The world had never seen a musical quite like Les Miz before. After years of tweaks (and some terrible early press), this operatic take on Victor Hugo’s epic novel became an international sensation, beloved by millions. Let’s cross the barricade and have a closer look.
1. OLIVER! INSPIRED THE SHOW.
Both stories include a lovable, street-dwelling young rascal. In Oliver! he’s known as Jack Dawkins—or "the Artful Dodger"—and is arguably the musical’s most popular character. But when French lyricist Alain Boublil took in a London revival performance, he immediately thought of another literary troublemaker.
“As soon as the Artful Dodger came on stage,” Boublil recalled, “Gavroche came to mind. It was like a blow to the solar plexus. I started seeing all the characters of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables—Valjean, Javert, Gavroche, Cosette, Marius, and Eponine—in my mind’s eye, laughing, crying, and singing onstage.”
2. AT FIRST, LES MISÉRABLES DIDN'T MAKE MUCH OF A SPLASH.
Shortly after hatching his million-dollar idea, Boublil asked composer Claude-Michel Schönberg if he’d help him put together a new Les Miz rock opera. “Let’s do it,” replied the musician, who then started working on the show full-time.
Together, they created a concept album which broke the story down into ambitious, sweeping musical numbers. Released in 1980, it became a decently sized hit that sold 260,000 copies. This led to the first staged incarnation of Les Misérables, which debuted at Paris’ Palais de Sports arena a few months later. Though the production was well-attended, it wrapped after a three-month, 105-performance run.
Les Miz could’ve faded into obscurity right then and there—if one of the biggest names in show business hadn’t seen its true potential. British producer Cameron Mackintosh was the producer behind Cats, and as such, he had the theater world in the palm of his hand. In 1982, he obtained a copy of the Les Miz concept album and, liking what he heard, Mackintosh tapped lyricists James Fenton and Herbert Kretzmer to create an English-language version. Their Anglicized Les Miz would premiere in London in 1985 and reach Broadway in 1987.
3. THAT FAMOUS LOGO WAS TAKEN FROM AN ILLUSTRATION IN HUGO'S NOVEL.
Alegoo92, Wikimedia Commons
Mackintosh’s Les Miz had an aggressive marketing campaign that demanded an instantly-recognizable emblem. London-based advertiser Russ Englin really delivered the goods. How? By turning his attention toward the source material.
Early editions of the Les Misérables novel often included artwork by Emile Bayard, Hugo’s favorite illustrator. By far the best known of these pieces was an ink drawing in which little Cosette sweeps up the Thenardiers’ floor, which appeared on the 1980 concept album. Englin simply cropped her head and shoulders from this image and placed a tattered French flag behind them.
4. “ON MY OWN” EVOLVED FROM ONE OF FANTINE'S SONGS.
In the French-language version, Fantine sings a regretful number called “L'Air de la Misère” (“The Poverty Song”), along with her other big showstopper, “I Dreamed a Dream.” However, Mackintosh felt that these tracks were a bit too similar. As he told The Guardian, “we didn’t want Fantine singing two ballads back-to-back before she expired—so we re-wrote [one] and gave it to Eponine.”
5. THE EARLY REVIEWS WERE ATROCIOUS.
When Les Miz opened in London’s Barbican Theatre, most critics panned it. The Observer’s Michael Ratcliffe dismissed the show as “a witless and synthetic entertainment.” Jack Tinker of The Daily Mail complained that “despite the grandeur of the music, the courage of the intentions, Les Misérables has, sadly, been reduced to The Glums.” And, in the mind of City Limits reporter Lyn Gardner, it was nothing but a “load of sentimental old tosh.”
Mackintosh was devastated—until he took a quick trip to the box office. There, he learned that in less than 24 hours after the maiden performance, Les Miz had sold an unprecedented 5000 tickets. “The public had just voted with its feet,” says Mackintosh, “… For me, it was a great lesson in the real power of word of mouth.”
6. TODAY, EACH PROFESSIONAL PERFORMANCE INCLUDES A WHOPPING 392 COSTUMES.
That translates to 5000+ individual articles of clothing—and 85 wigs!
