Find the episode on Anchor: https://anchor.fm/remington64/episodes/S4-E1---Victor-Hugo-and-the-Golden-Age-of-French-Operetta-e1l1i6e
And on YouTube: https://youtu.be/dRFpfdwTX-s
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Bibliography: (As it stands in this episode)
Dickson, John - Bullies and Saints: An Honest Look at the Good and Evil of Christian History - 2021 - Zondervan
Harding, James - Folies de Paris: The Rise and Fall of French Operetta - 1979 - Chappell & Company
Ganzl, Kurt. Lamb, Andrew - Ganzl’s Book of the Musical Theatre - 1988 - The Bodley Head
Nightingale, Benedict - The Musical Phenomenon Les Miserables From Page to Stage to Screen - 2018 - Carlton Books Limited
Whitfield, Sarah - Boubil and Schonberg’s Les Miserables - 2019 - Routledge
A Brief Summary of Victor Hugo’s Life - Guernsey Museums & Galleries - A Brief Summary of Victor Hugo's Life - Guernsey Museums (gov.gg)
Victor Hugo - Britanica - Victor Hugo | Biography, Books, Poems, & Facts | Britannica
Notre Dame Cathedral Update - Friends of Notre Dame de Paris - Notre Dame Cathedral Update | 2022 Restoration Update (friendsofnotredamedeparis.org)
Welcome to season 4, we’re taking a little hiatus from season 3 because holy moly almost anything in existence could be included in that season. I’m going to be working on it quietly in the background but we’re going to do a more traditional season in the meantime.
This season is also a bit of a late 80th birthday present for my grandmother. She has two favourite musicals; Fiddler on the Roof and Les Miserables. Unfortunately I found out the first of these too late to include it properly in my season on West Side Story. Fortunately, I’d had an interesting angle into Les Mis in mind.
I also found out recently that a neighbour of hers referred to me and my older sister as the singing girls. My grandmother said that she asked when “the singing girls” were coming back.
If you’re listening, former neighbour of my grandparents, I hope you enjoy.
Intro music. “Look Down”
In 1978 French lyricist Alain Boublil was in theatre during the London run of Linel Bart’s Oliver!. The musical was adapted from Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist. For Alain he was struck by the resemblance between the Artful Dodger in Oliver! and Gavroche in Les Miserables. Over the course of the evening he saw further parallels between the characters in the two novels. I can see Nancy and Eponine in many ways as counterparts.
He approached his friend and collaborator Claude Michel Schonberg and suggested they write a musical. This wasn’t an absurd proposition, the pair had written a show 5 years earlier. Their musical La Revolution Francaise was an extremely successful musical in France, even being staged at the 4,500 seat Palais de Sports.
But I want to pause before we talk more about this pair. The first three seasons of the show have focused on Broadway, on the American musical. Oklahoma is explicitly American. West Side Story even has a song called America. I feel like I’ve left my audience a little in the dark on the English and French musical traditions - and Les Mis belongs to both of these.
In regards to English musical theatre we’ve learnt that; English choruses at least at one time were more articulate than their American counterparts, they had more established opera and ballet companies than their American counterparts. Probably other things. It’s not really enough.
For French musicals we have an even more dismal state. From the show thus far we can confirm that France exists. We’ve got that. The Paris Opera Ballet also exists. Yeah.
So let’s go back a bit and give some summary on the musical tradition, or traditions, that Les Miserables was written in. Today we’re going to be focusing on la tradition francaise.
The Life of Victor Hugo
Victor Hugo was born in 1802, and his life covers, quite conveniently for me, also covers the events of Les Miserables. So that’s pretty cool. In the book Les Miserables: From Page to Stage to Screen he is described as “a statesman and a prophet, uttering on the past, present and future of his country with the authority of an Isaiah, Daniel, or St Paul”. If you’re not up on your biblical figures those guys were a pretty big deal. So let’s look at his life.
One common misconception is that Les Miserables is about the French Revolution proper. Like, capital F, capital R, French Revolution. It’s not, the French Revolution proper happened between 1789 and 1795, or 1799 depending on your source. In that time there was a lot of violence, the worst portion of it was a period of about nine months towards the latter part of the revolution, delightfully called the Reign of Terror, there were about 17,000 executed. Yikes.
