UVA Arts Endowment presents Les Misérables Creators Schönberg & Boublil
In the summer of 2014, Marva Barnett, an emeritus professor who formerly taught in the UVA Drama and French Departments, found herself in Les Misérables superfan heaven.
She was meeting with composer Claude-Michel Schönberg, who, along with lyricist Alain Boublil, is responsible for the 35-year-long international sensation of the musical, and also for Miss Saigon, which is currently taking another Broadway turn. She was in London to talk about her current book project. Schönberg pulled out a demo recording of the show that they had done for prospective producers. In it, he is playing the songs the world now knows and loves, and singing them in French. She told the composer that she taught several courses on the show and Hugo’s novel at UVA, and said she could not wait to get back to UVA and share all she had learned with her students.
What happened next came as a big surprise. “You teach a course on Les Mis?” he asked. “Do you want me to come?” Almost before she had a chance to recover, Schönberg followed up. “He looked me straight in the eyes,” Barnett said, “and said, ’Invite me.’” The too-good-to-be-true moment would only get better when he reached out to his creative partner Boublil and invited him to join him in Charlottesville.
The duo’s 2014 residency was a huge hit for all involved, as these musical theatre greats graciously and tirelessly shared their time and experiences with students, faculty, and the Charlottesville Community in a series of unforgettable events. Marva remains grateful for the superb assistance of now alumna Abby Deatherage (College ‘16).
Their first residency was such a hit, in fact, that it earned an encore this past February, when Schönberg and Boublil returned to Grounds for a series of workshops, lectures and conversations in another residency, funded by the Arts Endowment and sponsored by the Office of the Provost, the Vice Provost for the Arts, the Department of Drama and the Department of Music.
Once again this year, Barnett held a public conversation with Boublil and Schönberg in Old Cabell Hall about their careers, where the University Singers, led by Michael Slon, and guest artists shared their renditions of Les Misérables and Miss Saigon favorites, along with an excerpt from The Pirate Queen. The following afternoon, Drama Chair Colleen Kelly led another conversation in which they shared tales about the creative process and the state of musical theatre today.
Reality and expectation, in this case, were a perfect match. “I found these artists to be very funny, warm, human, and humane,” Barnett said. “They were very patient in answering some of our questions over and over again for different groups of people. They love working with the students. That is why they come to UVA.”
Marva Barnett’s interest in Les Misérables long predates the show’s soaring melodies and was built on Victor Hugo’s intoxicatingly gorgeous language and intriguing characters. She fell in love with Victor Hugo’s literary work as a high school student and carried that torch all the way through her studies and into her own academic career. Early in her time at UVA Barnett was teaching a French composition course and found herself with a group of students she found “even more amazing than usual.” She wanted to teach them again but needed a different course to offer them.
“I thought of romanticism,” she said, “having loved that period as a nineteen-year-old. But I realized that I didn’t want to spend a whole semester with whiny, weepy romantics, which is how I saw them at that point.” That is when Hugo made his re-entrance. “I always loved Victor Hugo, and he was a great Romantic. I wrote a master’s thesis on his work but never quite realized what a genius he was. He wrote poetry, he wrote plays, he wrote novels, he was a legislator, and then he was in exile for 19 years and a voice to the world on issues of social justice and issues of humanity such as anti-slavery and abolition of the death penalty. He was also a graphic artist who did more than 3,000 pieces of artwork as a break from his writing, and some of those were referred to by leading surrealists. I so wanted to share Hugo’s ideas with English speakers that I published with Yale University Press an introductory anthology called Victor Hugo on Things That Matter. But in the end, I find Hugo’s epic Les Misérables so compelling that I’m writing a book about how the story—whether novel or musical—inspires many people to lives of conscience.”
For the Les Misérables events this time around, Barnett wanted to shine a spotlight on Hugo’s influence on the art world of his time and added a new component to the visit – the world’s first exhibition featuring a collection of caricatures of Hugo’s epic novel. “Hugo was caricatured by the press in France beginning in late 1820’s and early 1830’s when he became the leader of the Romantic movement, all the way to his death in 1885 and beyond. Gérard Pouchain—who wrote the definitive and gorgeous book Victor Hugo par la caricature, and who owns over 500 original printings of these caricatures, mostly from newspapers and books—shared them with us and gave a French talk about how caricature glorified Hugo. The exhibition, presented in the Rotunda, contained several framed prints from the collection in addition to nearly a dozen books. UVA 4th-year student Emily Umansky (College/Batten ‘17) was an immensely valuable assistant.
The near universal appeal of the stage musical Les Misérables (it has been seen by more than 70 million people in 44 countries over its 35 years), plus the 2012 film adaptation directed by Tom Hooper, provide perfect springboards for a deeper dive into Hugo’s genius, Barnett said. “Many people are so inspired by the movie and so love the musical that they come from there to the novel and realize what we intellectuals already know, which is that the book is much richer. Yet even though 80 to 85% of the novel’s content falls away in the stage adaptation, the way the show captures the spirit of the master poet/novelist’s words and story is a testament to Schönberg and Boublil and their entire creative team.”
Three decades later, the show’s momentum shows no signs of slowing down. “Les Misérables never dies,” Barnett said, noting a concert version in French touring across France this spring, which she hopes to get to, and a 6-part miniseries based on the novel that the BBC is slating for release in 2018. Asked how many times she has “heard the people sing,” Barnett pauses to tick through productions. “I really should write it down. I lose track…” They include a Broadway run, the 25th-Anniversary production in Paris, Live Arts Theatre’s staging and a student production at Charlottesville High School – and she ballparks the total at 8-10. “My life kind of revolves around Victor Hugo and Les Mis,” she said. “At least my husband would tell you it does!”