HERBERT KRETZMER: Exactly but if you do it well, you will get to be favoured and then it is others who have to take what is available. Aznavour came to me first for a number of years. At least I flatter myself that he was coming to me first but it may not be true. After She and Yesterday When I Was Young and a very successful album called Tapestry, Aznavour and I have been joined at the hip for 40 years. I couldn’t speak French then and I can’t speak it now. I spent a weekend with him, that was how I first met him. We sat in his study and we went through what he wanted to play for me. I would say, ‘Let’s do that one’ or ‘Let’s do that one.’ He would give me a very rough English translation and then I came back to London with a dozen songs including Yesterday When I Was Young. We didn’t know that it would outlast all the others.
SL: An example of a song that may have been intrinsically French is Little Holes, which was recorded by Topol.
HERBERT KRETZMER: It was a French song that Topol brought to me, The Ticket Collector Of Lilas, which may have been an underground station in Paris. It was about a ticket clipper at the turnstiles who put little holes in the tickets. The man lived in a hole himself as he lived in the underground and he talked about the great hole that waited for us at the end of our lives. It was very jaunty and jolly but it was also morbid. I loved it and it was a cute little song. The bits that fall off the ticket are like confetti so that leads to another image of what life can be.
SL: Have you ever been involved with the Eurovision Song Contest?
HERBERT KRETZMER: No, I have never understood the rules and it has become a visual thing and it isn’t much to do with the music anymore. It has to do with how people look while they are doing the songs and the songs come second. I was a judge at a Polish song contest once. It was run seriously and was a properly organised huge event, an Iron Curtain version of Eurovision. The entries from Hungary and Slovakia came on looking like American pop musicians and so there wasn’t much difference: black leather jackets with steel studs spelling out the acronym ‘Rats’ and so on. There were 22 categories. There were bottles of Polish vodka called Buffalo Grass stretched along the table where we were doing the judging. The judging went on for hours and when we came to the last categories, and the other English judge was closing his eyes and rotating his finger over the candidates, rather like choosing a Derby winner. The chairman called the judging to an end, and we hastily filled in the rest of the votes and we considered our work well done.
SL: You also did a film theme, No My Darling Daughter.
HERBERT KRETZMER: That was because of Goodness Gracious Me as Dave Lee and I became identified by film directors as a hot team for funny duet songs. They came to us but the miracle never happened again. No My Darling Daughter was for Sir Michael Redgrave and one of his daughters. I suppose I was never political enough as a songwriter: I never schmoozed, I didn’t go round meeting publishers and I didn’t know who the head of PRS was. I was a newspaperman and everything to do with songs except the writing itself, I knew nothing about. It was a different world. I have never been part of the songwriting establishment although I had a year on the Songwriters Guild, which became Bacs later. They were talking about quotas with the BBC and my mind wasn’t built around systems like that. I dropped out of that.
SL: Because you had written The Admirable Crichton in 1960s, did you realise what had gone into a musical and so were favourably disposed towards them when you went to review them?
HERBERT KRETZMER: It made it more difficult because if I went to see another musical and I didn’t like it, the chances were that I would know the composer. I remember going to see Pickwick and a whole bunch of friends were involved in that – Harry Secombe, Wolf Mankewitz, Leslie Bricusse and Cyril Orandel. Leslie and I were even thinking of working on something. I couldn’t share in the enthusiasm for that particular musical and it was my job to say so. You risk your friendships doing that – it was a long time before I got a civil word from Wolf Mankewitz and Leslie was far from pleased with me. If you can’t speak the truth about people you know, that means you will automatically favour them. If you can’t do an honest job as a critic, you have no right to hold that job. I knew the critics personally and I found them honest guys doing their job. There is no cabal or getting together in the interval, there is no ‘we’ at all. Even though we discussed it, we were not persuaded by each other. We wrote honest reviews.
SL: So your duty as a critic is to the readers?
HERBERT KRETZMER: No, the editor has said, ‘We will pay you for your opinion.’ Well, thank you very much. I am not a consumer guide, but I have a job of going to see a whole lot of people in fancy dress and wearing false beards creating a situation on stage and I am going on the first night. I had to surrender myself to what the evening told me. I never got jaded as everytime the curtain went up, my anticipation went up. I did the job for 18 years. It brought me closer to an appreciation of good lyrics. I always felt closer to lyric writers knowing how difficult that job was.
SL: How did you feel when the reviews of Les Miserables came in?
HERBERT KRETZMER: Exactly as I would have felt had I never been a journalist, had I never been a critic. I was somebody who had made a contribution to this musical and there were a number of critics who hadn’t liked it at all. One was gloating about the imminent collapse of Les Mis. Another one said that it was not worth bringing in from the Barbican to the West End as it is a waste of time and the problems are insurmountable. That was Jack Tinker and he was a honest man. There were excellent reviews in The Times and the Financial Times. We got enormous coverage in Time and Newsweek. It was a rough baptism, but it became apparent after two or three weeks that we were in on something quite extraordinary. Within a few weeks, no American coming into England would miss Les Mis and it was on the shopping list. If some of the reviews hurt, they didn’t hurt for long.
SL: What are you working on now?
HERBERT KRETZMER: I had a go at Martin Guerre with the two French guys who wrote Les Mis but that didn’t work out as it was the wrong combination of talents. Even with Les Mis, I wasn’t the first choice I followed a man, a very good poet, who had spent over a year on it. He was the theatre critic of The Sunday Times and he was told that it wasn’t working. I was brought in with only six months to go before rehearsal. They were supposed to open the previous year and so I had to do the job and do it quickly. I was like the seventh cavalry and it worked.
SL: And is there a new musical?
HERBERT KRETZMER: Yes, it is the story of a group of Swedish people in the 19th century who leave Sweden and settle in Minnesota. You follow them and their motives for leaving Sweden. The main focus is the woman and the story of whom she marries and the children she has and loves. It is based on four or five novels which are enormously popular in Sweden called The Immigrants, and it has been filmed twice. The Abba men have known this story all their lives and they decided to do a musical. They wrote it in Swedish and it played for over three in Stockholm, in Malmo and in Gutenberg. I met Bjorn Ulvaeus at a dinner at Carlton Tower. We praised each other’s work and he said, ‘What are you doing for the next couple of years, do you want to write a musical?’ I was startled and pleased and then I listened to the music of the show and the more I played it the more I loved it. It never felt, ‘Oh, no, not that track again.’ Bjorn is already an English lyricist. He wrote lyrics that were popular in the best sense of that word. What makes them remarkable is their percussive sound: it is because he is a foreigner and when he is thinking in a language that is not his own, he thinks in quick little phrases like Super Trouper. They are words that sit on the music like Mamma Mia. Lyrics can be as much a question of sound as sense and he has the sound. This has been a musical written by email, but we would meet once or twice a year. We have to sell it before it goes on and of course Broadway is going through a rough time. The tendency has been towards merry and bright musicals like Hairspray and Thoroughly Modern Millie.
SL: So it may be a hard sell.
HERBERT KRETZMER: I believe in the public mood, there is such a thing as the public subconscious. It picks up on things with unimaginable speed. We opened Les Mis at the Barbican on 8 October 1985 and next morning the reviews were pretty poor and yet somehow the word on it swept across London and brought people to the box office so that by lunchtime on the day of the reviews, they had sold more tickets than they ever had before. The size of the queue convinced Cameron to bring it to the Palace. How did that happen, how did that buzz sweep across the country? It can happen with movies too. If you can catch that wind, you are sailing.
SL: Herbert Kretzmer, thank you very much.