It was after all that Victor Hugo was born, but the nation was “still trembling”, and how could it not be. William Doyle’s introduction to the topic says “Quite literally, nothing was any longer sacred. All power, all authority, all institutions were now provisional, valid only so long as they could be justified in terms of rationality and unity”.
In this tumultuous world, young Victor began to write. He was the son of both a royalist mother, and a kind of successive loyalist father. They moved around France, but always returned to Paris. At the age of 14 he wrote a tragedy in verse. Here’s another common Victor Hugo misconception, although we know him in the anglosphere as a novelist, he was also a poet, an essayist and a playwright, and a magazine editor I guess. At 17 he launched the periodical Le Conservateur Litteraire. If you want to feel like a failure, I recommend comparing your life to Victor Hugo at various ages.
He studied law, before realising his calling was literature. He’d adopted his mother’s royalist sentiments, which were confirmed when his 1820 debut poetry collection earned him a royal pension. Two years later he married Adele Foucher.
Over the next few years he wrote a lot. You likely don’t know them; there was 1824’s Nouvelles Odes, 1826’s Bug Hargal, and Odes et Ballades and 1827’s play Cromwell. Then in 1829 he wrote Les Orientales, the play Marion de Lorme which ran into some censorship issues, as well as the novel Le Dernier Jour d’un Condamné.
In 1830 he wrote two significant works; his play Hernani, bringing some of the ideas of Romanticism to the world of classical French theatre. That actually made a huge difference in French theatre history.
The other work that year was The Hunchback of Notre Dame, or as it was known in French Notre Dame de Paris. The French title indicates the true central character of the novel, Notre Dame, or Our Lady cathedral in Paris. The now iconic building was at the time falling into disrepair. The book helped raise both money and awareness for its restoration. It’s an interesting parallel to the contemporary era, as they are restoring the cathedral after a major fire. I’ve put the Friends of Notre Dame Paris update page in my references in case you want to see how the restorations are going. I occasionally remember that the fire happened and feel sad. I don’t know if that happens to anyone else. I’d like to visit it once it’s restored.
Two years after the publication of these two major works on June 5th 1832 he was sitting writing a play. It seemed like a normal day for Hugo, but it would turn out to be extremely influential. That was the day of the June Rebellion, the post-French-Revolution-revolution from which Les Miserables takes its setting. He heard gunshots. He ran to where they were coming from, which was the Les Halles district. Obviously not the safest choice, but good for musical theatre history. So yay! He hid between two shopfronts with the rebels at one end of the alley and the government troops. There were 15 minutes of gunshots.
If you’re familiar with Les Mis, you might assume he approved of the protesters' cause but he actually called it “a folly drowned in blood”. You can see a little bit of that in the story. Over his life his Christian faith and deep empathy for society’s underdogs moved him from a royalist to a republican. I wonder if he lost his royal pension.
Between the June uprisings in 1832 and Louis Napoleon’s rise to power in 1851 his sentiments had moved from republics should come “of its own free will” to literally trying to provoke riots. During this time his daughter died in a sailing accident in 1843 and he began writing Les Mis in 1845. His new political actions led to Napoleon giving orders that Victor Hugo should be shot. At this point Hugo moved to England.
The completed novel, once titled Jean Trejean, was brought to a Belgian publisher in 1861 and published the next year. The novel was an immediate success, being translated nine times. Factory workers, the subjects of much of the early part of the novel, set up subscription plans to allow them to buy what would otherwise be an extremely expensive purchase.
The novel fell into an interesting place in the eyes of the religious authorities. Pope Pius IX, proscribed it, in spite of Hugo’s faith and the Christian themes and characters in the book. I actually have a little book of bible devotions based on the book.
Victor Hugo returned to Paris in 1870, wrote a little more, and then died in 1885. At his own request he was buried in a pauper’s coffin, but the French government held a state funeral for him. Two million people were in attendance.
Interlude: I Dreamed A Dream
I’m going to steal this quote from the book I used to research this section; “Such are the hazards of writing a book on French operetta. There is no composer, however obscure, however specialised, who does not have his champion. Reasons of space alone prevent me from distinguishing more than a small number among the hundreds of musicians who have attempted the genre”. I have even less space, so for all the French operetta stans I apologise. This book; Folies de Paris: The Rise and Fall of French Operetta by James Harding is genuinely delightful. If you look in the description or the show notes you’ll find an AbeBooks link where you can find this book and support the show.
