After 6,680 performances and more than 16 years, the Broadway blockbuster production of Les Misérables closed on May 18, 2003. It had been seen by more than nine million people and had taken in over $400 million.
Now, a mere three and a half years later, Les Miz has returned to Broadway, at the Broadhurst Theatre — not for one day more, as a lyric from the musical might have it, but for six months more.
"I wanted to have one final crack at doing it," says its producer, Cameron Mackintosh, whose long career of hit Broadway mega-musicals also includes The Phantom of the Opera, Cats and Miss Saigon.
And besides, he says, "people keep coming back to see it. The national tour, which recently ended after 18 years, was a sold-out hit across the United States in its final year, in cities like Chicago, San Francisco and Boston. In London, where it's still running, the average age of the audience is probably 15 years younger than when it first opened 21 years ago. People who were brought up on the show now have children old enough to come see it." And so New York audiences can hear again the inspiring music and lyrics of Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer ("I Dreamed a Dream," "One Day More," "Do You Hear the People Sing?"), which embellish Victor Hugo's classic 1862 tale of crime, punishment, rebellion and redemption in early 19th-century Paris. They can be stirred by the travails and joys of Jean Valjean, Fantine, Cosette and Eponine, roused by the passions of student rebels at the barricade, and thrilled as the evil Inspector Javert chases the noble Valjean through the Paris sewers.
Les Miz has been seen in nearly 40 countries, in more than 50 productions and over 20 languages. But Mackintosh says that back in December 1982, when a Hungarian director first brought him a recording of the musical’s original French version, he had no idea it would be so incredibly successful.
"I fell in love with it," he says. "I thought it was different and terrific. I'd only gotten to the fourth track when I rang up Alan Jay Lerner and said, 'I must come see you tonight and play it for you.' And he said it was a bloody good show."
Then Lerner, of My Fair Lady fame, came to the second preview of Les Miz's original London production, which preceded Broadway. "He walked over to me at the interval," Mackintosh recalls, "and said, '‘This is going to be terrific.' A lot of critics and well-known people in the business didn't like it. But he saw what they couldn’t."
But, Mackintosh says, "I thought that even if we had good reviews" — the original London reviews were mixed — "it wouldn’t run more than two or three years. I was as thrilled and surprised as anyone with what happened."
And what does he think accounts for the show's unexpected success? First, he praises the source: Hugo and the novel.
"It's probably one of the greatest novels. And it's arguably the strongest story ever to become the backbone of a popular musical. Hugo's brilliant observations of human nature are just as accurate today as when he wrote it. The characters are timeless. Everyone knows people who are just like those characters. And we never get tired of seeing the tale. That's why it's been filmed more than 30 times. It's a reflection of human life and the supremacy of the human spirit, against all odds."
And, of course, Mackintosh adds, "it's a great show, beautifully directed, with a superb score."
Schönberg, the show's composer and co-librettist, cites one happy result of the musical's worldwide acclaim. "Many performers who are starring in shows on Broadway and elsewhere have said to me that they are in this business because of Les Miz," he says. "One day when they were 12 or 14, they tell me, they went to see the show. And they saw, say, Eponine onstage. And they decided that that's what they wanted to do."
Les Miz won eight Tony Awards in 1987, including Best Musical and Best Direction (Trevor Nunn and John Caird). When the original production closed, a total of 421 actors had trod the stages of first the Broadway Theatre and then the Imperial. Now actors No. 422 and beyond include Alexander Gemignani (Sweeney Todd) as Valjean, Norm Lewis (Side Show) as Javert, Gary Beach (The Producers) as Thénardier, Daphne Rubin-Vega (Rent) as Fantine and Celia Keenan-Bolger (The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) as Eponine.
Les Miz is the third longest-running show in Broadway history (the London production, which opened in 1985, just became the longest-running musical in West End history). No. 2 on Broadway is Cats, and No. 1 is Phantom. All three, of course, have a common bond: Mackintosh. (He also has a new musical on Broadway this season — Mary Poppins at the New Amsterdam.)
How does Mackintosh account for his achievement? "I've been bloody lucky," he says with a laugh. But of course it's more than that. "I'm obviously attracted to classic tales. I'm interested in drawing audiences into the world of the imagination and having something magical happen. I'm interested in stories that can transport an audience and give them an emotional ride, through laughter, or tears, or whatever it takes."
The whole point, he says, "is that the story engrosses the audience, and two or three hours later, they walk out of the theatre going, 'Wow!'"