Boublil and Schönberg: the story of two talented friends

April 22 2021, by Sofia Arzhanova

Claude-Michel Schönberg is a singer, songwriter and producer, who was born on 6 July 1944. He was born into a Jewish family, who emigrated from Hungary and he spent most of his childhood in a provincial French town. He began his career as a singer and songwriter in 1970s, when he was noticed by a lyricist, Alain Boublil, who at that time worked within the A&R (artists and repertoire) division of a music publishing company.

Alain Boublil says that “One day in 1968 I was driving across Paris with my car radio on, tuned to the Europe 1 station, when I heard a pop song performed by a young girl called Patricia. It was called ‘Tous les jours a quatre heures’ (Every day at four o’clock) and I loved it.” Later, Boublil states, he wanted to buy the rights to “Tous les Jours” and invited Schönberg to see him. Schönberg, however, joked that “I don’t remember why I wrote this song in 1968 about a young girl who is bored with her life. What matters is that Alain had a crush on it.”

When they met, Schönberg was a different man with a different look; Boublil says “He looked very different back then. He was much heavier, he had big hair. At that first meeting I was amazed by the contrast between his appearance and this very sweet little song he had written for a sweet 16-year-old girl.”

At that time, these two talented men were not professional partners yet, but they became very good friends. They were alike due to their similar backgrounds. Both started their musical careers in France and both were attracted to the world of musical theatre. Schönberg reminded Boublil of his father-in-law; he thought that they spoke the same language about the musical industry, particularly about popular music and songs.

On a walk with Boublil’s friend, Raymond Jeannot, they talked about writing a rock-opera, after which Schönberg, Jean-Max Rivière, Jeannot and Boublil began working on 24 songs in a studio, where Schönberg and Boublil felt “this great sense of complicity.”

In 1970s, musicals on stage were not popular in France, because, as Boublil says, “no one had ever brought them there.” He remembers that when he was a teen, ‘West Side Story’ toured France. It wasn’t a success, but it left Boublil with a dear love for musical theatre.

In 1973, La Revolution Française became an overnight hit and became a success on the stage in Paris. Due to Schönberg’s background in singing, he played Louis XVI in the musical and Boublil’s wife sung one of the most beautiful songs ‘Au Petit Matin’ at the launch of the show in London. La Revolution Française had 24 sequences, which showed the most important events of the French Revolution, with an accompanying love story of a young man falling for an aristocratic young lady.  

A few years later, when the musicians went back to their day jobs, Boublil came up with the idea of Les Misérables while watching ‘Oliver’ in London. The two men immediately quit their jobs and got to work. In two years time, they’d written, staged and recorded the musical and their show again did very well.

After Les Misérables, Schönberg and Boublil didn’t desire to stage anything else, until they received a call from a producer Cameron Mackintosh three years later. He was the producer of ‘Cats’. However, both Schönberg and Boublil didn’t have a clue what ‘Cats’ was. The two friends were introduced to Mackintosh, who thought they were “the most brilliant representatives of the English musical theatre, each in his category.” Claude-Michel Schönberg said that he wasn’t interested in taking advice from people. But he did say this: “there are only two people I listen to when we are working: Alain first, and Cameron Mackintosh second.”

Schönberg and Boublil were usually photographed and interviewed together because at that point they had been collaborators for more than 40 years and thought of each other as a family. Schönberg, Boublil states, couldn’t imagine entering into marriage before they had met, as he was accustomed to being single, living alone in a dark apartment. Because of their friendship, Schönberg’s outlook on life altered and he has since been happily married for over 30 years. 

They have not only changed each other’s lives, they have had a huge influence on the musical theatre industry with their output. During their careers together, they learnt how to get along in the musical industry, and in particular they learnt how to get along as a team. They learnt that their egos must be left behind when they were at work, and they came to understand that unless an idea was approved by them both, it must be rejected. Together they forged a new path and their partnership became one of the most successful in the history of musical theatre.

Sofia Arzhanova, L6

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