Boublil and Schonberg will grow up in a France without much of what we’d call musical theatre, but French operetta had a golden age which would influence the wider world of operetta which would eventually become musical theatre - especially the British scene which would prove particularly important.
The first composer we’re going to talk about today is Adolphe Adam. His most known work isn’t actually an operetta, but the music for the ballet Giselle. His contribution to the development of French operetta isn’t strictly, or even mainly, from his own work. His earliest professional musical job was as a triangle player - acting as a proxy for the actual percussionist and passing on the salary.
He founded the National Theatre in Paris as a new home for operetta - a genre which Saint Saen called the daughter of opera comique gone bad. It’s worth noting that opera comique isn’t what the most direct English translation of the term would suggest. If you know opera, something like Carmen would be classed as an opera comique despite not being a comedy. Think of a spectrum of opera from heaviest to lightest going from Grand Opera, opera comique or opera bouffe, and then operetta.
Adolphe Adam commissioned a young cello player to create a one act for the National Theatre. The thing is that the young cellist was Jacques Offenbach. The commissioned show was L’Alcove. Offenbach had come to Paris in 1833. He was the son of a cantor, who is the lead singer in a synagogue choir. As a child Jacques studied violin, flute, guitar, but his focus was the cello. And now I have to concede to my sister that probably the most significant composer of French operetta was a cellist. Are you happy now? He was actually able to play his cello like a foley board, creating sound effects with his instrument.
The National Theatre might have collapsed and a commission along with it, but it didn’t scare away Offenback from taking on a role as a producer. He took over the management of a small theatre, a 50 seat one. There was a strange provision in French law. Not, oh that made sense at the time it was written and then became outdated, no, no, it doesn’t make any sense. Basically a theatre of that size was only allowed to have 3 speaking characters onstage at any time. Well Remi that solves the problem of stage crowding, maybe it was a safety thing. No, you could have 100 non-speaking characters onstage and that’s totally fine. But if you give a fourth person a single word to say, you would be up against the law.
Offenbach wrote for this theatre Les Deux Aveugles, or The Two Blind Men. It included a character who communicated exclusively in pantomime to obey the licensing rules and quickly became a staple piece of repertoire for the small theatres of France and the surrounding areas. Berlin, Vienna, New York, London (at the Gaiety Theatre which we’ll get to next episode).
I need to leave Jacques here in order to introduce another significant figure in musical theatre history; Florimond. Even if you’re an operetta nerd, there’s a good chance you might be confused. This composer went by two different names in his professional life and actually neither of them was Florimond.
In June of 1825 Louis-Auguste Florimond-Ronger was born. It’s quite a lot of name, for someone to decide to choose to perform under another name all together.here His father died when he was only six so his mother took him to Paris from their little town of Houdain. In Paris his mother worked in the Church of Saint-Roch, where Louis-Auguste was a member of the choir. In addition to that he studied harmony, organ, and composition. One day, when Florimond was 14, he was walking in the countryside and came across a church. Hearing an organ playing he went in. This church at the time functioned as a hospice and as an insane asylum. After the service had finished, Florimond hung around, feeling compelled to play the beautiful instrument. The priest heard him, and after some commotion, he was offered a job as the church’s organist. This mother was also offered a job in the church’s laundry, and the pair moved into the church.
Florimond’s first experience with composition was for the patients at the asylum. He’d noticed that when fights broke out, playing some music would often calm those involved. He brought this to the attention of the staff who allowed him to write a show for the patients. Some of the inmates added their own eccentricities to the roles, but it was overall beneficial for those involved. Louis-Auguste Florimond Ronger just casually invented music therapy.
His work writing for the stage branched a little further out into the local theatres. It was around this time that he got married to the linen supervisor at Bicetre, a young lady named Eugenie Groseille. It was good timing because his theatre work, especially his acting, would sometimes conflict with his church organ playing schedule. His new wife was also a talented musician, so she would take his place during church services. This will serve as plot inspiration for one of his later works.
A year later, in 1845, he was offered the very prestigious post as the organist at Saint-Eustache. His church post was only secure so long as they didn’t know about his theatre work. So he needed another name for the theatre, a pupil of his offered for him to share his, so he became Ronger in the church and Herve in the theatre. And thus Herve got his name.
