Musicals by French composers

OK – its the week after Christmas. Maybe some kind soul gave you every item that you didn’t already have from our Holiday Gift Guide – plus perhaps a gift certificate or cash. What to do?

You might devote some attention to the world of musical theater beyond Broadway and its national touring spawn. There are thriving (or at least surviving) pockets of musical theater across Europe and in some of the areas along the Pacific Rim that have drawn from the legacy of Broadway and its British counterpart, the West End in London.

Periodically over the next few months, we’ll take a look at some areas of exploration separated by language. These will be samplings rather than a comprehensive catalogue because my own theater shelf (shelves?) only has a smattering of what is out there. But perhaps it will whet an appetite here and there. First up? Musicals in French.

Many Americans may think that Claude-Michel Schönberg is the only modern composer of musicals from France. Surely, he’s the only one with a body of work well known by Americans from his success on Broadway. You can probably pull English-language recordings of his “Les Misèrables” and “Miss Saigon” from your shelf. If it is a well-stocked shelf you might also pull one of the recordings of his “Martin Guerre” which didn’t quite make it to Broadway, or even “The Pirate Queen” that did very briefly. Some of these are also available in their earlier French incarnations, so you can hear them with their original lyrics by Alain Boublil.

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You might even find their first collaboration, the rock opera “La Rèvolution Française.” It was their 1973 attempt to do in France what Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice had done in England with “Jesus Christ Superstar” which was a hit as a concept album long before it actually made it onto a stage. “La Rèvolution Française” is still available on First Night Records. (Its catalogue number is OCRCD6006.) Listening to it some forty years after its initial release, it is clear just why Schönberg has become the best known of the French composers of musicals: his melodies are superior to most of the work of others.

One exception to that observation might be another French composer who has made it to Broadway, although only once and then only briefly. Michel Legrand had “Amour” on Broadway for less than fifty performances in 2002.

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There are French composers working at various types of musical theatre both in France and in French-speaking Quebec north of our own border. Simon Leclerc is one of them. His career has veered from classics – he studied at the Conservatoire de Musique de Montréal – to pop – he was a backup singer for Céline Dion. He has performed in musicals and composed an extremely atmospheric score for one of the innumerable stage musicals based on the Dracula legend. In this case it was “Dracula: Entre l’amour et la mort” with lyrics by Richard Ouzounian who straddles the line between creator of musicals and writer about them as the theater critic for the Toronto Star. Their “Dracula: Entre l’amour et la mort” was issued by Les Disques Artiste Records. (Catalogue AR-CD124)

Much more expansive is a live recording of a concert presentation by the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal of the musical by composer André Gagnon and lyricist Michel Tremblay titled for its subject “Nelligan.” Èmile Nelligan was a nineteenth century symbolist poet from Montreal who suffered a nervous breakdown at age nineteen and was institutionalized for the rest of his life, never writing any more poetry. What he had written in his teens, however, was published a few years after his collapse, and the drama of his fate combined with the romanticism of his poetry to capture the popular imagination.

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Gagnon might object to my characterization of “Nelligan” as a “musical.” He called it a romantic opera and, indeed, it was performed and recorded by Opéra de Montréal. Its melodies are so mellifluous and the connecting recitative so unstudied that it sounds in the concert presentation very much like a more traditional stage musical than an opera. At least one reference to the concert termed it “le drame musical.” You can judge for yourself from the lovely two disc package on the Espace Musique label. (Catalogue SMCD 5237-2)

The range of classifications from “opera” to “musical” extends to “spectacle.” Quite a few contemporary recordings of stage musicals in French are of those that were created for massive presentations in venues like the Palais des Sports in Paris. Among those whose scores have been released on disc are these:

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“Gladiateur: Musique du spectacle”

A “Musical Spectacle” based on the Spartacus myth which opened in the Palais des Sports de Paris in 2004. EC7/AZ, a label of Universal Music, released a recording of the score which features mod-ish new-wave rock music by Maxime Le Forestier in a full-sounding stereo. (Catalogue 981-629-8) It must have reverberated around the 4,500-seat hall, providing more atmosphere than melody. Those who saw – and enjoyed – the spectacle might find the recording a reminder of some thrilling moments. As a stand-alone listen, however, it gets to sounding all the same about half way through.

