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 the brain for days after you have left the theatre.
And yet there also is 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 very 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 a British public.
An Unexpected Hit
Even then, Les Misérables was not conceived as a box-office-busting commercial venture: it was seen as risk-taking, 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 and John Caird, summed up his 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 ‘a 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 was also affectionately called back then (a more accurate translation of Les Misérables might be 'The Poor Wretches'), was absolutely the hottest ticket in London. People who 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, possibly not coincidentally, on a French novel, swept all before it when it opened the following year. Miss Saigon, which, like Les Mis was written by composer Claude-Michel Schonberg and lyricist Alain Boublil and opened in 1989, has had bigger box office than either.
Yet it’s Les Misérables that has had the greatest staying power, finding a new lease of life as a triple-Oscar-winning film, and before that as a surprise hit with the YouTube generation. The fresh spark, as Mackintosh is happy to admit, was Susan Boyle’s rendition of I Dreamed a Dream on BBC TV’s Britain’s Got Talent in 2009, shortly before Les Misérables’ 25th anniversary celebrations. The clip of this unprepossessing, socially awkward 47-year-old 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 his musicals down to their subject matter. 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’s currently taking place in Kiev and Ukraine, or war torn Afghanistan. The themes that are in these shows are searingly contemporary. I think that’s one of the reasons that a modern audience is finding stuff in these shows without 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 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? Beyond the barricade is there a world you long to see?'
See more London musicals and performances listed here
Book tickets to see Les Miserables here
Read a previous interview with Cameron Mackintosh here