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Herbert Kretzmer, lyricist for the hit musical ‘Les Misérables,’ dies at 95

Herbert Kretzmer
Herbert Kretzmer, shown, was instrumental in bringing “Les Misérables,” Victor Hugo’s classic tale of defiance and redemption, to the stage, said Cameron Mackintosh, the hit musical’s producer.
(Universal Pictures)

Herbert Kretzmer, the journalist and lyricist best known for his English-language adaptation of the musical “Les Misérables,” has died at his home in London.

His family confirmed Wednesday that Kretzmer died after a long illness with Parkinson’s disease at the home he shared with his second wife, Sybil Sever. He was 95.

Tributes poured in from giants of the London stage, including theatrical producer Cameron Mackintosh, singer Elaine Paige and lyricist Tim Rice.

“Les Misérables” producer Mackintosh said Kretzmer was instrumental in bringing Victor Hugo’s classic tale of defiance and redemption in early 19th century France to the stage in English in October 1985, five years after it had opened in Paris.

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“His wonderful words for ‘Les Misérables’ will live on in his memory forever more,” Mackintosh said in a statement.

For Paige, he was a “masterful wordsmith” while Rice described Kretzmer a “great lyricist and man of theatre” and a “giant of his trade.”

In Ladj Ly’s contemporary “Les Misérables,” a drone captures an out-of-control arrest by an anti-crime unit amid tensions in the projects in Paris.

Kretzmer, known as Herbie to his friends, was born in Kroonstad, a small town south of Johannesburg, South Africa, on Oct. 5, 1925. He was one of four sons of Jewish Lithuanian immigrants who ran a grocery shop and later a prosperous furniture store.

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Though his childhood under the vast expanse of South African sky was “blissful,” he wanted by the age of 11 to become a “newspaper man” — so he could get closer to his heroes on screen.

From Johannesburg, he moved to Paris in 1953, playing the piano by night in a bar in return for a meal. A year later, he moved to London and fulfilled his dream of being at the heart of the movie action, in an award-winning journalistic career that included stints at the Daily Express and Daily Mail.

His catalog of interviews reads like a who’s who of 20th century entertainment, including Muhammad Ali, Judy Garland, Groucho Marx, David Niven and Frank Sinatra. Some interviewees, such as Peter Sellers and Terence Stamp, became close friends.

The music was never far away though. He wrote weekly songs in the 1960s for “That Was the Week That Was,” the BBC’s groundbreaking satirical show that proved the launchpad for the careers of luminaries in the world of television over subsequent decades, such as John Cleese and David Frost.

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Some songs were humorous, such as “Goodness Gracious Me,” others more poignant, notably “In the Summer of His Years,” a tribute to President John F. Kennedy that was written hours after his assassination on Nov. 22, 1963.

There were further songs, including “She,” which he wrote with French singer Charles Aznavour and which topped the British singles charts for a month in 1974. He explained decades later that it was about a British woman with whom he had recently broken up following a yearlong affair.

But the really big time never quite came until Mackintosh invited Kretzmer to tea in June 1984, a meeting that would change his life.

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Though the expanded English version of “Les Misérables” had mixed reviews at the start, it would soon become one of the biggest successes of 20th century theater.

Were it not for the COVID-19 pandemic, it would likely still be running in London, testament to the enduring popularity of the story as well as the songs, such as “I Dreamed a Dream,” “One Day More” and “Do You Hear the People Sing?”

Add “Suddenly” to that list, the song he wrote for the 2012 blockbuster film version that earned him, at the age of 87, an Academy Award nomination.

Kretzmer is survived by his wife; two children, Danielle and Matthew; and two grandchildren.


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