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Immersed in Movies: 'Les Mis' Creators Schönberg and Boublil Talk Oscar-Nominated Song 'Suddenly'

Photo of Bill Desowitz By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood January 16, 2013 at 2:56PM

There's nothing that demonstrates the difference between the "Les Misérables" stage show and movie more than the new Oscar-nominated song, "Suddenly." The tender lullaby sung by Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) to little Cosette (Isabelle Allen) in a carriage never could've been carried off on stage...
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Les Mis, Valjean and young Cosette

There's nothing that demonstrates the difference between the "Les Misérables" stage show and movie more than the new Oscar-nominated song, "Suddenly." The tender lullaby sung by Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) to little Cosette (Isabelle Allen) in a carriage never could've been carried off on stage, yet it's one of the intimate highlights of the movie. For composer Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyricist Alain Boublil (who created the blockbuster stage musical in 1985), it was an opportunity to expand their vision by revisiting the famed Victor Hugo source novel at the insistence of director Tom Hooper.

"Hooper thought one thing missing from the musical was how an acknowledgment of the love that Cosette played in Jean Valjean's life helped transform him," Boublil explains. "Victor Hugo had written something about two unhappy souls making one happy human being, and Hooper asked us to think about that line and a song as a turning point for Jean Valjean, who's filled with vengeance and who's never bonded with anyone. Both of them have never known love in their lives. Hooper set it in a carriage. This song was completely new and spontaneous. And it's an intimacy only attainable in a movie in close-up as a lullaby."

So, after more than 30 years, the legendary "Les Mis" creators tried to get in the mood again, soaking up the religious and political weight of Hugo even more than ever before for Hooper's gritty cinematic interpretation. However, despite the changes in location and placement and orchestration of their precious songs, Schönberg and Boublil always protected their integrity. They were total collaborators with Hooper and screenwriter William Nicholson. For "Suddenly," Herbert Kretzmer was recruited once more to craft the lyrics in English after Boublil wrote them in French. In fact, Kretzmer came up with the song's title after the word "suddenly" kept coming up in conversation.

"The song went through many stages, beginning with Hugh Jackman nearly crying at the end of being played the song by Claude-Michel for the first time at the piano," Boublil suggests. "Then the song was recorded with many, many takes live just with the piano. Little by little, the song became a new melody. We tried it with a large orchestra and went simpler with piano and string quartet at the end."

Ironically, Schönberg and Boublil initially conceived of "Les Mis" as a movie musical and first approached Alan Parker in 1980. But he had a problem with the sung-through style. It seemed too operatic and potentially static as a movie. Then, after it became an international theatrical sensation, there were various aborted attempts at turning it into a movie musical (Steven Spielberg even had a minor flirtation and wished them well).

This article is related to: Les Miserables, Immersed In Movies, Interviews , Features, Tom Hooper, Hugh Jackman


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.