7. DURING A PRE-BROADWAY MATINEE, ONE TECHNICAL SNAFU FORCED $120,000 IN TICKET REFUNDS.
Aude, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
Broadway producers will often test out their shows in non-NYC theaters before taking them to the Big Apple. On December 26, 1986, Les Misérables began an eight-week stint at the John F. Kennedy Performing Arts Center in Washington D.C.
But, there was a major malfunction that first week. To get from scene to scene, the original Les Miz production famously used a rotating stage. Half an hour into the December 28 matinee performance, the turntable stopped working properly. Technicians found that, due to “glitches … in the controls,” it could only rotate at unsafe velocities. When the performance was subsequently canceled, $120,000-worth of ticket refunds had to be distributed.
8. “BRING HIM HOME” WAS SUNG AT JIM HENSON'S MEMORIAL SERVICE.
The man behind Kermit the Frog, Cookie Monster, and countless other great American characters adored this prayerful song. On May 16, 1990, 53-year-old Henson suddenly passed away. Five days later, droves of performers that he’d inspired and mentored gathered to honor their captain at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. Among them was Muppet Show regular Louise Gold, who sang a beautiful rendition of “Bring Him Home” at the service.
9. THE ORIGINAL BROADWAY COSETTE WAS ALSO THE SINGING VOICE OF DISNEY'S POCAHONTAS.
Before taking on the Les Miz gig, Judy Kuhn worked with lyricist Stephen Schwartz on a musical called Rags, which flopped spectacularly and didn’t even live to see its fifth performance. But apparently she made a good impression on him. When Schwartz and fellow songwriter Alan Menken started toying with the idea of an animated film about Pocahontas, they asked Kuhn to record a conceptual song they’d put together called “Colors of the Wind.” She agreed and eventually did the heroine’s singing in the actual movie.
10. OUT OF PURE SPITE, LONDON'S FIRST FANTINE WORE MEN'S CLOTHES DURING ACT II.
In the original British run, leads were required to change costumes and join the chorus when they weren’t playing their primary role. Stage icon Patti LuPone, who already had a Tony, was playing Fantine and really hated this policy. For a while, LuPone avoided chorus duty by pointing out that she was also doing another show at the time and needed to rest her voice. Once the other musical wrapped, however, this excuse fell apart. Frustrated, LuPone decided to be difficult and insisted on going out in drag for most of Act II. Today, most professional Fantines now follow her lead and wear male garments after intermission.
11. LES MISÉRABLES IS THE FIFTH LONGEST-RUNNING BROADWAY MUSICAL OF ALL TIME.
12. PRESIDENTS CLINTON AND OBAMA TURNED "ONE DAY MORE" INTO A CAMPAIGN SONG.
Late in Clinton’s ’92 presidential run, he had Les Miz’s stirring Act I finale played at a New Jersey rally. Our current commander-in-chief took a page from his fellow Democrat’s playbook and repeatedly used “One Day More” during the 2008 and 2012 races.
13. THE 2012 FILM VERSION HAD AN UNUSUALLY HUGE SOUND DEPARTMENT.
Director Tom Hooper made the unconventional—though not unprecedented—choice to record his actors live on-set, as opposed to taping their vocals in a studio beforehand. This approach demanded a sound crew that was three times larger than what an average film possesses.
“We all know movie sets are very noisy places,” says production sound mixer Simon Hayes. To muffle extraneous footsteps, off-screen carpets were laid down wherever the crew could find space for them. Additionally, a silent wind tunnel was used in lieu of standard wind machines.
14. QUEEN ELIZABETH II ONCE THREW A COMMAND PERFORMANCE IN HONOR OF THE LASTING ANGLO-FRENCH ALLIANCE.
In 2004, she treated French President Jacques Chirac to 40 minutes’ worth of Les Miz highlights at Windsor Castle. Also in attendance were British Prime Minster Tony Blair and one Cameron Mackintosh—who’d been knighted in 1996. Though some journalists felt that, given the occasion, presenting a British take on something as quintessentially French as Les Misérables was in poor taste, Mackintosh adamantly supported the Queen’s choice.
“This,” he said, “is the most successful and most exciting artistic collaboration between France and England ever, and it has a universal story about the triumph of the human spirit. What could be more suitable?”