Les Miserables: a musical unlike any other

Tom Hooper’s stunning, awards-feted adaptation of Les Misérables has been released on DVD this week. To celebrate, here’s the tale of how it reached the big screen.

Poet and playwright Victor Hugo’s French historical novel Les Misérables was first published in 1862, and is considered one of the great novels of the nineteenth century. In the English-speaking world, the novel is usually referred to by its original French title, which can be translated as The Miserable, The Wretched, The Miserable Ones, The Poor Ones, The Wretched Poor, or The Victims. Beginning in 1815 and culminating in the 1832 June Rebellion in Paris, the novel follows the lives and interactions of several characters, focusing on the struggles of ex-convict Jean Valjean and his experience of redemption.

Examining the nature of law and grace, the novel elaborates upon the history of France, the architecture and urban design of Paris, politics, moral philosophy, antimonarchism, justice, religion, and the types and nature of romantic and familial love. Les Misérables has been popularized through numerous adaptations for the stage, television, and film, including a musical and a film adaptation of that musical.


The musical in question was originally conceived and produced in France. It had music by Claude-Michel Schönberg, original French lyrics by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel, with an English-language libretto by Herbert Kretzmer. Set in early 19th-century France, it is the story of Jean Valjean, a burly French peasant of abnormal strength and potentially violent nature, and his quest for redemption after serving nineteen years in jail for having stolen a loaf of bread for his starving sister’s child. Valjean decides to break his parole and start his life anew after a kindly bishop inspires him to, but he is relentlessly tracked down by a police inspector named Javert. Along the way, Valjean and a slew of characters are swept into a revolutionary period in France, where a group of young idealists make their last stand at a street barricade.

Songwriter Boublil had the idea to adapt Victor Hugo’s novel into a musical while at a performance of the musical Oliver! in London. He pitched the idea to composer Schönberg, and the two developed a rough synopsis. They worked up an analysis of each character’s mental and emotional state, as well as that of an audience. Schönberg then began to write the music, while Boublil began work on the text. Two years later, a two-hour demo tape with Schönberg accompanying himself on the piano and singing every role was completed. An album of this collaboration was recorded at CTS Studios in Wembley and was released in 1980, selling 260,000 copies.

The concept album included Maurice Barrier as Jean Valjean, Jacques Mercier as Javert, Rose Laurens as Fantine, Yvan Dautin as Thénardier, Marie-France Roussel as Mme. Thénardier, Richard Dewitte as Marius, Fabienne Guyon as Cosette, Marie-France Dufour as Éponine, Michele Sardou as Enjolras, Fabrice Bernard as Gavroche, Maryse Cédolin as Young Cosette, Schönberg as Courfeyrac, Salvatore Adamo as Combeferre, Michel Delpech as Feuilly, Dominique Tirmont as M. Gillenormand, and Mireille as the hair buyer.

In September 1980, a stage version directed by veteran French film director Robert Hossein was produced at the Palais des Sports in Paris. The show was a success, with 100 performances seen by over 500,000 people. Most of the cast from the concept album performed in the production. The cast included Maurice Barrier as Valjean, Jean Vallée as Javert, Rose Laurens as Fantine, Maryse Cédolin and Sylvie Camacho and Priscilla Patron as Young Cosette, Marie-France Roussel as Mme. Thénardier, Yvan Dautin as M. Thénardier, Florence Davis and Fabrice Ploquin and Cyrille Dupont as Gavroche, Marianne Mille as Éponine, Gilles Buhlmann as Marius, Christian Ratellin as Enjolras, Fabienne Guyon as Cosette, René-Louis Baron as Combeferre, Dominique Tirmont as M. Gillenormand, Anne Forrez as Mlle. Gillenormand, and Claude Reva as the storyteller.

Les Misérables’ English-language adaptation, with lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer and additional material by James Fenton, was substantially expanded and reworked from a literal translation by Siobhan Bracke of the original Paris version, in particular adding a prologue to tell Jean Valjean’s backstory. Kretzmer’s work is not a direct “translation” of the French, a term that Kretzmer refused to use. A third of the English lyrics were a “rough” translation, another third were adapted from the French lyrics and the final third consisted of new material. The majority is performed in recitative style; the vocalists use natural speech delivery, not musical metrics. The first production in English, produced by Cameron Mackintosh and adapted and directed by Trevor Nunn and John Caird, opened on 8 October 1985 (five years after the original production) at the Barbican Arts Centre, London. It was billed in the RSC Barbican Theatre programme as “The Royal Shakespeare Company presentation of the RSC/Cameron Mackintosh production”, and played to preview performances beginning on 28 September 1985. The production overcame bad reviews through word of mouth, launching what has turned out to be a global phenomenon.

