It’s played to millions worldwide, on both stage and screen, since it began in 1985. The film has now won 3 Golden Globes, 4 BAFTAs and 3 Oscars. But what makes Les Misérables quite so special? The Times theatre critic Benedict Nightingale is one of the co-authors of Les Misérables: From Stage to Screen, and gives us his behind-the-scenes take on the first (critically panned) production, the members of the cast he interviewed and the thrill of writing the book. And reveals whether he still prefers the stage production to the film…
“The original reviews may mostly have been awful – “Victor Hugo On the Garbage Dump” was the Observer’s headline – but I knew that Les Misérables would be a great success simply by glancing at the stranger sitting on my right at the musical’s first night at the Barbican in October 1985. She looked the way the earthling did in Close Encounters of The Third Kind when they encountered an alien spaceship. She was gaping in wonder and so, I realised, was I. Has there been a more gripping, more moving, more uplifting stage show than the one that Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg created from Hugo’s majestic novel? Not in my book.
Well, now I’ve had the opportunity to expand what I originally wrote in The New Statesman and The New York Timesinto the actual book Carlton has just published. It comes with illustrations galore, pockets filled with Les Mismementos and an illuminating section on the film adaptation by Martyn Palmer, as well as with my own account of the show’s theatrical history. That was demanding, as I had to research and write it in a short time, but was also fun and fulfilling, as it allowed me to interview many men and women who had helped to make the musical the multi-award-winning world record breaker that it is.
No empty chairs…
I spoke four times to the impresario Cameron Mackintosh, without whose extraordinary courage in defying those offputting reviews Les Mis would certainly not now be able to boast of having played to over 60 million people in 42 countries and, after over 11,000 performances in London alone, still to be attracting sell-out audiences to Shaftesbury Avenue. I spoke to many of the original cast – Alun Armstrong to Michael Ball to the American diva Patti LuPone – and to those who have followed them onto the stage and into the recording studio. Susan Boyle told me how her own dreams had come true when her rendering of Fantine’s I Dreamed a Dream made her a household name. Men who had played the redeemed felon Jean Valjean told me of the uplift the role gave them, others of the darkness they felt while performing his relentless pursuer, Inspector Javert.
Since writing of their memories – Colm Wilkinson, the first Valjean, talked of sometimes having an out-of-body experience when he sang the beautiful prayer Bring Him Home – I’ve seen the Les Mis film. It left me with mixed feelings, since I’m a theatre critic. I deeply believe that both Trevor Nunn and John Caird’s original production and Lawrence Connor and James Powell’s reinvention of the show in 2009 had a stirring immediacy and made demands on an audience’s imagination impossible in the cinema. Yet the screen allows close-ups impossible in the theatre: which is why Anne Hathaway’s distraught, mottled face as she sang I Dreamed a Dream brought Fantine’s sufferings unforgettably alive – and won her a richly deserved Oscar.
They Dreamed a Dream
So why such huge success for a musical that (as Trevor Nunn said when Les Miscelebrated its 21st anniversary) has a doleful title, involves 19th-century French history, contains 29 onstage deaths and has no big stars, no sequins, no fishnets, no tap, no singing cowboys, chimney sweeps or witches? I asked all my interviewees this, and most talked of the fascination of the story and the drive of Schonberg’s gorgeous music. Myself, I think it also has to do with its hard-won optimism. It tells a cynical generation that people can change for the better, goodness can triumph, selfless love does exist and, even if you don’t believe, there is a potential for godliness, spiritual beauty, in a pretty godless and spiritually empty world. That, I think, is what has reduced me to tears every time I’ve seen Les Mis, whether on stage or screen.”
If you’re a fan of the show or the film, then the full, astonishing story of Les Misérables, complete with interviews, stage designs, costume sketches and facsimile memorabilia, in the fantastic Les Misérables: From Stage to Screen will tell you everything you ever wanted to know. Fully authorized by Cameron Mackintosh, it’s this year’s must-have book.