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Les Misérables at 30: breaking hearts and records

© Johan Persson

Les Misérables at 30: breaking hearts and records

How often do students spontaneously launch into hearty renditions of “One Day More” and “Lovely Ladies”? It happened a few months back when I lectured undergraduates on Les Misérables. There were various animated discussions about favourite cast members, the similarities between Jean Valjean and his nemesis Javert, and whether romantic lead Marius would have been better off with unrequited love Éponine than Cosette. And that was all before the class had even started.

It’s amazing that my students have hearts full of love for a musical that premièred a decade before they were born. The original London production of Les Misérables – which opened at the Barbican Theatre on October 8 1985 before transferring to the Palace Theatre and, in 2004, the Queen’s Theatre – has now surpassed 12,000 performances and counting. Famed for its iconic logo and lavish sets, the spectacular show has been seen by over 70 million globally.

When the musical first arrived in the UK, it seemed unlikely that “Les Miz”, as it is affectionately known, would ever have turned the world of the West End musical upside down. The dream was dreamed by two French former record producers, Alain Boublil as lyricist and Claude-Michel Schönberg as composer; neither had much background in the traditions of musical theatre heavily centred on England and the USA, with only one previous credit to their names (La Révolution Française in 1973). Their show had previously existed in a significantly different French-language incarnation, which enjoyed a three-month stint back in 1980 at the Palais des Sports, Paris.

Rain in theatreland. garryknight/flickr, CC BY

Pretentious?

Not only that, but Les Misérables hardly represents the feelgood, accessible plot that one might expect would fill the empty chairs of a major theatre day after week after year. Based on Victor Hugo’s epic 1862 novel about parole-breaking convict Valjean and the social underclasses he encounters in his quest for redemption, its deeply tragic tale is guaranteed to tug at the heartstrings so insistently as to leave few dry eyes in the house. Much of the show is set against the backdrop of the June Rebellion in Paris, 1832, an otherwise little known episode of history. Its level of sophistication initially led to its being decried by the critics as over-long and pretentious.

Schönberg’s score and Boublil’s lyrics (for which the task of English translation fell to Herbert Kretzmer) are calculated to maximise the show’s emotional impact. In a tradition that came to epitomise the so-called mega-musical that flourished in the 1980s, Les Misérables is characterised by an aversion to speech that has bemused many an audience member: everything is sung, even the dialogue, leading to a certain reliance on the reuse of musical materials.

Les Miz. © Johan Persson

Of course, a major part of Les Misérables’s runaway success must be attributed to producer Cameron Mackintosh. His singular creative vision (not least the involvement of the Royal Shakespeare Company and director Trevor Nunn) and the nature of the investment he secured both had their role to play. The ingeniously orchestrated marketing campaigns ensured that productions were heavily promoted on both sides of the Atlantic. The original 1987 Broadway run lasted for 16 years and was followed by revivals in 2006 and 2014, the latter still going strong.

As the world went on turning, the show appeared in over 347 cities internationally including, at one point, a record-breaking 15 concurrent productions. It has now been translated into more than 20 languages and presented in over 40 countries across Europe, North and South America, Australasia, and the Far East. Ironically, given its origins, an initially promising attempt to bring it home to France in 1991 ultimately lasted only a few months.

Susan Boyle and Russell Crowe

Public interest in Les Misérables has been repeatedly renewed in recent years. It was inextricably associated with another unexpected success story, that of singer Susan Boyle, whose meteoric rise to fame was suddenly launched by her performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” on Britain’s Got Talent in 2009.

Raucous. © Johan Persson

Following in the footsteps of the “dream cast” 10th anniversary concert in the Royal Albert Hall, 2010 witnessed a pair of 25th anniversary gala concerts at the O2 Arena as well as a UK tour incorporating a three-week residency back at the Barbican. Another gala performance in aid of Save the Children marks this week’s milestone.

But the single biggest advancement in the musical’s reach came in 2012 with the release of Tom Hooper’s Academy Award-winning film version. This blockbuster featured stars in their multitudes including Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, and Samantha Barks. In addition to bringing Les Misérables to whole new audiences, the cinematic adaptation itself broke much new ground, and not just by smashing box office records. An extraordinary sound department three times larger than the Hollywood norm, coupled to the live performance of piano accompaniment on set, enabled the cast’s singing to be captured live during filming in a manner never previously attempted.

At the end of the day, the incomparable success of Les Misérables is probably down to the fact that the show, much like its characters, was always destined to be an outsider. It refused to be a slave to the laws of musical theatre, refracting previous contributions to the genre by Lionel Bart, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Tim Rice through a French prism and thereby standing out among the West End canon. Now, 30 years on, we still hear the people sing – and those voices are unlikely to be silenced for some time yet.