The megamusical Les Misérables opens on Broadway March 23 for the third time, again at its one-time home, the Imperial Theatre. It first settled into that theatre back in 1987. By then, it had been running in London since 1985. Soon enough, it would blanket the globe, eventually being produced in 42 countries and translated into 21 languages.
Given that monolithic history, it’s easy to forget that that the Claude-Michel Schonberg-Alain Boublil musical — like Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats before it — began as a kind of high-brow, experimental show. After all, not many people in the early 1980s were in the habit of adapting sprawling Victorian French novels into musicals.
The French composers originally released the musical as a concept album (another Lloyd Webber-like move, and Boublil admitted to have been inspired, in this case, by the composer’s Jesus Christ Superstar). Its first production was at a Paris sports arena in 1980. It closed in three months. That would have been it for Les Misérables if someone hadn’t sent producer Cameron Mackintosh a copy of the concept album.
Mackintosh didn’t just agree to produce an English production of the show; he managed to get the esteemed Royal Shakespeare Company to co-produce, therefore lending the enterprise a patina of respectability. Following two years in development, the English-language version premiered at the Barbican Center in London Oct. 8, 1985. Roger Allam was Javert, the American musical stage star Patti LuPone played the unlucky Fantine, and, as the tormented but virtuous Jean Valjean, directors Trevor Nunn (artistic director at RSC) and John Caird (Nunn’s co-director on Nicholas Nickleby) cast Colm Wilkinson, a little-known, 41-year-old, Irish tenor. Wilkinson would gain worldwide fame for his performance, and 30 years later almost completely owes his notoriety to his performance as Valjean.
The British critics did not warm to Les Misérables. ("Stands in the same relation to the original as a singing telegram to an epic," went one line.) But audiences didn’t care. The highly emotional score, melodramatic story and exciting turntable staging set theatregoers’ hearts aflutter. The show broke box-office records at the Barbican, and the three-month run sold out. In October 1985, it transferred to the West End, where it still runs today. Very quickly into its run, fans adopted the show’s new nickname: Les Miz. Many took to attending the show more than once. Tickets were scalped for four times the face price.
The show's success stunned many. As British critic Benedict Nightingale wrote in the New York Times in 1986: "According to most of the rules, customs and formulae, Les Misérables ought to be a mega-flop. After all, how many hit musicals have originated in France at all, let alone been adapted by Frenchmen from one of their nation's longer and more earnest 19th-century classics? How many have consisted of recitative and song only, but been presented by a troupe famous for its skill with the spoken word? Indeed, how many have been given their British premieres by the Royal Shakespeare Company in its main Barbican Theater? How many have been cruelly trashed by leading critics? And yet in spite of all this, Les Misérables has managed to transfer to the West End, become as hot a ticket as the eternally resilient Cats."
The original Broadway production wasn’t as long-lasting as the London version, but it still managed a run from March 17, 1987, to May 18, 2003, racking up 6,680 performances. The show was nominated for 12 Tony Awards and won eight of those, including Best Musical. Wilkinson repeated his performance as Valjean, which Actors’ Equity objected to. But, when Mackintosh threatened not to open the show without Wilkinson, the union acquiesced to the casting.
Like Cats before it and The Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon after it, Les Miz strengthened its international currency as a brand by becoming known throughout the world by a symbol. The original poster features a poignant drawing of wide-eyed Paris street waif Cosette, her uncombed long hair tossed by the wind. The image was based on a drawing used on the cover of some of the earlier French-language editions of Victor Hugo’s book. As new productions opened in other cities, designers had fun with this would-be heart-rending image, dressing the waif up in different hats and garb, depending on the place the show was opening in.
After being away from Broadway for five years, a revival opened at the Broadhurst Theatre in 2006. It lasted until 2008. In 2012, a film version was released, giving the property a new injection of life. It starred Hugh Jackman as Valjean, Russell Crowe as Javert and Anne Hathaway as Fantine.
Over the decades, the unlikely RSC show has proved a financial boon to the classical nonprofit, contributing much money to its coffers.