In 1853 he wrote Les Folies Dramatiques - gosh I am so much more comfortable with French than I was with Russian. It mocked many contemporaneous theatre trends, especially the way the Italian opera focused so heavily on vocal acrobatics at the expense of storytelling. In order to do this he used Italo-French, which is French words and grammar pronounced like Italian. It would allow a French speaking audience to understand what was being said while still perceiving it as Italian. It’s quite a clever tactic really.
Shortly after he received a licence for a Spectacle Concert which allowed him to produce 1 act shows with 2 characters - or three if it was a pantomime. I do not understand French theatre licensing rules. It feels just like unnecessary bureaucracy, I’d have a revolution too if I wasn’t allowed a third character in my show.
In 1855 Herve was presented with an operetta; Oyayaye, subtitled Cannibalism set to music. It was by Jacques Offenbach. It was a busy year though for Herve who, in addition to producing Offenbach’s piece, wrote 20 pieces himself.
For reference that next year he was ill, and resting for his health. During that time he wrote a measly 11 pieces. We’re going to leave Herve there for the moment. He’ll take a trip to Egypt to write there for a time, which ultimately didn’t amount to much and then become the conductor at the Eldorado Cafe Concert. There he’d play classical music with his own comedic commentary. For example: What a bore, here’s that theme coming back again.
But Jacques was offen to bigger things. I’m allowed to make terrible puns, it’s my show. He wrote two one acts; the orientalist piece Ba-Ta-Clan which he wrote with Ludovic Halery, and Le Mariage Aux Lanternes, before his most famous piece; Orpheus aux Enfers. Halery again collaborated on this operetta. We’ll also see him throughout this story.. One of my current favourite musicals is Hadestown, Orpheus aux Enfers takes as its subject matter the same Greek myth but they are very different pieces. Its London production was called Orpheus in the Underground, which is probably the title you know the show by. In this show Orpheus and Eurydice are an unhappily married couple, who spoke the Parisian French of the city they were written into. There’s no Come Home with Me or Wait for Me. Also Orpheus doesn’t play the lyre, but the violin, which he plays extremely badly. Throughout his life, whenever he found himself in financial trouble it would inevitably revive Orphee aux Enfers. When the original production ultimately closed in 1859 it was because the cast were exhausted. It would take some time before the era of the long running musical and the cast change systems that came along with it.
His next operettas ranged in success, with Jacques collaborating with a number of his earlier librettists. Some of the more successful of the bunch included Genevieve de Brabant in 1859, La Belle Helene in 1864 and Barbe-Bleue in 1866. Genevieve de Brabant isn’t based on the Genieve of Arthurian legends but the other two took famous source materials; Helen of Troy and Blue Beard respectively.
The same year as Barbe-Bleue Offenbach wrote La Vie Parisienne which Alan Jay Lerner credits as the “Best and wittiest lyrics France ever produced”.
Offenbach would often have up to three concurrent productions running in Paris at any given time. He had a desk set up in his carriage to facilitate his furious writing pace. In spite of this Jacques life was not always happy, nor did it become easier as his works experienced success. For much of his life he suffered from severe rheumatism, making writing painful. He was also a notorious spend-thrift.
He ran the Bouffles, a theatre, until 1862. Around that time his villa burnt down, over his lifetime he’d spent much of his income on this property, only to have it literally go up in smoke.
This time of his life was not without successes; he’d write his only ballet Papillon. It would be choreographed by Marie Taglioni (one of the pioneers of pointe work) for her protegee Emma Livry. Emma Livry would ultimately never be able to take over from her mentor owing to her dying young from severe burns sustained when the gaslight in the theatre set fire to her costume. Even in her final days, suffering from the burns that would ultimately kill her she still didn’t believe that costumes should be dipped in flame retardant, because it discoloured them and made soft fabrics stiff. The lengths artists will go to for their art.
Interlude: On My Own
For a time Charles Lecouq was the composer de jour. He suffered all his life from a disease which had destroyed his hip by age 6 so that he had to walk with a cane.
He was a talented musician playing both flageolet and piano, travelling around Paris on buses as a youth to teach from age 16. If you're wondering, a flageolet is an instrument similar to a tin whistle or a recorder. He studied at the Conservatorie beginning in 1849. There he earned awards for counterpoint and organ. After he graduated the typical musician "day job" of church organist was unavailable to him, despite his demonstrated skill, owing to his disability.
