BEYOND THE BARRICADE
A revival of the musical and a new exhibition dedicated to Victor Hugo are proof of the enduring appeal of Les Miserables, writes Matthew Westwood
YOU will hear the people singing soon enough, but first let’s go back to the origins of Les Miserables. Long before the stage juggernaut of Les Mis came an epic French novel that was the publishing sensation of its day. On first printing in 1862, Les Miserables was a runaway bestseller. Avid Parisians formed syndicates to obtain copies. Pirate versions changed hands faster than episodes of Game of Thrones.
Almost immediately, Victor Hugo’s novel was a hot property for adaptation. Within months, nine translations had appeared; within a year, the first dramatised versions were on stage. In the 152 years since, Les Miserables has been made into radio plays, television series, about 50 movies and a well-known musical. It may be that Hugo’s cast of heroes, villains, waifs and grotesques is too vital to be contained within the printed medium; or that the adaptation industry sensed a terrific story hidden in a doorstopper novel — 1300 pages in modern English editions — that less determined readers otherwise would not discover for themselves (this writer among them).
Whatever the reason for the novel’s abundant afterlife, the State Library of Victoria is making a strong case for the authentic literary source. To coincide with a Melbourne revival of the Schonberg-Boublil musical of Les Miserables, the library is holding an exhibition that explores Hugo’s life and times, as well as the many spinoffs his literary project has produced.
The library recently purchased, for the exhibition and for its permanent collection, a first edition of Les Miserables. The novel was published simultaneously in France and Belgium in 1862, and the SLV’s is an edition published by A. Lacroix, Verboeckhoven & Co, Brussels, in 10 books of five volumes.
Ahead of the exhibition opening, library staff invited Review to the rare books department to inspect the new acquisition. The first volume lay supine upon a white pillow, open at the page of Hugo’s famous preface, dated January 1, 1862.
Curator Anais Lellouche reads the French preface and offers a simultaneous translation, referring, in her charmingly inflected English, to Hugo’s indictment of social damnation, the degradation of men, downfall of women and the wasting of children. A printed translation concludes: “As long as ignorance and misery exist in this world, books like the one you are about to read are perhaps not entirely useless.”
Also on display will be documentary photographs of Paris, character studies and paintings by Hugo, a plaster bust of the author by Auguste Rodin, and costumes and designs from the musical. Most precious of all is a loan, from the Bibliotheque Nationale de France, of the first of two volumes of Hugo’s autograph manuscript of Les Miserables. It is the first time the manuscript has left Europe.
It’s a curiosity that Hugo, one of the giants of 19th-century French literature, wrote most of Les Miserables while in exile on the British Channel Islands. The celebrated author of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and member of the Academie Francaise had made himself unpopular with the Second Empire under Napoleon III, and he fled first to Belgium, then to the islands
June 28-29, 2014 of Jersey and Guernsey. Hugo’s project with Les Miserables was to depict the conditions of Paris’s underclass. The sprawling saga follows the story of the convict Jean Valjean, his persecution by the police inspector Javert, and his path to redemption via many twists, turns and improbable coincidences. It is also one of the first documents of social realism, in which Hugo offers lengthy digressions on things such as Paris’s sewerage system, religious orders and the battle of Waterloo.
He witnessed the riots of June 1832, when disease, food shortages and anti-monarchist sentiment led to the erection of barricades and armed battles on the streets of Paris. It is this uprising that galvanises his characters and forms the climax of Les Miserables (not, as is sometimes assumed, the French Revolution of 1789).
Lellouche says Hugo identified most strongly with Marius Pontmercy, the idealistic young hero — in the author’s words, “a handsome young man with thick, very dark hair, a high, intelligent forehead” — who represents a France free from oppression. So Les Miserables is a story spanning more than 20 years, a polemic on society’s ills and a vision for the future.
“He revisited what he wrote and added passages that were more political and about history,” Lellouche says. “(The novel) was criticised for its diatribes. They are very important because Les Miserables is not just a story about love, it’s a story of the century. We want this personal interpretation of history, otherwise it is just another story about passion. I think they (the diatribes) enrich the novel.”
In its politics and narrative fervour, and in its fusion of thought and feeling (to borrow a formulation from the great French cultural critic Jacques Barzun), Les Miserables is a thoroughly romanticist work. It is a personal statement that seeks to speak to all people.
This is the quality that composer ClaudeMichel Schonberg and lyricist Alain Boublil tapped when they set about making their musical. Over coffee during a recent visit to Melbourne, Schonberg explains that Hugo produced, in effect, an opera in words. The characters, the emotional pitch and the force of destiny inherent in the story all lend themselves to musical treatment. Giacomo Puccini considered an adaptation of Les Miserables after the success of his earlier Paris opera, La Boheme, Schonberg says, but gave the idea away because “it was too complicated to put on stage”.
“It is a written opera, it has such dimension, it is always over the board,” Schonberg says (he means “over the top”). “Victor Hugo was a big personality, a big romantic, the way he expresses everything is bigger than life.”
Schonberg and Boublil had previously collaborated on a musical called La Revolution Francaise, nailing their tricoleur to the mast of epic musical theatre. In 1978 Boublil saw a revival of Oliver! and that show’s pickpockets, misers and villains — Lionel Bart’s musical is based on Oliver Twist — led him and Schonberg to think about similarly Dickensian characters in Hugo’s novel.
“We are telling stories through the music,” Schonberg says. “It’s the book that gives you the inspiration to write something. In the Victor Hugo book, there is the phrase by Fantine when she says, ‘I dreamed a dream.’ After reading it, I know to write a song.”
Schonberg grew up in a musical family and has some impressive forebears. He is a distant relative of a court musician to Tsar Nicholas II, and of serialist composer Arnold Schoenberg (although Claude-Michel’s eminently singable tunes have little common harmony with Arnold’s hardcore dodecaphonicism.)
When he was a boy, Schonberg listened to 78
Les Miserables records of operas such as Carmen, Madam Butterfly and The Tales of Hoffmann. He had early success as a songwriter and producer of pop records, but his love for opera has informed his work in the theatre, as has his instinct for earcatching pop.
He mentions Mozart and Richard Strauss as composers whose arias keep step with the natural rhythms of speech, something he has also tried to do. He once had a discussion on the subject with conductor Georg Solti — they met during a delayed Eurostar journey — who said Strauss had explained to him that the correct tempos for Der Rosenkavalier were similar to speech.
“I always write the music on the phrasing of the spoken language,” Schonberg says. “It’s always what I do because I want the audience after five minutes to forget that (the cast) are singing and to be carried by the story.”
Schonberg pitched his musical score to the oversize emotions of opera, but he is also a fan of the “wall of sound” pop records pioneered by Phil Spector. It’s telling that Schonberg and Boublil’s first two collaborations, Le Revolution Francaise and Les Miserables, both had their first performances in a stadium, the Palais des Sports in Paris, not a lyric theatre.
“To try to do a minimalist version of Les Miserables, it won’t work, because the novel is stronger than that, the characters are stronger than the actors,” he says, punching the cafe table with his finger. “And you have to follow Victor Hugo’s steps. If you try to work against the novel, against Victor Hugo, you are the loser.”
Les Miserables played for three months at the Palais des Sports in 1980, but the version that took the world by storm is the London production first staged by Cameron Mackintosh and the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1985. It was directed by Trevor Nunn, with English lyr-
Victor Hugo, above, in 1862, the year was published; the original manuscript, left and below