Herbert Kretzmer, best known as the lyricist on the English version of the musical “Les Misérables,” and writer of songs such as “Goodness Gracious Me” and Charles Aznavour’s hit “She,” has died at 95.
Tributes came in Wednesday from some of the leading lights of the British stage world. “Les Misérables” producer Cameron Mackintosh said: “It is terribly sad to hear that the great Herbert Kretzmer passed away last night after a period of illness. His wonderful words for ‘Misérables’ will live on in his memory forever more and the Christmas season at the Sondheim will be all the more poignant for all of us as we hear the people sing without having him there. God bless you, Herbie.”
Fellow lyricist Tim Rice said in a Tweet: “The great lyricist and man of theater and popular song, Herbert Kretzmer, has died. From Les Mis to She, TW3, Goodness Gracious Me and so much more he was a giant of his trade. RIP Herbie.”
In a statement, Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, who wrote the lyrics and the music, respectively, for the original French version of “Les Misérables,” said: “There will no longer be three of us taking a bow on stage when Cameron introduces ‘the creators of ‘Les Misérables!’’ Herbert Kretzmer sadly passed away last night. Herbie was a vibrant, hard-working man, but above all a man with an exceptional moral force as well as a brilliant lyricist. Thanks to him, Les Misérables found its English voice – Herbie embraced our original version and turned it into a work that speaks to the rest of the world. On his 90th birthday, he stood on the stage of the Queen’s Theatre, by then already frail, to receive a standing ovation! There is no doubt that we, along with the public, will continue to clap for him again and again, thankful for his talent. Herbie may no longer be present, but he will always be here with us as there is more than a little bit of Jean Valjean in him.”
Kretzmer was born in South Africa where he began a career in journalism writing the commentary for a weekly cinema newsreel. He moved to London in 1954, and pursued twin careers as a newspaperman and songwriter. He joined the London Daily Express in 1960 and later became its senior drama critic, a post he held for 18 years. From 1979-87 he wrote television criticism for the Daily Mail.
As a lyric writer he wrote songs for the BBC’s satirical show “That Was The Week That Was.” He won the prestigious Ivor Novello Award for the Peter Sellers and Sophia Loren comedy song “Goodness Gracious Me.” Other songs included two written with and for French singer-songwriter Aznavour: “Yesterday When I Was Young” and hit “She.”
He also supplied lyrics for the Anthony Newley musical film “Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness?”
Kretzmer is best known for writing the English lyrics for musical “Les Misérables,” which have been translated into over 22 languages for performances around the world. He was one of the four credited screenwriters as well as the sole credited lyricist for Universal’s film of “Les Misérables.”
In an interview with The Guardian, he explained how “Les Misérables” changed his life. “I returned to the Mail, but then it became clear that the show had a fairly certain future: I was able to give up my day job at 61,” he said.
“‘Les Misérables’ has brought me my London house and my wife, whom I met at the opening-night party in New York. I often marvel at how those few feet between Cameron Mackintosh’s sofa and his door changed my life.”
He explained how working on the musical’s famous songs, which included “Do You Hear the People Sing” and “I Dreamed a Dream,” was as much about re-imagining them as it was translating them from the French original.
“The word ‘translation’ makes me shiver,” he said. “Words can resonate in one culture but not another, so I read the novel and then told the story in my own way.”
He wrote the English lyrics for the stage musical “Marguerite,” written with Michel LeGrand, Alain Boubil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, and also worked with ABBA’s Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson as the lyricist for “Kristina.”
Kretzmer was honored by the French government, being appointed Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters, and was appointed Officer of the Order of British Empire (OBE).