THE RISE OF FRENCH MUSICALS
by Steven Sauke
February 24, 2000
For 134 years, America has had musicals. Great Britain has had them for a much shorter time, but in both nations, particularly on Broadway and London's West End, they have become immensely popular. Relatively recently, another nation has entered the realm of writing musicals. This paper will discuss the rise of musicals in France, starting from the early heritage long before the musical, as we know it today, was invented, and coming up to the present, as the most recent French musical has possibly started to change the formerly negative views of the French toward the art form.
In the 17th Century, Molière wrote his plays, which had an influence on today's musicals. He started writing plays which required more talent than in the past. He used satire. For example, certain of his characters were easily recognizable as specific real people. More importantly, he put music in his plays. In all but one play, he worked with composer Jean-Baptiste Lully to make a musical play. In such plays as The Bores (1661), Monsieur de Pourgeaugnac (1669) and Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (1670), they used the harpsichord as the principal instrument (Flinn 44) with 5-string instruments, bassoons, flutes and oboes (Flinn 45).
In the early 19th Century, composers in Italy started to incorporate speaking lines in their operas, thus creating a new genre of opera, called opera buffa in Italian. This kind of opera soon became quite popular in Paris, where it became known as opéra bouffe or opéra comique. Donizetti's The Daughter of the Regiment was particularly popular in Paris in 1840. Many composers started writing "light" (one-act) operas, and the operetta was born (Citron 33). The first was Jacques Offenbach's Orphée aux Enfers (Orpheus in the Underworld). As Stephen Citron states in his book The Musical from the Inside Out, "Gone were the tragic arias and the high drama; they were replaced by shorter, wittier, less florid songs. Lively dance, (in this particular work, the famous can-can) displaced arty ballet" (33). In 1858, a government-sanctioned limit of one act and two roles on operas was lifted, and the operas and operettas got longer (Flinn 59-60).
The composer Hervé wrote musical plays to perform as therapy for the inmates of the Hôpital Bicêtre. He was so well received that he was appointed conductor at the Théâtre du Palais Royal, and he soon began to write longer plays. During that same time period, his colleague Offenbach wrote his first two-act musical play Orphée aux Enfers, which we have already mentioned. It became immensely popular in Paris. He worked with Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, who Denny Flinn calls in his book Musical! A Grand Tour "the first legitimate librettists" (61). In the past, the composer had written the lyrics as well, but that was now done by Meilhac and Halévy. They wrote "solos, duets, trios, quartets, chorus scenes, and dances" (Flinn 61). In his 25 years of composing, Offenbach wrote over 90 operettas, many of which had a political focus.
With the end of Offenbach's composing years came a new rising star in the composing field. Charles Lecocq started writing romantic operetta, and soon the Parisians decided they liked amour better than politics and satire in their operetta (Flinn 61).
Opera and operetta continued with Wagner's record 16-hour Der Ring des Nibelungen, written between 1853 and 1874 in Germany (Flinn 66) and Gilbert and Sullivan's numerous operetta, among them H.M.S. Pinafore, The Mikado and The Pirates of Penzance, written in England approximately between 1875 and 1896 (Flinn 67-77). Some of Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta were performed in the United States, and soon a new genre was born: the musical.
In 1866, a melodrama by the name of The Black Crook was performed in the US, and it was received poorly. A new idea came about. Maybe if they were to add music and dancing, it would be more popular. Groseppi Operti arranged the music, wrote some of it, and collected the rest from music stores. They arranged dances and planned a big spectacle (Flinn 81-82). Now all they needed was dancers. Enter the French. Yes, the French were involved in America's first musical. A troupe of Parisian ballerinas were on board a ship for the US to perform a ballet at New York's Academy of Music. Unfortunately for them, the theater burned down while they were on the ship, and when they arrived, they had no place to perform. However, this fire and the displaced French troupe turned out to be fortunate for the people who were working on The Black Crook. It now had dancers, and the French dancers had The Black Crook, a chance to show off their footwork for the Américains (Citron 38). The 5½ hour musical was a hit (Flinn 82). Sure, the Church blasted it (rightly so, in my opinion) because of nudity or near nudity, but the United States had succeeded in inventing a new kind of play. Thus was born the musical (Flinn 84). More musicals followed, the next popular one being Show Boat in 1926 (Flinn 175).
