Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables, upon which the musical production is closely based, was published in 1862. Born to a middle-class family, Hugo rose to fame and controversy as a novelist and playwright; his other most famous work is The Hunchback of Notre Dame. During the reign of Napoleon, he jeopardized his life and career by leading rebellious protests against the new Empire. While in exile, he wrote Les Misérables, which was a huge popular success. Notably, neither the novel nor the musical adaptation take place during the French Revolution proper; both are set during the minor Student Revolution of June 1832, a series of riots following the death of Jean Maximilien Lamarque, a liberal politician beloved by working-class Parisians. Hugo’s commentary on this relatively recent political event met with humorously-mixed critical reactions: cynical literary peers wrote it off as “too Christian,” while the Vatican publicly burned copies of the “socialist tract.”
Over a century later, composer Alain Boublil remembered the Hugo novel while watching a production of the musical Oliver!, in which the Artful Dodger parallels Les Mis’s Gavroche. Returning to the book with his long-time collaborator Claude-Michel Schönberg, the writer began to unravel the narrative threads of the multi-linear plot, which Schönberg describes as “like a big river…you have the feeling of the river rolling and rolling until the sea.” In 1980, the first draft of the adaptation was completed, the French concept album sold over 260,000 copies, and a preliminary production became a solid triumph, playing Paris’s Palais de Sports for a three-month run.
In 1982, the concept album came to the attention of mega-musical producer Cameron Mackintosh, already acclaimed for the runaway success of Cats, among other risky, high-budget productions. Mackintosh recruited James Fenton to translate and adapt the lyrics and Trevor Nunn, then-Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, to direct. Along with John Caird, Nunn directed the first English-language production, which opened at London’s Barbican Theatre as an RSC production in 1985.
As major overhauls to the material continued, Herbert Kretzmer replaced Fenton as the English librettist. Kretzmer began adapting old material and writing completely new songs, and the entire production team attempted to specify the arc of the production. Finally, the show transferred to London’s West End in December of 1985, where is has been running ever since.
Across the globe, Les Misérables’ popular success has been paramount and undeniable. Three different productions have run on Broadway: the 1987 original production, which ran until 2003; the 2006 revival, which ran until 2008; and the most recent 2014 revival. The original production garnered 6 Tony Awards: Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical (Claude-Michel Schonberg & Alain Boublil), Best Original Score (Claude-Michel Schonberg & Herbert Kretzmer), Best Director (John Caird & Trevor Nunn), Best Lighting Design (David Hersey), Best Scenic Design (John Napier), and acting trophies for Frances Ruffelle ( Éponine) and Michael Maguire (Enjolras). In its 25-year history, audiences have also experienced Les Misérables through countless international and national tours, concerts, and regional productions, with some fans returning to see the musical dozens of times.
After numerous film adaptations of Hugo’s novel, the musical version of Les Misérables was released as a film on Christmas of 2012. Revolutionary for its integration of live orchestral performances as the actors sang each take, the film received mixed reviews, with some performers facing criticism for their lack of vocal training and experience. In addition to a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy, Les Misérables also received three Academy Awards, including Best Supporting Actress for Anne Hathaway as Fantine. Additionally, the popularity of the movie sparked a frenzy of regional productions in following year, proving the musical’s abiding popularity. The film’s success also motivated a partially re-staged touring production, which sparked tension amongst the show’s original creators, Mackintosh and Nunn foremost among them.