the designer is a director too. The explosive point from which everything else in the show springs is Marguerite and Armand’s first kiss. So we used a setting that reflected a sophisticated but fragile world of glass and mirrors so that the instant their passion explodes is echoed by the explosion of glass from the bombs dropping on Paris.
The show opens with Armand carrying Marguerite’s body and placing it on a chair. From that moment the story is told in flashback and that first scene is like a film rewinding backwards.
The next scene goes back to the beginning of the story with Marguerite’s 40th birthday party, which she celebrates at her luxurious apartment with her hedonistic and self-seeking collaborator friends, her former agent Georges and Otto, the powerful German general with whom she is living.
A group of musicians has been hired to entertain them. Marguerite is persuaded to sing “China Doll”, which had been her one and only hit song before she turned to a life of prostitution and the song brilliantly serves as a metaphor for her present confined existence.
When bombs start to fall everyone takes cover in the cellar except for Marguerite and Armand, the young jazz piano player. He has long admired her from afar and when a bomb blast explosively shatters the windows they kiss and a passion is born which neither can control and they begin a secret and dangerous affair.
Otto genuinely loves Marguerite and in his frustration and bitterness that she does not return his love he shows the more brutal and self-hating side of his nature.
As the affair continues Armand is unhappy to see so little of Marguerite and after a bitter argument she agrees to leave Paris with him, returning to her apartment only to collect her clothes and papers.
A sub plot involves Armand’s sister Annette, who works for the resistance and her lover Lucien, who, as a Jew, is forced to flee Paris. Annette, intends to follow but has one more job to do for the resistance. However, on learning that Armand is in danger because the General knows about his relationship with Marguerite, she goes to warn him. But he has left and she is caught red-handed carrying the case of German maps and papers that she was supposed to deliver for the resistance.
When Marguerite returns to her apartment Otto is there reading the love letters she had written to Armand, which have been found in his empty apartment. Annette is brought in bloodied and beaten and Otto has a warrant for Armand’s arrest. Marguerite pleads with him and he makes a deal with her that if she writes to Armand telling him that she will never see him again he will tear up the warrant and give orders for Annette to receive no further “interrogation”.
Heartbroken, she complies with his wishes and Armand is utterly distraught when he receives her letter, believing that she no longer loves him but prefers her life of comfort with Otto.
Armand learns of his sister’s fate and joins in with the resistance plans of Lucien and his friend Pierrot, who have orders to kill Otto. Otto forces Marguerite to go to a New Year’s Eve party although she feels unwell and in no mood for celebrating. The three resistance members come in and play music and on the stroke of midnight Armand shoots Otto.
Marguerite is now rejected by her former “friends” who have turned with the political tide and shun her as a collaborator. The song “Day By Day” is sung by a chorus of collaborators at four different points in the show to reveal their self-seeking, opportunistic shifts from collaboration to fake heroism and patriotism as France is liberated.
Marguerite is attacked for sleeping with the enemy. Her head is shaved in patches and she is severely beaten. Lucien tells Armand that Marguerite only wrote the letter to save him and Annette and that she finally helped the resistance by betraying Otto. Armand finds Marguerite as she lies dying and he carries her body away as the curtain falls.
This synopsis takes into account some minor but significant changes made during the run of the show.
See also Shows – Marguerite where you will find a short film clip of Marguerite.