Les Misérables had its out-of-town tryout at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House in Washington D.C., in December 1986 for eight weeks, through February 14, 1987. The musical then premiered on Broadway on March 12, 1987 at The Broadway Theater. Colm Wilkinson and Frances Ruffelle reprised their roles from the London production. The $4.5 million production had a more than $4 million in advance sales prior to its New York opening. Only three years after the original run closed, the production began a return to Broadway on 9 November 2006 at the Broadhurst Theatre for a limited run that was subsequently made open-ended.

The show is set to return on Broadway in March 2014 at a Shubert-owned theater. The creative team includes the direction of Laurence Connor and James Powell, the set design by Matt Kinley, costumes by Andreane Neofitou and Christine Rowlands, lighting by Paule Constable, sound by Mick Potter and projections by Fifty-Nine Productions. Casting is unknown. Mackintosh will be producing once again and Alfie Boe, who played Jean Valjean in the 25th Anniversary Concert, is reportedly in talks for reprising his role in the 2014 revival.

On 8 October 1995, the show celebrated its tenth anniversary with a concert at the Royal Albert Hall. This 10th Anniversary Concert, also known as Les Misérables: The Dream Cast in Concert, was nearly “complete,” missing only a handful of scenes, including “The Death of Gavroche” and the confrontation between Marius and the Thénardiers at the wedding feast. Sir Cameron Mackintosh hand-selected the cast, which became known as the Les Misérables Dream Cast, assembled from around the world, and engaged the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. The concert concluded with seventeen Valjeans from various international productions singing, “Do You Hear the People Sing?” in their native languages. The concert cast included Colm Wilkinson as Jean Valjean, Philip Quast as Javert, Paul Monaghan as the Bishop of Digne, Ruthie Henshall as Fantine, Hannah Chick as Young Cosette, Jenny Galloway as Madame Thénardier, Alun Armstrong as Thénardier, Adam Searles as Gavroche, Michael Maguire as Enjolras, Michael Ball as Marius, Judy Kuhn as Cosette, Lea Salonga as Éponine, and Anthony Crivello as Grantaire. The concert was staged by Ken Caswell and conducted by David Charles Abell.

The 25th Anniversary Concert of Les Misérables was held at The O2 in North Greenwich on Sunday, 3 October 2010 at 1:30 pm and 7:00 pm. It featured Alfie Boe as Jean Valjean, Norm Lewis as Javert, Lea Salonga as Fantine, Nick Jonas as Marius, Katie Hall as Cosette, Jenny Galloway as Madame Thénardier, Ramin Karimloo as Enjolras, Samantha Barks as Éponine, Matt Lucas as Thénardier, Mia Jenkins as Young Cosette, Robert Madge as Gavroche and Earl Carpenter as the Bishop of Digne. (Originally, Camilla Kerslake had been selected to perform as Cosette; however she was unable to attend. Katie Hall was selected in her place. Hall had previously acted the role at the Queen’s Theatre from 2009 and in the 25th Anniversary Tour production at the Barbican.) Casts of the current London, international tour, original 1985 London, and several school productions took part, comprising an ensemble of three hundred performers and musicians. The concert was directed by Laurence Connor & James Powell and conducted by David Charles Abell.

Development of a film adaptation of Les Misérables began in the late 1980s, with producer Mackintosh announcing that the project was going ahead after the aforementioned 25th Anniversary Concert.


Tom Hooper’s finished movie received its London premiere in December 2012, followed by general release in January this year. Here, Jean Valjean, imprisoned for nineteen years for a minor offence, is paroled but perpetually shadowed by Inspector Javert. When he takes in the foundling daughter of the tragic Fantine, he finds a reason to keep his freedom.

In keeping with Hugo’s original work, Les Misérables maintains a raw, brutal edge throughout, with high emotion seeming to rip songs from the characters’ throats.

Hooper’s commitment to live performance gives the film a visceral punch. The impact of wave after wave of emotion from the live singing on set is magnified by cinematic close-ups. The highlight of the performances is undoubtedly Anne Hathaway’s unforgettable performance of I Dreamed A Dream, an incredibly powerful rendition which has ruined the song for all who follow her. Her turn as Fantine quite rightly earned her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, as well as a Golden Globe and BAFTA in the same category.

Hugh Jackman carries the plot on his shoulders in the role of Jean Valjean, as he and Russell Crowe (as Javert) remain the only constants throughout the film. Jackman won the Golden Globe for Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy, and received a Best Actor Oscar nomination, for his outstanding performance.

Admittedly, the Paris soundstages feel small and occasionally stagey, in jarring contrast with the glorious outdoor scenes. And the love story between Marius (Eddie Redmayne) and Valjean’s ward Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) falls somewhat flat. But when big moments arrive – like the students fighting a hopeless uprising in the people’s name and Javert encountering Valjean once more – the cast rise to the occasion with full-voiced determination.

Winner of the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy, Tom Hooper’s adaptation of Les Misérables rings with all the emotion and power of its source. This quite simply provides a new model for the movie musical; it is unlike any other.

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One Response to Les Miserables: a musical unlike any other

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