“Les Dix Commandements: L’intégralité des Chansons du Spectacle”

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Somewhat less boring after multiple listens is Pascal Obispo’s music for another spectacle musical, this one following something of the same dramatic arc as Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 epic, “The Ten Commandments,” but without the services of either Charlton Heston or Yul Brynner. The score may be less boring in part because Obispo’s songs are of a wider variety and evidence a greater melodic range, but the contributions of lyricists Lionel Florence and Patrice Guirao may be important as well. Without a fluency in French it isn’t clear just what is going on in the story. The finale, titled “L’envie D’aimer,” (“The Desire to Love”) was a hit as a single in Europe and can be sampled online. It is YouTube’s video R59Msiz8yAc. The two disc set is on the Atletico label. (Catalogue 5488142)

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“Cléopâtre La Dernière Reine D’Egypte”

With a slightly lusher string orchestra sound occasionally mixed with a new-wave rock rhythm section (think slightly slowed down disco) Kamel Ouali‘s spectacle musical of the legendary queen of Egypt features a score by over half a dozen composers working on lyrics by the same team that did “Les Dix Commandements,” Lionel Florence and Patrice Guiaro. Ouali, a French choreographer, staged the production in 2009, again at the Palais des Sports in Paris. There are touches of semi-exotic sounds especially in the rhythms of the bazaar which probably serve the choreographer in Ouali as much as the director. A highlights disc was issued by Mercury (catalogue # 531 122 0) and there is a sample video on Vimeo.com as #19547168.

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A more traditional (i.e. – not “spectacle”) musical drama is the one Gérard Presgurvic wrote using Shakespeare’s story of star crossed lovers. Presgurvic took some liberties with the Bard, but that is nothing new for modern stagings of his plays whether they are set to music or not. Presgurvic’s “Romeó És Júlia” has a distinctly rock-musical sound. Since its debut in 2001 it has been produced all around Europe, in Canada and on the west of the Pacific in South Korea, The Republic of China and Japan. Its London production had a translation by Don Black. The disc I have is on the old Polygram label. (Catalogue 542 495-2)

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Another French musical that has been produced around the globe is Riccardo (or Richard) Cocciante‘s sung-through version of “Notre-Dame de Paris” based on Victor Hugo’s novel of the legendary hunchback. Luc Plamondon’s lyrics have been translated into nearly a dozen languages including Belarusian and Lithuanian and there are recordings of the productions of England, Spain, Italy, Russia, Korea and, of course, France. In fact, there are at least five recordings from France. Whichever language you listen to, the soaring melodic lines of many of the numbers are likely to stick in your brain. From the stirring opening “Le Temps Des Cathédrales” to the gentle Schubertian but not Schubert “Ave Maria Pa?en,” the work is a treat. The original is now available on Sony. (Catalog on Sonny Pomme/France 952342)

Cocciante’s “Notre-Dame de Paris” is not to be confused with the stage version for Disney which Alan Menken, Stephen Schwartz and James Lapine created in 1999 in Berlin which might still have a Broadway incarnation some day. That was not in French. It was in German, so we’ll discuss it when we get back to the matter of foreign language recordings for your theater shelf.

Comments

  1. Robert D. Carver says:

    You neglected to mention that, after it’s intial run at the NYSF/Public Theatre, the stage version of Legrande’s musical film, “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” also had a brief Broadway run. Sheldon Harnick, best known for his lyrics for “Fiddler on the Roof” and “She Loves Me!,” translated the script and lyrics from French to English. 

  2. Brad Hathaway says:

    Robert – You drove me to my reference books with this one, but I’m afraid I haven’t been able to find any record of the off-Broadway production of “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” which the NYSF/Public Theatre mounted in 1979 transferring to a Broadway house. I’d be more than interested in any details you have. It isn’t listed on the Internet Broadway Data Base (www.ibdb.com) although the Internet Off-Broadway Data Base of the Lortel Archives (www.lortel.org) does have the listing for the NYSF/Public run of February 1 to March 4, 1979. Reference books such as John Stewart’s “Broadway Musicals, 1943 – 2004″ are silent on it.
    Best,
    Brad Hathaway
    Brad@Bra[email protected] 

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