THE MUSICAL REVOLUTION
Celebrate 30 years of the stunning Les Misérables, as we meet its creators and discover how this hit changed the West End forever
It seems obvious now, with Les Misérables celebrating its record-breaking 30th year in the West End, that it should have been a smash hit. It has an astonishingly epic sweep, culminating in a thrilling battle scene recreating the student uprisings in Paris in 1832. The songs, from the heart-breaking I Dreamed a Dream to the rabble-rousing Do You Hear the People Sing?, bounce around your brain days after you have left the theatre. And yet there is also an intimate drama to the stories of the convict Jean Valjean, who is turned from a life of crime
by the goodness of a bishop, and the poor orphaned girl who becomes his charge.
At the time, however, it was an extraordinary gamble, and one that nearly didn’t come off. Think of it: you’re a theatre producer, and someone comes to you with the idea to put on a musical based on a 19th-century French novel that runs to 1,500 pages, and asks you to listen to this concept album of songs based on it by a French composer. That’s what happened to theatre impresario Cameron Mackintosh, and he initially took some persuading. In fact, he never did manage to get through the book. ‘I‘ve dipped into it,’ he told an interviewer shortly before the show opened on Broadway in 1987, ‘but it’s so heavy that I mainly used it for weight lifting.’ The music, however, would not let go of him, and he commissioned a production team that spent two years translating and adapting the work for the British public.
AN UNEXPECTED HIT
Les Misérables was not conceived as a boxoffice-busting commercial venture: it was risktaking, boundary-pushing theatrical art. The initial production was taken on by the Royal Shakespeare Company, at its then home in the Barbican Centre. Its directors, Sir Trevor Nunn, who co-directed it with John Caird, summed up their chances of scoring a hit thus: ‘It’s got “miserables” in the title. It’s got 29 onstage deaths, it’s largely about French history, there are no dance routines, no tap shoes, no sequins, no fishnets, no staircase, no big stars, no cowboys, no chimney sweeps, no witches, no wizards. How can it possibly succeed?’
To cap it all, the critics were not impressed. The Daily Mail ’s critic wrote that it was ‘like
trying to pour the entire Channel through a china teapot’, The Sunday Telegraph called it ‘a lurid Victorian melodrama’, while The Observer savaged it as ‘witless and synthetic entertainment’.
Luckily, as so often happens, the public knew better. When Les Misérables opened, the revolutionary zeal swept over the theatre-going public. ‘ Les Mis’, or ‘ The Glums’, as it has been affectionately called, was the hottest ticket in London. People would save up to go back again and again.
THE POWER OF LES MISÉRABLES
Its pulling power even extended to Cameron Mackintosh’s next ventures. The Phantom of the Opera, also based on a French novel, swept all before it when it opened the following year, and Miss Saigon, which like Les Misérables was written by composer Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyricist Alain Boublil, opened in 1989 and has had bigger box-office success than either.
Yet it’s Les Misérables which has had the greatest staying power, finding a new lease of life as a triple-Oscar-winning film, and a surprise hit with the YouTube generation. The fresh spark was Susan Boyle’s rendition of I Dreamed a Dream on Britain’s Got Talent in 2009, shortly before Les Misérables’ 25th anniversary celebrations. The clip of this unprepossessing, socially awkward 47-yearold who had, as she confesses to camera, ‘never been kissed’, suddenly giving the performance of a lifetime, has been viewed more than 200 million times on YouTube.
Mackintosh puts a lot of the success of the musicals, Les Misérables and Miss Saigon, down to their subject matters. He says: ‘The characters and scenes that are depicted in these shows are exactly what you see in the newspapers or television today – whether it’s the revolution that took place in Kiev and Ukraine, or war-torn Afghanistan. A modern audience is finding stuff in these shows without us updating them. It’s as if history has caught up with these shows.’
And it’s ricocheting still. The production has been translated into 22 different languages, including Icelandic, Mauritian Creole and Korean. More than 70 million people in 42 countries have followed the call. As its second most famous song goes: ‘Will you join in our crusade? Who will be strong and stand with me? Somewhere beyond the barricade. Is there a world you long to see?’ Queen's Theatre, Shaftesbury Ave, W1V 8BA. T: 0844-482 5160. www.lesmis.com
Clockwise from top left: Rob Houchen as Marius and Emilie Fleming as Cosette; Celinde Schoenmaker as Fantine; the MasteroftheHouse scene