For several decades, the US was the only nation who was doing musicals, until Great Britain started to follow suit in the 60s with such musicals as Oliver! by Lionel Bart and the original version of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat by Andrew Lloyd Webber.
The 70s brought the rock operas, a new kind of musical. In England, Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote his popular musical Jesus Christ Superstar, while in France, two men by the names of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg composed their first musical, a rock opera: La Révolution Française.
La Révolution Française
Boublil and Schönberg's first work was also one of France's first musicals, and it was quite popular in France. It was the story of the revolutionary young Charles Gauthier and his growing love for Isabelle de Montmorency, a member of an aristocratic family during the turbulent French Revolution. Gauthier fights alongside Robespierre, Danton and Marat, and all the while he is growing fonder and fonder of Isabelle. Isabelle's family is banished from France because they are aristocrats, and the lovers are thus separated. Charlotte Corday's assassination of Marat starts the Terror, in which the Revolutionary Tribunal sentences hundreds of innocent people, including Queen Marie Antoinette, to the guillotine. Among those sentenced is Charles Gauthier. Isabelle returns from exile to find her lover in prison, and she is also condemned to death because she, an aristocrat, returned (Taylor).
La Révolution Française, "the first-ever staged French rock opera in Paris (Les Misérables CD-ROM), brought Boublil and Schönberg together as composers, and it was a big hit in France. Such was the beginning of a new age of musicals in France, though it continued to be slow in taking hold.
La Révolution Française came out in 1973, and six years later came another rock opera, this time by Luc Plamondon and Michel Berger. They called it Starmania. It too was quite popular, and the composers, Plamondon in particular, have been making changes to it ever since it came out in 1979. New versions came out in 1986 and 1988. It premiered in Moscow in 1990, and the English version, translated by Tim Rice and renamed Tycoon, came out in 1992. In 1993, a newer French version of Starmania came out in Paris (A. Lee). Some songs from it have been recorded by such artists as Celine Dion (Starmania). Certain songs from it became quite popular in the 1980s, such that Tim Rice commented that it was "a hit show in a city infamous as a graveyard for musicals." We shall see more of this side of Paris' ideas of musicals later.
Starmania's plot goes like this: Monopolis, a futuristic city, is being terrorized by the underground group Les Étoiles Noires (The Black Stars), led by Johnny Rockfort, who is led by Sadia, a revolutionary student. They meet in the Underground Café, where Marie-Jeanne is a waitress.
A man named Zero Janvier is running for president of the Occident, and he is against the Étoiles Noires.
Sadia and Johnny Rockfort are in love, and Marie-Jeanne falls in love with Ziggy, a celebrity hunk. Cristal, a reporter on the TV program Starmania, interviews Johnny Rockfort and Zero Janvier, and she falls in love with both men, though much more so with Janvier. Janvier, meanwhile, gets engaged to a movie star named Stella Spotlight, while Rockfort and Cristal fall more in love with each other.
Cristal and Rockfort make plans to plant a bomb at the disco parlor where Janvier and Spotlight are planning to get married, but Sadia gets wind of the plan and tells Janvier. Ziggy abandons Marie-Jeanne in favor of acting and being a disco DJ. The followers of Janvier, on Sadia's warning, arrest Rockfort and kill Cristal. Janvier is elected president (Il se passe..., L'histoiremania, Valentine).
