It’s a good year to be Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schoenberg, the librettist and composer of Les Miserables. With the star-studded film adaptation about to hit theaters, Les Mis is everywhere–again; Susan Boyle almost seems like a distant memory, God bless her. Of course, for those of us who grew up with parents who were so taken with the musical that their kids dried themselves on Les Mis beach towels, it never went away. Now don’t get me wrong – as Lynn pointed out a few weeks ago, nothing in the Western canon surpasses Hugo’s masterpiece when it comes to grace and law (or, well, life–coincidence…?). We need all the Les Mis we can get.
Lost in all the hype is the reality that the intervening years haven’t been terribly kind to Boublil and Schoenberg. Sure, Miss Saigon was a blockbuster, but that was 1989. One doubts that we’ll be hearing numbers from 2006’s The Pirate Queen or 2008’s Marguerite on The Voice any time soon. There’s probably something in their story about the weight of expectation, a la post-Thriller MJ or post-Appetite GNR, but that’s another post. This post is about Martin Guerre, Boublil and Schoenberg’s 1996 follow-up to Miss Saigon.
Martin Guerre is already something of a lost classic–it was never officially filmed, and both versions of the soundtrack are out of print on CD–but if one were to compile a list of Mbird musicals it would almost definitely be sitting pretty at number two, right behind Boublil and Schoenberg’s masterpiece. What makes it so remarkable? Here are five reasons:
1. It is based on historical events that have become something akin to French folklore, involving a 16th century case of what we might now call identity theft. Long story short, a man named Martin Guerre leaves his wife and home (according to the history books, it was to escape from the law; according to the musical it was to fight in the Wars of Religion). Almost a decade later a man shows up claiming to be Guerre, and takes up with Guerre’s wife Bertrande (for three years!). He is eventually found out to be an imposter when the real Martin Guerre returns. Not quite Les Mis-caliber material, drama-wise (what is?!), but you can certainly see why they were drawn to it.
2. The story provided the basis for two films, one French, one American: 1982’s Le Retour de Martin Guerre, starring a young Gerard Depardieu, and 1993’s Sommersby starring Richard Gere and Jodie Foster. One guess as to which is better.
3. Some have claimed that Matthew Weiner took inspiration from Martin Guerre when coming up with Don Draper’s backstory in Mad Men.
4. Boublil and Schoenberg intentionally set their work about 20 years after the actual historical events took place, around the time of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (1572) in order to play up the religious dimension, namely, the tension between the established Roman Catholic church and the growing Protestant minority, aka the Huguenots. Maybe Hugo had worn off on them. In their version, Guerre’s wife Bertrande has secretly converted to Protestantism in his absence, and the imposter, who falls in love with Bertrande, is slowly and convincingly won over to her new-found faith as well. Perhaps Boublil and Schoenberg had taken some of Victor Hugo’s strident anti-clericalism to heart, but let’s just say Rome does not come off well (it’s frankly cartoonish). The key song, and the backdrop of “fake Martin’s” conversion, comes during a clandestine Huguenot worship service, the gorgeous and incredibly reverent “Bethlehem”. Couldn’t be more fitting for this time of year:
Tonally, the song was a bit of a detour, but it worked, capturing the contrite spirit of Christian worship with stunning precision and heart. It’s not the only explicitly religious moment in the show–the climatic act of self-sacrifice was even staged to evoke the crucifixion–but it’s nevertheless too bad that it was cut when the score was rewritten in 1999 to bolster the commercial prospects. Which leads me to:
5. The show was criticized for being confusing when it debuted, and to be perfectly honest, there is some basis to those claims. Martin Guerre is not as immediate as Les Mis, it benefits greatly from repeat listens, and there are definitely some pacing problems (including a courtroom scene/song that goes on way too long, even if it does have the line, “I’m a Protestant, yes. Of this sin I am proud!”). Still, the dense plotting hides an emotional richness that rivals its predecessor(s) in the Boublil-Schoenberg oeuvre.
The lukewarm reception led the team to completely overhaul the production not once but three times. Which means that there are two vastly different versions of the show on CD, the original London cast recording from 1996 and the touring company’s attempt from 1999. The 1996 version is much, much better, not just because it leaves the religious dimension intact (thankfully, it’s available on amazon for digital download) It’s simply a more memorable score: beautifully orchestrated, hyper dynamic, full of the same soaring melodies and lyrical wit (and sass and pathos and grace) that marked Les Mis and Miss Saigon, only this time they’re literally singing about the Reformation. It’s wild! Of course, it’s also probably the reason the show never took off the way the others did, and I’m not just talking about the rather esoteric subject matter. Les Mis and Saigon are about grace and law and love and malice and sacrifice and redemption just as much as Martin Guerre (if not more), but they weren’t actually using those words; they were dramatizing them. If Martin Guerre is the menu, then Les Mis is the food–not an entirely fair analogy, but hopefully you get the point. Martin Guerre will still leave you in a puddle on the ground, but you might be a little more conscious of it doing so.
6. If anyone else had written it, Martin Guerre would have: A. never gotten financed but if it had, would have B. been a bigger hit. “Brought to you by the team who gave you Les Mis” is just as much a curse as a blessing, after all.
All this to say, I would be very interested to learn what drew this talented team–both Jewish by birth (according to Wikipedia)–to such a deep and abiding interest in, and passionate gift for, the operation of grace. Of course, if you want to pull heartstrings, or resolve serious drama in a believable way, there are only so many ways to do it, and no ideology or religion has a monopoly on any of them. But that doesn’t mean truth isn’t specific. This is something that Hugo, who detested the church and defied labels of all kinds, clearly understood. Who knows, maybe Boublil and Schoenberg were as (dumb)struck by his closing paragraph to “The Mark of Cain” in his Essays on Humanity as we were:
While in the engulfing process the flaming pleiad of the men of brutal force descends deeper and deeper into the abyss with the sinister pallor of approaching disappearance, at the other extremity of space, where the last cloud is about to fade away, in the deep heaven of the future, henceforth to be azure, rises in radiancy the sacred group of true stars, — Orpheus, Hermes, Job, Homer, Aeschylus, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Hippocrates, Phidias, Socrates, Sophocles, Plato, Aristotle, Archimedes, Euclid, Pythagoras, Lucretius, Plautus, Juvenal, Tacitus, Saint Paul, John of Patmos, Tertullian, Pelagius, Dante, Gutenberg, Joan of Arc, Christopher Columbus, Luther, Michaelangelo, Copernicus, Galileo, Rabelais, Calderon, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Kepler, Milton, Moliere, Newton, Descartes, Kant, Piranesi, Beccaria, Diderot, Voltaire, Beethoven, Fulton, Montgolfier, Washington. And this marvellous constellation, at each instant more luminous, dazzling as a glory of celestial diamonds, shines in the clear horizon, and ascending mingles with the vast dawn of Jesus Christ.
p.s. There is one among us who is a world expert on Victor Hugo. A person to whom you mention the Hugo name and he/she starts spouting the most incredible quotations, christological and otherwise, from the most uncommon of sources. Maybe if we ask very, very nicely, he/she/it might be willing to record a podcast about it.