Immigrants as Artists—What I Learned from the "Les Mis" Creators

Immigrants as Artists—What I Learned from the "Les Mis" Creators
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<p>Alain Boublil, Marva Barnett, and Claude-Michel Schönberg on UVA’s Old Cabell Hall stage, February 23, 2017</p>

Alain Boublil, Marva Barnett, and Claude-Michel Schönberg on UVA’s Old Cabell Hall stage, February 23, 2017

Coe Sweet

I was surprised—and delighted—by Claude-Michel Schönberg’s first words: “We are both immigrants.” And the University of Virginia audience erupted into long, encouraging applause.

I had just sat down on stage with the award-winning creators of the musicals Les Misérables and Miss Saigon, Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg. They were at UVa for their second artistic residency, and we were beginning our first public conversation—to discuss their careers, I thought. Little did I know that they were about to broadly expand my appreciation of immigrants.

As someone raised in the rather homogeneous 1960s’ suburbs of Salt Lake City, Utah, I hadn’t known anyone from another country—or even anyone of a different color—until college. Then, at grad school on the east coast, I met people from all over. I realized that immigrants must be enormously courageous. They move themselves and a few belongings to a far-away place, probably never to live again in their original home. They remake themselves in a new culture with a different language.

What I hadn’t thought so much about was the intersection of immigration and art, an insight that Schönberg and Boublil brought home to me. Immigration is as much a matter of re-creating as art is, as author and McArthur Fellow Edwidge Danticat knows. Her parents emigrated from Haiti to the U.S. with two suitcases: “That experience of touching down in a totally foreign place is like having a blank canvas: You begin with nothing, but stroke by stroke you build a life. This process requires everything great art requires—risk-tasking, hope, a great deal of imagination, all the qualities that are the building blocks of art. You must be able to dream something nearly impossible and toil to bring it into existence.”

On that UVa stage, I asked our guests about their early contact with music. They chose to focus instead on how their cultural diversity and varied experiences invigorate their art. Schönberg explained, “Alain was born in Tunisia. My parents were Jewish Hungarian, and they came to France.” Neither has deep roots in France, and, as one of them now lives in New York and the other in London, “We are immigrants of the world.”

“We really think that it’s the exchange and open doors that create a rich culture and allow the arts to develop. You can’t have culture in a country which is completely closed,” Schönberg declared before going on to answer my original question.

Their “foreignness” enabled them to create a new sound. As Schönberg put it, “We realized when we came to London with Les Mis that it was our difference that made the richness.” Boublil summed it up to even more applause: “So you understand: you are speaking to two refugees here.”

Such outspoken support of immigrants and refugees comes as no surprise from two artists who are distinctly citizens of the world. Not only has their work touched people around the globe, but they have consulted with directors, singers and musicians rehearsing their musicals in cities as widely different as Dubai, Sydney, Cardiff, Tokyo and beyond. Last week, Schönberg’s and Boublil’s words visibly touched the hundreds of students, faculty and Charlottesville community members who are deeply aware of UVa’s need to support our international students in the face of executive orders for travel bans and stronger deportation measures.

Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, who this year won his second Best Foreign Language Film Oscar for The Salesman and who boycotted the awards ceremony to protest those travel bans, testified about how the arts can bring people together: “My absence is out of respect for the people of my country and those of other six nations whom have been disrespected by the inhumane law that bans entry of immigrants to the US. Dividing the world into the ‘us’ and ‘our enemies’ categories creates fear. A deceitful justification for aggression and war. These wars prevent democracy and human rights in countries which have themselves been victims of aggression. Filmmakers can turn their cameras to capture shared human qualities and break stereotypes of various nationalities and religions.”

All of us in the United States likely know stories of immigrants and refugees who have become productive Americans because, of course, we are a nation of immigrants. Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil have refocused my attention on immigrants’ great gifts and on art’s power to make us better human beings. Although French by citizenship, they embrace the world’s people, just as the Hamilton cast encouraged vice president-elect Mike Pence to do: “We truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us. All of us.”

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