Both La Révolution Française and Starmania, though vastly different in setting and story line, were about love, and both were tragedies. These two musicals seemed to set a precedent for musicals to come, a precedent that came from French literature and opera from time immemorial. So much of France's literature and art is based around love and tragedies. For that matter, French is stereotypically known as the "language of love," and Paris is often called the City of Lovers. It only fits that France's musicals would follow that pattern.
Starmania opened in Paris in 1979, and the next year, another musical, Boublil and Schönberg's second, opened, also in Paris. This musical was to become their greatest success until then, and quite possibly their greatest success even today, but not in Paris.
Les Misérables is a very complex musical, whose plot spans about thirty years. Set in the early to mid 19th Century, it is the story of an extraordinarily strong thief named Jean Valjean who escapes parole and turns his life around, becoming the mayor of a small French town. When the policeman Javert sees Mayor Madeleine (the name Valjean has taken to protect his identity) lift a heavy cart, he is reminded of Valjean, who he believes has just been caught. After Javert tells Madeleine about the recent arrest, the latter proves to the court that he, not the accused, is Valjean.
Meanwhile, a woman named Fantine has been working in Madeleine's factory to support herself and her illegitimate daughter Cosette, who lives at an inn where she, unbeknownst to Fantine, is being abused miserably. When Fantine's coworkers discover she has an illegitimate child, she is fired and forced onto the street, where she sells her locket and her hair, and in desperation, falls into prostitution. When she scuffles with a potential customer, she is arrested by Javert and rescued by Madeleine, who takes her to the hospital, where he promises that he will raise her child. As soon as she dies, Javert arrives to arrest the mayor, who he now knows is Valjean. The latter escapes to the inn of the Thénardier family, where Cosette lives, to pick up the girl.
Nine years later, Cosette is a young woman who is falling in love with the revolutionary Marius. When Thénardier, Cosette's one-time abuser, attempts to rob Valjean's house, Valjean assumes that Javert has found where he is hiding, and he resolves to move, which would separate the two lovers, as his daughter must go with him.
Marius and his student friends are growing more and more angry with the plight of les misérables, Paris' oppressed poor, and they break into fighting. Valjean is given the chance to kill Javert, but instead, he lets him go. In the process of the battles on the barricade, all of Marius' friends are killed, and he is seriously wounded. Valjean carries him home to Cosette. Meanwhile, Javert, thoroughly bewildered by Valjean letting him go, commits suicide. After Marius rehabilitates, he marries Cosette, but their happiness is interrupted by the impending death of Jean Valjean, now an old man (Choi).
Following the pattern of its predecessors, Les Misérables is a tragedy about love. Valjean's love for his daughter leads him to save the life of her beloved, and their romance is rewarded by a marriage. However, the heroes on the barricade, Marius' friends, are killed near the end, and at the very end, Valjean is dying.
Les Misérables began Boublil and Schönberg's collaboration with British producer Cameron Mackintosh, who has produced the English versions of their more recent musicals as well. It opened on London's West End in English in 1985, and it soon opened on Broadway. At present, it has been performed in fifteen languages in twenty-three countries, and it is Broadway's second longest running musical (R. Lee). Though it has been phenomenally popular around the world, I have found little evidence of strong popularity in France itself. I have seen the Original French Concept Album around, and in France, I saw that there was a recording of the current French version. It sold 250,000 tickets in Paris in the space of seven months (Brambilla). Beyond that, I have seen no mention of any popularity in France. Perhaps that is why Tim Rice called Paris "a city infamous as a graveyard for musicals." One thing I do know is that Boublil and Schönberg moved to London, because, as Boublil stated, "France is still back in the old operetta tradition of the 1930s" (Citron 17).
