These are some of the questions I have been asked during various recent interviews.
London Book Launch
From left, Claire Moore, Marie Zamora and Simon Bowman
What made you decide to write this book?
I was doing a playwriting course at Sussex University and wrote a dissertation on the musicals of Boublil and Schönberg. Richard Crane, who ran the course, introduced me to his friend Stephen Clark, the co-lyricist on Martin Guerre, and he in turn introduced me to Alain Boublil – so it all went from there. The dissertation was just a starting point and it gave me the insights I needed in order to get the most out of the many interviews I did.
How long did it take you to write?
Well, I started in 99, so quite a while really, but of course not working on it full time. There have been a lot of interviews to fit in and different productions to see over the years. I wanted to include The Pirate Queen so I finished the book immediately after the Chicago première.
Has it involved much travelling?
Yes, but I really enjoy that. As well as the London and Broadway productions, I have seen several touring productions of the different shows all over the UK and I went to Minneapolis for the American première of Martin Guerre and also to see the final changes to the show in Los Angeles. I was at the Chicago première of The Pirate Queen and a week later at the Broadway re-opening of Les Misérables. A lot of the interviews were done in London, several at different times in New York and others in Minneapolis, Chicago, Dublin and Paris.
Do you have any favourite interviews?
Les Mis 21st Anniversary Party
From right, Patti LuPone, Jonathan Pryce, Colm Wilkinson and guest
Well to be honest, they’ve all been fascinating and it’s been a real privilege to meet so many extraordinary and talented people, to sit with them for two or three hours at a time, usually in their homes, over a cup of tea, and ask all the questions I wanted. Obviously Alain and Claude-Michel are at the heart of the book and they’ve been amazingly kind and supportive all the way through. It’s been a long journey together and now they feel like true friends. Herbie Kretzmer was the first collaborator I interviewed so that was very special. Although himself a very experienced journalist, rather than being intimidating he was absolutely charming. I shall always remember the stories he told me about writing “Stars” and “Bring Him Home”. John Caird and Richard Maltby were two of my favourites and my interview with Trevor Nunn was a bit different from the rest! I always had a list of questions that I worked through with each person, but with Trevor I only got to ask one question and he just carried on talking – so all I had to do was check that he was covering the ground I wanted! It was great really because it meant that his interview was entirely different from John Caird’s and I could use them both separately instead of interweaving them. The remarkable thing about all the interviews was that every single person relished talking about their work on the shows and it was obviously a very happy time for them all.
New York Book Launch
From left, Alain Boublil, Margaret Vermette and Claude-Michel Schönberg
Was it difficult to get published?
No, not at all. Applause is part of the Hal Leonard group, which publish the sheet music of all the Boublil and Schönberg shows. They were approached with the idea, the manuscript was sent and they said “yes” within six days. I must say that my experience with Applause has been a very happy one.
It must have been an exciting time having your first book published?
Yes, it’s been amazing. We had the American launch at Barnes and Noble at the Lincoln Centre in New York on 3 April 07 and the European launch at Waterstone’s, Piccadilly in London on 26 June 07. Alain and Claude-Michel were at both launches and I did a question and answer session with them and took questions from the audience – a bit like a chat show host. We had live performance at both events with favourite songs from the shows. We were lucky enough to have Simon Bowman and Claire Moore (the original Chris and Ellen in Miss Saigon) and Marie Zamora, singing in London, and Joe Paparella and Jennifer Zimmerman, singing in New York. They were magical evenings and as all my family were in New York we went to the Tavern on the Green afterwards to celebrate. The New York launch was just before The Pirate Queen opening, so that was good timing and we were there for the first night celebrations.
Do you enjoy these first night events?
21st Anniversary peformance of Les Miserables
There’s always something very special about a first night performance and there’s such a buzz of anticipation in the audience. It’s a real privilege to be there and of course to go to the after party, as there are always so many interesting people to meet. And it’s not only first nights as there are often anniversary celebrations too, like the 20th and 21st Anniversaries of Les Misérables.
What was the first show of theirs that you saw?
It was Miss Saigon. I went with my daughter in January 92 and was completely mesmerized by it. I’d been very busy with my degree in Portsmouth previously and it was only when I was doing my MA in London that I started going to the theatre a lot. I didn’t know anything about Boublil and Schönberg or how the story of Miss Saigon ended. It completely blew me away and I left the theatre with an extraordinary mix of trauma and euphoria – it took me days to get over it. Then we went to Les Mis and fell in love with that too.
Have you always liked musicals?
Les Mis 21st Anniversary Party
From left, Elaine Paige, Michael Ball and Margaret Vermette
No, not really. In fact I didn’t use to like musicals much at all – I would get impatient with the songs and want to get back to the story. But maybe I just hadn’t seen any really good ones. I think things changed in the 80’s with the through sung musicals and more compelling stories. I’ve always enjoyed Lloyd Webber’s shows and enjoy most musicals a lot more now.
So why do you love the musicals of Boublil and Schönberg?
It’s that special combination of heart-rending emotion, characters you really care about, stories that enthral you and the most wonderful haunting melodies. Their musicals have the emotional scale of opera, without operatic singing, and they touch people’s hearts in a unique way.
Do you have any plans to write another musical theatre book?
To be honest, although I really like many other musical theatre writers, no one else has inspired me enough to spend such a chunk of my life working on it. And after all there are lots of excellent books on Lloyd Webber and Sondheim but this is the only book to date on Boublil and Schönberg.
So what’s next?
I’m hoping to have my book George Eliot and Realism published and I’m working on a novel set in Venice.
Claude-Michel Schönberg and Margaret Vermette at the opening night of the first Miss Saigon tour in Manchester
Musical theatre seems a far remove from a study on George Eliot?
Not so far as you might think. That was one of the things that intrigued me. I found that George Eliot and Boublil and Schönberg shared a very similar world view, basically that it’s necessary to understand your fellow men and have sympathy for them. And although they are completely different mediums and a century apart there are many similarities in their working methods – in particular in the sense of pattern and the paralleling and contrasting of character and events. With a dead author you always wonder how much of their techniques are consciously planned and how much are unconscious genius. What’s so fascinating in writing about living authors is that you can ask!
What made you decide to go into Higher Education as a mature student?
Family celebration at the Tavern on the Green, New York
It was a rather curious sequence of events. I wanted to learn German at night school because we used to go ski-ing in Austria every year. I didn’t expect to find it easy, after all I left school with only two O Levels and failed the rest. But I did surprisingly well at German, won a BBC Language Course prize and got an A Grade O Level. It was a kind of carrot that enticed me to go further and I went to our local comprehensive sixth form to do German and then English A levels. It was a bit unnerving to be in such a big, noisy school at first but I really enjoyed it and after getting more A Grades I decided to go to University. Again I surprised myself getting a First Class BA, a Distinction for my MA and then a PhD. There’s no doubt it was hard work but it was a wonderful experience and I feel very privileged to have been given the opportunity. However, I still look over my shoulder and think it must have been someone else!
What do your husband and family think about your writing?
My husband, Mike, my family and friends have all been immensely supportive right the way through and quite proud too. And they all enjoy the musicals of Boublil and Schönberg just as much as I do.
See also About the Author.