Herbert Kretzmer, who has died aged 95, was a show business journalist and lyricist who found fame and untold fortune in the latter part of his career when he wrote the English libretto for Les Misérables, produced by Cameron Mackintosh with the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1985. “I have never been able to explain what happened,” he said. “The overnight success of Les Mis has become a myth now, but it literally was overnight.”
The first reviews at the Barbican, London, were mixed, but when the show moved to the Palace theatre and then the Queen’s theatre (now the Sondheim) in the West End, it took off like a rocket. Apart from an enforced break during the Covid-19 pandemic it is still running in the West End (the concert version is due to restart in December) and has been produced all over the world, winning countless awards. A film version was released in 2012, and one of its classic songs, Do You Hear the People Sing?, lives on as a protest anthem, most recently on the streets of Hong Kong and mainland China, where the track has been banned.
Initially, Mackintosh hired the poet James Fenton as lyricist on the recommendation of the RSC co-director John Caird, who had befriended Fenton during the latter’s stint as theatre critic on the Sunday Times. But after a year-and-a-half of work, Mackintosh concluded that Fenton’s lyrics, though brilliant, were unsingable in a popular show, and he phoned Kretzmer in a panic.
Kretzmer was the Daily Mail’s award-winning television critic at the time and had recently asked Mackintosh if he would consider reviving Kretzmer’s 1964 musical Our Man Crichton, based on JM Barrie’s play The Admirable Crichton, about a shipwrecked aristocrat and his all-knowing butler. “No,” said Mackintosh, curtly, so the fateful call for help six months later was like a follow-through, “but …”
Despite all the adulation for the show, Kretzmer maintained that his own contribution had been less acclaimed, unjustly he felt, than those of the directors, Trevor Nunn and Caird, and the French writers Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, whose first francophone version had run for merely two hours as opposed to three in London.
In addressing the book, as well as writing new lyrics that were not exactly translations, Kretzmer wrote a new prologue, half a dozen new songs (though not the music) and “reconstructed” all the others for a different musical theatre culture.
This skill came naturally to him, as he once told John Lahr in an interview for the New Yorker: “I was born under a rhyming planet. I had a knack. I didn’t question it, I exercised it. I was grateful for it. I tried to play by the rules: no false rhymes, and avoid a cliche like the plague.”
He had known success as a songwriter and moderate success as a musical theatre man before Les Mis: with the composer Dave Lee he wrote the funny, now politically incorrect, Goodness Gracious Me for Peter Sellers (as an Indian doctor) and Sophia Loren in the 1960 film of Bernard Shaw’s The Millionairess; the song was cut from the movie but climbed high in the charts, though not as high as She, composed with and sung by Charles Aznavour, and written for a 1974 TV series, Seven Faces of Woman. The song shot to No 1 and stayed there for four weeks.
Kretzmer was proud of writing from the heart: another big hit with Aznavour, Yesterday, When I Was Young, sprang from the collapse of his first marriage, while the lyrics of She (“She may be the face I can’t forget, / A trace of pleasure or regret”) have struck a chord with countless other troubadours, not least Elvis Costello, who recorded the song for the soundtrack of Roger Michell’s Notting Hill (1999) starring Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant.
Kretzmer referred to himself as “a newspaperman” first and a lyricist second. Tall, elegant, always immaculately dressed, he belonged to the last breed of urbane show business writers steeped in Hollywood movies and the great American musicals. When he operated in the Fleet Street of the 1960s and 70s, he was one of a close bunch of Jewish theatre critics – the others were Bernard Levin, Milton Shulman, Robert Muller, Clive Hirschhorn and David Nathan.
This was a time when trenchant criticism went hand in hand with expansive interviews on the feature pages, and Kretzmer was writing witty, intimate and perceptive profiles of great stars such as Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, David Niven and Boris Karloff, as well as – unthinkable today in the popular press – an in-depth interview, for instance, with the radical theatre designer Sean Kenny.
Herbert was born in Kroonstad, South Africa, one of four sons of Lithuanian immigrants William and Tilly Kretzmer, who ran a furniture store. He was educated at Kroonstad high school and Rhodes University, Grahamstown, and entered journalism in 1946 as a writer of newsreel commentaries and documentary films for African Film Productions in Johannesburg.
After three years as a reporter and columnist on the Sunday Express in the city in the early 50s, he went to London, playing jazz piano in Paris en route. He joined the Daily Sketch in 1954 as a feature writer, moving to the Sunday Dispatch in 1959 and the Daily Express in 1962; he was at the Express for 16 years as feature writer and theatre critic, sharing an office with the cartoonist Osbert Lancaster.
Lyric writing was a sideline in this period, “a kitchen-table job”, he said. Along with Levin and Nathan he joined Ned Sherrin and David Frost on the Saturday night satire show That Was the Week That Was in 1962; it lasted barely two years but changed British television for ever. When President John F Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in November 1963, TW3 threw out its planned Saturday night script and did an instant tribute show. Kretzmer’s lyrics for a song delivered unforgettably by Millicent Martin, In the Summer of His Years, was as acclaimed for its beauty and poignancy in Washington and New York as it was in the UK.
Martin was the star of Our Man Crichton (1964) at the Shaftesbury, with music by Lee, and Kenneth More in his first and only musical. It ran for eight months, Martin’s role as a cockney maid unbalancing the main story. The Four Musketeers (1967) at Drury Lane, a vehicle for Harry Secombe, ran for more than a year but, again, the reviews were not very good – Laurie Johnson’s music and Kretzmer’s lyrics were counted smoothly professional but characterless, no doubt prompting Kretzmer’s comment that most theatre critics (apart from himself, presumably) didn’t know a good show tune from a slice of salami.
“Old songwriters don’t die,” he liked to say, “they just decompose.” As if to prove this point, while still alive he wrote some lyrics for an Anthony Newley film, Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? (1969), starring Newley’s then wife Joan Collins, memorable only, if at all, for the length of its title.
After Les Mis, he teamed up once more with Boublil and Schönberg on Marguerite (2008) at the Haymarket, with a score by Michel Legrand, a sort of La Dame aux Camélias set in occupied France, but Jonathan Kent’s production, though sumptuous, failed to find favour. His last theatre work was a rapturously received concert project, Kristina, with Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson of Abba, in New York and London in 2009 and 2010.
He also published, belatedly, a fine collection of his journalism, Snapshots: Encounters With Twentieth-Century Legends (2014). He was a chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters and was appointed OBE in 2011.
He was married first to Elisabeth Wilson in 1961 (they divorced in 1973) and second, in 1988, to Sybil Sever, who survives him, along with Danielle and Matthew, the children from his first marriage, and two grandsons.
• Herbert Kretzmer, journalist and lyricist, born 5 October 1925; died 14 October 2020