In 1989, Boublil and Schönberg came out with another musical, which was again a big hit in London and on Broadway. Like previous French musicals, Miss Saigon is a romantic tragedy, and like Boublil and Schönberg's previous musicals, the lovers are forced to part due to circumstances beyond their control. Also like their previous musicals, it is set during a time of war. This musical is set in the former French protectorate of Vietnam in the mid to late 1970s. Miss Saigon is the story of a Vietnamese teenager named Kim who is orphaned in attack on her village in the countryside in 1975. She must come to the big city of Saigon, where she falls in love with an American Marine named Christopher Scott. They go through a Vietnamese wedding, and he plans to take her home with him. Meanwhile, Saigon falls, and the Americans are evacuated. Chris and Kim are separated, and neither can get to the other. Chris is forced to board the last helicopter out (which they actually manage to get on the stage).
Kim waits three years for Chris to return for her, during which time she bears a son who she names Tam. Chris, meanwhile, thinking he will never see Kim again and having no idea that he has a son, marries an American woman named Ellen. When Chris' friend John discovers that Chris and Kim have a Bui-Doi son (Vietnamese for "the dust of life," the Bui-Doi were children of American soldiers and Vietnamese women conceived during the war), he tells Chris and suggests that Chris and Ellen go to Bangkok, where Kim has fled for her life, to try to resolve this problem. When Kim finds out that her husband has married another woman, from none other than Ellen herself, she is thunderstruck. Ellen refuses her pleas to take Tam to America because Ellen believes that a child belongs with his mother, and, as a last resort to force a better life for her son in America, Kim shoots herself, thus severing all ties of Tam with Vietnam, and Asia in general. She dies in Chris' arms (Story).
Miss Saigon is the longest running show at London's Theatre Royal on Drury Lane, and it has been performed in twelve countries (Dixon). I can only assume that France is one of those countries. It was originally written in French, but I have been unable to locate a French recording or even any lyrics. Even in France, the only recordings of it that I saw were in English. In short, I have found no evidence of popularity in France, thus reinforcing Rice's claim of Paris being "a graveyard for musicals." It qualifies as a French musical because it was written and composed by Frenchmen, and it follows the aforementioned patterns of French musicals.
Several years later, Boublil and Schönberg came out with their newest musical to date [as of 2000, when this paper was written]. Martin Guerre is about a 16th Century 14-year-old named Martin from the small village of Artigat, France, who is forced to marry, and when he refuses to consummate his marriage, he gets blamed for a series of storms, and the priest whips him in an attempt to exorcise the demons that are supposedly keeping him from consummation. Feeling he can trust nobody, he flees to fight in the Religious Wars. On the battlefield seven years later, he is seriously wounded, and his friend Arnaud du Thil leaves him for dead and goes to Artigat to tell Bertrande, Martin's wife, of his demise. The people of Artigat mistake him for Martin, and welcome him warmly. Bertrande convinces him to take Martin's name, and he reluctantly agrees, but the townspeople eventually realize that he is not Martin. By this time, Bertrande is expecting a child by Arnaud. Arnaud goes to trial in Toulouse to settle the matter, and as the judge is about to make his ruling, a new witness enters the court: the real Martin Guerre. The judge rules that Arnaud go to prison until Martin decides his fate. When Martin frees his friend, Guillaume, a jealous suitor of Bertrande, murders Arnaud (Martin Guerre).
Martin Guerre has received rave reviews in London, and it is currently nearing the end of its first run in the United States [as of February 2000]. Its Broadway debut has unfortunately been indefinitely postponed due to the lack of a theater. Once again, I have found no sign of popularity in France. I did not even find any English recordings of it in France.
Martin Guerre is, like its predecessors, a romantic tragedy. True to its Boublil and Schönberg predecessors, the hero and heroine are separated due to circumstances beyond their control, as we have seen.
Though Martin Guerre has not, to my knowledge, been very popular in France, the next French musical has blown all of its predecessors out of the water.
Notre-Dame de Paris
"The Americans adore it. The English too. In the Francophone countries, the musical was received without conviction, until... Notre-Dame de Paris!" (Brambilla) Except for Starmania and La Révolution Française, the previous French musicals that really took hold, took hold in England and America, and elsewhere around the world. Not so much in France. It seems that the brand new musical Notre-Dame de Paris is changing all that.
