Before Hamilton: Staging the French Revolution in the 1970s

By Jonathyne Briggs (with assistance from Regan Briggs)

The recent critical fanfare accompanying Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton reveals its impact beyond the Great White Way, perhaps the first time in decades that Broadway has claimed a broad cultural influence in American life.  Miranda’s deft combination of hip-hop with the narrative of the trials and tribulations of the Founding Fathers (and sometimes Mothers) has been celebrated as a successful recontextualization of notions of race inherent in the founding of the United States.  However, the idea of a revolution as songbook is not a new one for Broadway; Les Misérables, an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s imagining of the Revolution of 1830, remains one of the longest running shows in theater history, with an unbroken string of performances between 1987 and 2003. But Les Misérables was not the first attempt to dramatize a French revolution.  Its composers, Claude-Michel Schonberg (music) and Alain Boublil (lyrics), had already created an opera framed around a dramatic interpretation of the French Revolution of 1789 – 1973’s La Révolution française

Hamilton and La Révolution parallel in many ways beyond their subject matter.  Much like the former, the latter combined elements of popular music from its time. In this case, progressive rock modernized the story of the sans culottes, the Terror. Schonberg’s decision to use progressive rock as his primary musical style in La Révolution reflected his countercultural leanings (many of the historical figures are reimagined in contemporary costume) and the genre’s hybridity with other artistic forms. Hip-hop in Hamilton speaks a similar cultural language of the marginalized in contemporary America.  Moreover, again like Hamilton echoing the tensions of race relations in the 2010s, La Révolution illustrates the struggles concerning the meaning of revolution in French society so soon after the events of ’68.    

Staged originally at the Palais des Sport in Paris, La Révolution française boasted a star-studded cast, including Antoine, the famous singer (as Napoleon), a young Alain Bashung (as Robespierre), and the progressive rock band Martin Circus (as Danton and the Deputies of the Third Estate).  A cast recording soon followed, which was a commercial success in the same manner as Hamilton. La Révolution tells the fictional story of the unlikely romance between Charles Gauthier, the son of a leather craftsman and deputy of the Third Estate for the Estates General, and Isabelle de Montmorency, a young noblewoman forced to flee in 1792.  Gauthier’s passionate defense of the ideals of the liberal revolution did not protect him from the Terror, and the star-crossed lovers reunite in the gaol after he finds himself on the wrong side of revolutionary change. Isabelle chooses to return from Austria to die with Gauthier, closing the show with the somber song “Révolution.” In the twenty-three songs before it, the Revolution is presented as a conflict of many social groups, with musical tensions between the nobility and the Third Estate voiced through the differences between the former’s soft, acoustic numbers, and the latter’s harder rock sound. 

Miranda has said that Hamilton was “the story about America then told by America now,” and La Révolution shares a similar meaning in 1970s France.  The involvement of Martin Circus (as well as another progressive group, Système Crapoutchik) is telling. The band was then-recognized as France’s premier progressive rock group, a critical and commercial force after the release of its album Acte II in 1971.  Progressive rock was an important element of the French underground of the early 1970s, an articulation of its revolutionary aspirations through music.  Progressive rock musicians combined elements of high and low culture in an effort to flatten cultural distinctions and remake French society, and Schonberg and Boubil’s choice to tap into its ethos echoes their reimaging of French Revolution as an attempt to bridge the social divide between the working class Gauthier and the aristocrat Isabell. The revolutionary idealism of progressive rock permeates the program and songs such as “Français, Français…” and “La Fête de l’Être suprême” suggest the messianic music of a new, youthful force.  On “Français,” Schonberg scores electric guitars and drums to evoke the energy and power of the storming of the Bastille, while in “La Fête” Robespierre and his followers sing “Hallelujah” as they celebrate the virtues of the Republic in a folk-rock sing-along, even as Robespierre turns against the youth of the Revolution represented by Gauthier. 

In another nod to the French counterculture, the accompanying images in the album booklet presents the sans culottes in the fashion of the underground: long hair, moustaches, and peace signs (along with Phrygian Caps).  Schonberg and Boudil nod to the imagery and ideals of the French counterculture as a way of reimagining the revolutionaries, while also explaining why the revolution hoped for by the counterculture that failed to materialize in 1968.  Just as the older generation seized control in 1794, so too did the older generation reassert the Gaullist control of government in May ’68.

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La Révolution’s particular alliance of the countercultural ideas and historical interpretation continues to draw listeners (including a recent 2012 reissue of the 1973 version) and deserves greater attention.  While it never made much of a splash outside of France, La Révolution had a successful run in Paris and its creators revised the show several times, adding new songs that subtly changed the earlier themes of generational conflict into something more celebratory of the Revolution itself by the time of the Bicentennial.  Perhaps Miranda will eventually feel a similar need for Hamilton, another show very much rooted in both historical interpretation and the present issues of America.  La Révolution and Hamilton both remind us that people sing their revolutions to sing about themselves in times of profound change.   

Jonathyne Briggs is an Associate Professor of History at Indiana University Northwest and the author of Sounds French: Globalization, Cultural Communities, and Pop Music, 1958-1980 (Oxford University Press, 2015), which explores the intersection of social and cultural change, the production and consumption of music, and the emergence of new social identities in France in the 1960s and ’70s.  He can be reached at jwbriggs@iun.edu or @JonathyneBriggs on Twitter, where he tweets about the history of French pop music.

Title image: Pochette du double album vinyle de 1973.

Further Reading:

Jonathyne Briggs, Sounds French: Globalization, Cultural Communities, and Pop Music, 1958-1980 (Oxford)

Margaret Vermette, Boubil and Schonberg (Hal Leonard)

Edward Delman,”How Lin-Manuel Miranda Shapes History,” The Atlantic (September 29, 2015)

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