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Herbert Kretzmer - An Obituary

Herbert Kretzmer – Journalist and lyricist

Born October 5, 1925; died October 14, 2020


 Herbert Kretzmer, who has died aged 95, will forever be known for his English language lyrics to Les Misérables, the French Revolution based musical which ran continuously on London’s West End for just shy of 35 years after it opened in 1985. Only the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic stopped it in its tracks. Kretzmer’s words for songs such as I Dreamed a Dream and Do You Hear the People Sing? transformed Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg’s original French language numbers into show-stoppers brought to rousing life in Trevor Nunn’s epic Cameron Mackintosh backed production. 


Kretzmer’s lyrics for Les Misérables went beyond translation to reimagine the songs anew for an English speaking sensibility. He duly won Grammy  and Tony awards for a book he put together over five months after Mackintosh brought him on board. This came about after the pair met with a view to reviving Our Man Crichton (1964), Kretzmer’s musical based on J.M. Barrie’s play, The Admirable Crichton.  


While Mackintosh wasn’t interested, he asked Kretzmer why he hadn’t continued writing lyrics. When Kretzmer said he had, and told him that he had penned the English lyrics for Charles Aznavour’s chart topper, She (1974), and an earlier Aznavour chanson, Yesterday When I Was Young (1964), Mackintosh declared them two of his favourites. When the development of Les Misérables was struggling, Mackintosh thought of Kretzmer, and global success followed.


Such accolades had been a long time coming for Kretzmer. This was despite him winning an Ivor Novello award for Peter Sellers’ and Sophia Loren’s comedy hit, Goodness Gracious Me (1960), and his involvement writing topical songs for 1960s late night TV satire show, That Was The Week That Was (1962-63). Having lived through apartheid era South Africa, Kretzmer brought his experience of institutionalised racism to bear in Song of Nostalgia for an American State. His tribute to John F. Kennedy, In the Summer of His Years, was performed by Millicent Martin on TW3 just hours after the American president’s assassination.


In a more playful vein, Kretzmer wrote the lyrics of Kinky Boots (1964), released as a single by Avengers stars, Patrick Macnee and Honor Blackman. The record remained a cult curio until a 1990 re-release saw it make the top ten.


As well as Our Man Crichton, Kretzmer collaborated with composer Laurie Johnson on The Four Musketeers (1967), which starred Harry Secombe as D’Artagnan in a show that ran for a year. Kretzmer also wrote the lyrics for Anthony Newley’s mid-life crisis big-screen musical, Can Hieronymous Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? (1969). Kretzmer wrote She as the theme song to 1970s TV drama, Seven Faces of Woman. He made no secret of the fact that some of the lyrics had been inspired by his own personal life. The song later received fresh attention by way of Elvis Costello’s version for the film, Notting Hill.


Kretzmer achieved all this while holding down his night and day job as senior drama critic of the Daily Express from 1962 for sixteen years, then from 1979 to 1987 as television critic for the Daily Mail. This didn’t stop the Mail’s puckish theatre critic Jack Tinker describing Les Misérables as ‘Les Glums’. Nor did a stream of similarly stinking reviews prevent the show from becoming a smash hit, and Kretzmer becoming a millionaire umpteen times over. 


Herbert Kretzmer was born in Kroonstad, in the Free State, South Africa, one of four sons to William and Tilly Kretzmer, Lithuanian Jewish immigrants who ran a furniture store. He started writing songs for school musicals, though declared an ambition for journalism aged eleven in order to get closer to his cinema idols. 


Kretzmer initially began making newsreels, then in 1951 became a reporter and entertainment columnist with the Sunday Express in Johannesburg. In 1953, he moved to Paris, playing piano in a bar and rubbing shoulders with France’s intellectual set. A year later he moved to London, where he was a feature writer and columnist with the Daily Sketch for five years, and then a columnist with the Sunday Despatch before joining the Daily Express. 


During these years, Kretzmer interviewed writers such as John Steinbeck, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams and Henry Miller, musicians including Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, sportsmen Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Robinson, actors Judy Garland and Groucho Marx, and singer Frank Sinatra.


On the back of Les Misérables, Kretzmer was appointed Chevalier De L’Ordre Des Arts Et Des Lettres in 1988. He went on to write Marguerite (2008), with composer Michel Le Grand. Latterly he worked with Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson of ABBA on Kristina (2009), which received concert performances at Carnegie Hall in New York and the Royal Albert Hall in London. For the 2012 film of Les Misérables, Kretzmer wrote one new song, Suddenly, for which he was Oscar nominated. 


In 2011 Kretzmer was made an OBE. In 2014, he published Snapshots: Conversations with Twentieth Century Legends. As the title suggests, the book featured a collection of some of Kretzmer’s interviews, making clear just how his dream as an eleven-year-old had come true. 


He is survived by his second wife, Sybil Sever, who he married in 1988, his two children, Danielle and Matthew, from his first marriage from 1961 to 1973 to Elisabeth Wilson, and two grandsons.

The Herald, November 4th, 2020




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