Where all other French musicals have failed, Notre-Dame de Paris has finally succeeded in interesting the French in musicals. Luc Plamondon, of Starmania fame (as well as a couple other musicals which I have not mentioned), teamed up with the Italian-French Richard Cocciante to musicalize Victor Hugo's novel of the same name as the musical (known in the US as The Hunchback of Notre Dame).
As Patricia Brambilla encapsulizes the plot in her article Les clés d'un succès monumental ("The Keys to a Monumental Success"), "The priest Frollo and Quasimodo, the hunchback, love the Gypsy Esmeralda, who burns for the soldier Phoebus. Who is attracted by Esmeralda, but promised to Fleur de Lys..."
Notre-Dame de Paris, set in 15th Century Paris, is about Quasimodo, who grows up in the belltower of Paris' Notre Dame Cathedral (known in French as Notre-Dame de Paris, or Our Lady of Paris), where he becomes the bellringer. The Archdeacon Claude Frollo has raised him from childhood. Frollo is so enamored by the young Gypsy Esmeralda that he stabs Phoebus to keep him from loving her. When Esmeralda is arrested and brought to Notre Dame for supposedly murdering Phoebus, Frollo offers that he will free her if she will consent to him loving her. She is repulsed. Quasimodo helps her escape from prison, but she is caught again and executed by hanging. Quasimodo, furious at Frollo's actions, throws his surrogate father off the balcony of the cathedral and rushes down to the place where his beloved is being hanged, only to arrive too late (Notre Dame...Synopsis). The musical ends with Quasimodo's heartbreaking lament, promising to be buried with her and expressing his desire to see her dance once more (Plamondon & Cocciante Acte II, 9eme Tableau).
True to French form, Notre-Dame de Paris is a romantic tragedy. It has a complex group of people who love the next person, but that person may or may not reciprocate that love. Phoebus (who, incidentally, survives the attack) loves both Esmeralda and his fiancée Fleur-de-Lys. Fleur-de-Lys has nothing but hate for Esmeralda, and she even tells her fiancé that "I'll love you if you swear/That you will hang/[Esmeralda]" (Plamondon & Cocciante Acte II, 5eme Tableau). Frollo loves Esmeralda to the point of lust, but Esmeralda, understandably, hates him very much. In the end, Frollo and Esmeralda are dead, and Quasimodo is about to commit suicide. [In his novel, Victor Hugo points out that Phoebus also came to a sad ending: he got married. That is only implied in the musical, though.]
Notre-Dame de Paris sold 450,000 tickets in one day in Paris. As a matter of comparison, Les Misérables sold 250,000 in the space of seven months (Brambilla). Notre-Dame made its English debut in Las Vegas January 20 of this year , translated by Will Jennings, who wrote the lyrics of "My Heart Will Go On" from the movie Titanic. It is set to open in London in May . It has broken all records for popularity, and the CD cast recording has been at the top of the charts there. From here, France could do one of two things with musicals. It could do the same thing it did after the successes of La Révolution Française and Starmania; namely, return to being a "graveyard for musicals" (Rice). I think it is more likely, however, that, based on its unprecedented popularity, the other possibility will happen. I think that the 21st Century will see a growing popularity of musicals in France. I said earlier that Boublil and Schönberg moved to London because France was "behind the times" concerning musicals. When I went to see Martin Guerre earlier this month [February 2000], I noticed in the program that Schönberg now once more lives in Paris. I do not know if this return is related to the success of his colleague's musical Notre-Dame de Paris, but I think it may be a sign that France is finally entering the field of musicals, and that they can be popular in France.