|Book||Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg, Jonathan Kent|
|Original French Lyrics||Alain Boublil|
|English Lyrics||Herbert Kretzmer|
|Orchestrations and Arrangements||Michel Legrand, Seann Alderking|
|Lighting Designer||Mark Henderson|
|Sound Designer||Paul Groothius|
|Ensemble||Mark Carroll, James Doherty, Siubhan Harrison, Jon-Paul Hevey, Julia Nagle, Duncan Smith, Gay Soper, Phillip Sutton, Lucy Williamson|
|Come One Come All||Company|
|Let the World Turn||Marguerite, Georges, Company|
|Jazz Time||Annette, Armand, Lucien, Pierrot, Company|
|The Face I See||Marguerite|
|Time Was When||Lucien, Annette, Pierrot, Armand|
|The World Begins Today||Company|
|Intoxication||Armand, Marguerite, Otto|
|Day By Day [Part One]||Company|
|I Am Here||Marguerite, Armand|
|Take Good Care of Yourself||Annette, Lucien|
|Day By Day [Part Two]||Marguerite, Armand, Otto, Company|
|Dreams Shining Dreams||Marguerite, Armand|
|Take Good Care of Yourself [Reprise]||Annette|
|I Hate the Very Thought of Women||Otto|
|The Letter||Marguerite, Otto|
|What’s Left of Love||Armand|
|Day By Day [Part Three]||Company|
|How Did I get to Where I Am?||Marguerite|
|Day By Day [Part Four]||Company|
|Come One Come All [Reprise]||Company|
The reviews for Marguerite were generally excellent with a just few that had some minor reservations:
It ticks all three boxes – sublime music, a compelling story and acting of the highest order – and in doing so raises the bar for modern musicals … Be warned that it doesn’t pull any punches; and while Kent – with his designer Paul Brown – invests much of it with a dreamlike quality, he portrays its themes of love and hate very graphically. Perhaps its greatest strength is the genuine chemistry between its two principal players. Ruthie Henshall is a revelation as Marguerite, delivering a performance of enormous sensitivity and intelligence, and Julian Ovenden is a powerful stage presence as her lover. A great night at the theatre. Sex, songs and swastikas – who could ask for anything more? (Tim Walker, Sunday Telegraph)
Mon dieu! Ruthie’s musical is magnifique. Proper new musical hits town: rare. Said new musical is nothing to do with the back book of a Seventies pop group or a reworking of an Eighties film: rarer still. Selfsame musical is near operatic, stylishly staged, superbly sung and has a respectable storyline with a stonking good star: we’re talking bloomin’ miracle … it is everything a West End musical should be. It is grown up art with strong songs and the added bonus of a line of reproach to wartime collaborators.
(Quentin Letts, Daily Mail)
Henshall and Ovenden are pretty impressive in both acting and singing departments. She can be haughty but also broken, forlorn and poignant. He manages to be intense without seeming wet. And how refreshing to hear voices that cope with every note in songs which, as composed by Michel Legrand and accoutred with plain, bold lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer, soar and dive in often hummable ways … Actually the most interesting character is Otto, who veers from love of Marguerite to a dangerous bitterness at her coldness, from Nazi denunciations of “coloured music” to officer-class honour, from near rapist to self-hating gentleman. (Benedict Nightingale, The Times)
Scored by Michel Legrand many of the songs have gently haunting tunes, with a touch of the mournful ballad about them. The trio “Intoxication” – bringing in Alexander Hanson as the infatuated commandant – is an eerie kind of musical round where it sounds as if they are caught up in a shimmering whirlpool. Such moments go a long way to compensate for the banalities of the lyrics and book … Nonetheless, this is certainly a cut above your average West End musical. (Kate Bassett, Independent on Sunday)
One problem is the show’s brevity. Running at a mere two hours and 10 minutes, including the interval, one left the theatre feeling a certain emptiness. There was surely room for another half hour at least to explore this sensitive and moving story …It is certainly an emotional show, much charged with obsessive love and even passionate sex. (Paul Callan, Daily Express)
Why should we sympathise with a collaborator? That question haunted me through this new Michel Legrand musical inspired by La Dame Aux Camélias and set during the German occupation of Paris. It is highly efficient, visually deft and moves rapidly; but the death of its mythic heroine left me stonily unmoved … One particular number, Day by Day, set to skilful lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer, is repeated four times to show how the attitudes of Paris’s smart set to the Germans shifted from willing collaboration to fierce denunciation … Ruthie Henshall, passionate in red velvet, is a dynamic Marguerite … The show brings the Haymarket season to an impressively staged climax. (Michael Billington, The Guardian)