This was the third major effort by the team of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, the librettist and composer who had given us such classics as Les Miserables and Miss Saigon back in their genre’s heyday. But while it fared little better than Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s shows at the time, it was actually a much more worthy and successful piece than any of Webber’s late-career efforts prior to his 2015 comeback. Indeed, it seems likely that the ‘Pop Opera’ genre falling temporarily out of fashion contributed to this show’s failure more than the other way around, since there’s really no other obvious reason for the lukewarm reception it received on both sides of the Atlantic.
The version of this show that toured the U.S. and almost came to Broadway was actually inferior to the original version seen in London in the mid-Nineties, which was arguably a better show than Miss Saigon. The main difference was that the English-language lyrics to the piece had been rewritten from start to finish, and whereas the original lyrics were about on a level with those of Les Miserables, the new ones tended to be fairly uninteresting cliches. Granted, “The Deluge” is a huge improvement on the stupid comedy number “Where’s the Child?”, whose melody it shares, and “Who?” is more interesting than “Me”, the original solo for village fool Benoit, but other than that, the original lyrics were vastly superior.
However, as disappointing as these unnecessary changes were, the second draft still retains two great strengths—the strong story, which is based largely on the 1982 film The Return of Martin Guerre and which actually gains in tension in the second draft, and a largely glorious score. The actual retelling of the Martin Guerre story may have little to do with its historical basis, but the overall ambiance and cultural mindset of the period is captured meticulously and with great regard for accuracy. The picture of a desperate, drought-stricken town turning to religious hatred and prejudice as a outlet for their fear and desperation is vividly captured, and the complex triangle of characters caught at the center of it are portrayed with great ambivalence and emotional nuance. Unlike in Les Miserables, the guiding hand of Providence does not seem particularly discernible to either the characters or the audience (one song is titled, “When Will Someone Hear?”), and the ending, in contrast to the inspiration uplift at the end of Les Mis or the tragic but triumphant sacrifice at the climax of Miss Saigon, is barely short of despairing, especially in the British version.
The music for this show is vintage Schonberg, lyrical and ravishing, with his usual blend of Pop-Rock and Classical influences and the emotional weight that has become his trademark. Highlights include the lilting “Louison”, the first-act finale “All That I Know”/”The Day Has Come”, the tender “Someone”/”All That I Love”, the fascinating choral number “The Imposters”, and the melody that forms both the title-song and “Tell Me To Go”/”Don’t” (the dual song titles are a result of the lyrical rewrites, which obviously resulted in many of the songs having new titles in the second version). The new version also adds an entirely new opening number, “Live With Somebody You Love”, which is beyond ravishing.
I understand why the American version of the show is considered inferior to the earlier version…in addition to the lower quality of the lyrics, it tended to place more emphasis on the central triangle, whereas the British version was as much about the village as a whole as it was about the supposed main characters…but in spite of all that, this is still an excellent show in both versions. Perhaps it just seemed a little too similar to the team’s earlier smash hits (it does deal with their favorite themes…religion and social unrest…and while far from a carbon copy, it does echo several individual plot elements from Les Miserables and Miss Saigon). Still, it deserved a far better reception in both countries than it received, and certainly did not deserve to be treated as a signpost of the supposed ‘decline and fall’ of the ‘Pop Opera’ genre (which obviously failed to happen, but was treated as an article of faith among theater snobs throughout the late 90s and 2000s). In any case, for a glimpse of what real declining quality looks like, one need only look as far as this team’s next show, the disastrous The Pirate Queen.