[Author's note, March 17, 2018: In the 18 years since I wrote this paper, musicals have indeed increased exponentially in France, and French Canada has also come out with some. It is gratifying as I retype this essay to see that my prediction that it would grow in popularity was accurate. I wrote a section for this paper on La Légende de Jimmy, about the life of James Dean, which sadly had to be cut because the paper was too long. Shortly after writing this, Roméo & Juliette and Les Dix Commandements came out. Boublil and Schönberg have also written more musicals, including The Pirate Queen and Marguerite. Many more musicals by multiple composers have followed.]
Works Cited and Consulted
Please note, this is as of February 2000. Most URLs likely no longer work due to the amount of time that has passed since then.
- 5th Avenue Presents. "Claude-Michel Schönberg." Martin Guerre: The Official Program of the 5th Avenue Theatre Company. 11.4 (2000):8.
- Boublil, Alain. From Madame Chrysanthemum to Miss Saigon. 10 Feb 2000 <http://miss-saigon.com/origins/madame.html>
- Brambilla, Patricia. Construire. 1999. 31 Jan 2000 <http://www.construire.com/SOMMAIRE/9906/06cult2.htm>
- Choi, Andrew. Synopsis. 1996. 10 Feb 2000 <http://www.geocities.com/Broadway/2403/lmsynopsis.html>
- Citron, Stephen. The Musical from the Inside Out. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1992.
- Dixon, Paul. Miss Saigon. 1998. 10 Feb 2000 <http://www.albemarle-london.com/saigon.html>
- Flinn, Denny Martin. Musical! A Grand Tour. New York: Schirmer, 1997.
- Il se passe quelque chose à Monopolis. 9 Feb 2000 <http://www.multimania/younig/ilsepass.htm>
- Lee, Anthony Patrick. Starmania Historique. 1996. 9 Feb 2000 <http://www.sirius.com/~alee/s/starchro.htm>
- Lee, Rob. The Barricade on the Rue de la Chanvrerie: A Tribute to Les Misérables. 1999. 10 Feb 2000 <http://www.users.cloud9.net/~rlee/lesmis/>
- Martin Guerre. 10 Feb 2000. 2:00 PM. Dir. Conall Morrison. Perf. Hugh Panaro, Stephen R. Buntrock, Erin Dilly, Jose Llana, and John Herrera. 5th Ave Theatre, 1999.
- Les Misérables: The Complete Symphonic Recording. CD-ROM. London: EuroArts, 1997.
- Luc Plamondon. 10 Feb 2000 <http://www.sacd.fr/bio_plamondon.htm>
- Notre Dame de Paris - Synopsis. 1999. 16 Feb 2000. <http://www.geocities.com/Broadway/Stage/9590/Nd_synopsis_uk.html
- Plamondon, Luc, and Richard Cocciante. Notre Dame de Paris. Pantin: Publiphotoffset, 1998.
- Rice, Tim. Tycoon: Version anglaise de Starmania. 1992. 9 Feb 2000 <http://www.sirius.com/~alee/s/startyc.htm>
- Starmania. 1999. 9 Feb 2000. <http://www.canadiantheatre.com/s/starmania.html>
- Starmania: L'histoiremania. 1994. 9 Feb 2000. <http://www.sirius.com/~alee/s/starhist.htm>
- Story. 10 Feb 2000. <http://www.miss-saigon.com/musical/story/>
- Taylor, Steven A. La Revolution Francaise. 1996. 9 Feb 2000 <http://nomad.users.netlink.co.uk/rev.htm>
- Valentine, Roger. Starmania - the plot. 9 Feb 2000 <http://www.geocities.com/Broadway/2446/startext.htm>
Graphics used in this blog:
La Révolution Française: http://www.purepeople.com/media/pochette-du-disque-de-la-comedie_m712697
Les Misérables: http://www.cabotins.ca/les-miserables/
Miss Saigon: http://cardiff.carpediem.cd/events/3032658-miss-saigon-at-wales-millennium-centre/
Martin Guerre: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8tApgUz0xGo
Notre-Dame de Paris: http://2muchponey.com/lifestyle/notre-dame-de-paris-est-de-retour/