In 1856 Offenbach decided to set up a competition. He'd acquired a libretto "Le Docteur Miracle", no prizes for translation, he decided to have composers compete to write the score, winning a season of their work and a cash prize.
The competition was judged by Gounod and Halery, the latter of whom had known Lecoq at the Conservatoire and never really liked him. The competition ended with a tie, with Lecoq and Bizet (of Carmen fame) sharing the top prize. Halery, shockingly, only made it to one of the premieres.
Lecocq wrote a lot, but didn’t have any financial stability from this writing until he was forty seven. These works included; Les Cent Vierges,La Fille de Madame Angot, Girofle-Girofla, and La Petite Mariée.
He also wrote the music for Fleur de The, which was originally going to be titled Le Mikado, until a Japanese ambassador asked them to change it. These works weren't flops, in fact La Fille de Madame Angot was so popular with the audience that they didn’t notice that one of the curtains had caught fire and the cast had to put them out mid show. Subtitle to this episode; things catching fire - results vary. It wasn't until the later part of his life that Lecocq had a success that would afford him a degree of financial stability. In 1878 he wrote Le Petit Duc, with a libretto by Halvery. This show has an incredibly cute story so I’m going to steal the plot summary from Folies de Paris: “The hero is a young duke who weds, for dynastic and financial reasons, an even younger heiress. Once the marriage is over the politicians and courtiers are satisfied. The boy and girl, they decide, are too young to live together so the child wife is packed off to a convent for several years and the boy posted to a dragoon regiment where he can play at soldiers” Pausing the quote for a moment, having young girls educated in a convent, sometimes an exceptionally upper class convent, was not at all uncommon - it didn’t mean that she was about to spend her whole life as a nun. Back to this charming little operetta, “But the little duke longs for his duchess. He lays siege with his troops to the convent and rescues her by a clever stratagem. Suddenly war is declared. While the duchess stays in camp, he fights bravely on the battlefield. His valorous deeds win him the king’s forgiveness and the youthful couple are allowed to set up house”.I think this little operetta is just precious.
His work on this show was what gave him the ability to set up a home in a reasonably nice area of Paris. It was on the outer edge of the city, still semi-rural. The area would later become home to Le Moulin Rouge and Le Chat Noir - two very popular Parisian clubs.
He also had a delightful parrot. This parrot, as many are want to do, could talk. It became so familiar with Lecocq’s compositions that it would correct his singing students.
In the intervening years Offenbach had written La Grande Duchesse de Gerolstein, La Perichole, and Les Brigands with librettos by Halevy. He also wrote La Princesse de Trebizonde and Madame Favart. Herve wrote Chilperic and Le Petit Faust.
Charles Hugo, the son of Victor Hugo, produced a stage play version of Les Miserables.
A new composer, Planquette, had also made some waves with Les Cloches de Corneville. Robert Planquette was an extremely prolific composer (although only one work made it into Ganzl’s Book of the Musical Theatre, more on this book next week). Operetta had become popular culture and so there was “a constant demand for novelty”. The field of operetta composers, once dominated by a very small number of stars, was now much more broad. Planquette for example began his work in a Paris Cafe Concert, writing songs and short sketches and moving onto one act operettas, where he demonstrated a gift for writing military marches, before being offered the libretto to Les Cloches de Corneville after Herve passed on it. Well, Herve wanted to add lots of puns and the librettist decided to look elsewhere. I’m with Herve on this, puns are great. Les Cloches de Corneville was extremely successful with the public and launched Planquette’s career.
Next Audran. In an era where Lecocq was the favourite composer in the regions, Edmond Audran was the man in Paris. Before he was a composer Audran was an operetta tenor and a church organist. He wrote La Mascotte in 1880 and La Cigale et la Fourmi in 1886 both with librettist Chivot, as well as Miss Helyett and La Poupee in 1890 and 1896 respectively.
I have one more French operetta composer to talk about, but I’m going to wait until next week. Why? Because he was also a producer in English operetta, and that is the purview of the next episode. There we’ll discuss Charles Dickens, English operetta, and the state of the musical at the birth of Boublil and Schonberg. If you want to support the show and shop for second hand books, use my AbeBooks link. I’ve found it to be a great resource to find the types of extremely niche books one needs to write a show like this one.
Until next week
Interlude: Do You Hear The People Sing