Celebrate 30 years of the stun­ning Les Misérables, as we meet its cre­ators and dis­cover how this hit changed the West End for­ever

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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.


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.


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.

Clock­wise from top left: Rob Houchen as Mar­ius and Em­i­lie Flem­ing as Cosette; Celinde Schoen­maker as Fan­tine; the Mas­teroftheHouse scene

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