Over 25 million people have seen LES MISERABLES in the last eight years. Each week it attracts 100,000 more. Mark Fisher tries to account for the serious-minded musical’s success with the help of producer Cameron Mackintosh.
t has a French title roughly translated as
The Miserable Ones. Its nickname is The
Glums. It is a musical but no one comes out
singing the tunes. It is about a French
Revolution in 1830 and based on a very
long book by Victor Hugo. If I were an impresario and this were your idea, I’d have kicked you out of my ofﬁce even before you’d had a chance to utter the disonant names of song-writers Herbert Kretzmer and Claude- Michel Schonberg.
I would have been wrong, of course, as Cameron Mackintosh has demonstrated over the past decade by turning Les Miserables into ‘the world’s most popular musical’. It has won one London Critics’ Circle Best Musical Award, eight Tony Awards, ﬁve New York Drama Desk Awards, more in Japan, Melbourne, Los Angeles and Stockholm. Vinyl completists could trawl the record shops for numerous versions of Les Miserables soundtrack from the original French Concept Album, to the London Cast Recording, the Broadway Cast Recording and others from Japan, Israel, Hungary, Vienna, Stockholm, Amsterdam, Paris and Manchester. And that’s before starting on the singles. If it sells out its eight-show-a-week run at the Edinburgh Playhouse, it will have been seen by nearly one-in-ten of the Scottish population by the start of I994. And the theatre has an option to extend the run until March.
So it’s good, yes? Well yes, but I can’t say that it’s quite that good. That it is well worth seeing is not really in question; what’s odd is that it should be this, of all the many shows worth seeing, that has taken off on such a scale. The productions that normally make it big — the Lloyd Webbers, the musical tributes, the star vehicles — tend to do so by appealing if not to the lowest then certainly to a lower common denominator than Les Miserables. Somehow Les Miz has side-stepped the naffness trap that requires the culturally-sussed to apologise before sneaking into Cars or Starlight Express, yet has also extended its appeal far beyond the kind of person who thinks there are social kudos in boasting about having seen the latest Victor Hugo adaptation. Les Miserables is both popular and cred.
‘If anybody had said to me eight years ago that it would have this extraordinary success, I’d never have believed it,’ says 46-year-old multi- millionaire Cameron Mackintosh, the Scottish- bom producer of Les Miserables and over 250 productions world-wide. ‘I’ve always thought it was a great show, because it was so different to any other really successful musical: it didn’t have dance routines or splashy scenery. It has become probably the second or third most-seen musical of all time — I think only My Fair Lady will rival it. A lot of it is to do with Victor Hugo. The resaon the book has survived is that it has nothing to do with French peasants — if you look at the letters that Hugo wrote to his publisher, he said this is a story about Italians in Italy, Americans in America, any nationality in the world . . . I didn’t know what this meant until
after the show had opened in London and producers would come to my ofﬁce and say, “we would love to do Les Miserables in Hungary or Addis Ababa because it’s our story”. Everybody recognises the characters in their own life and in their own time. It becomes a very personal thing that just happens to be set in France.’
Alain Boublil, the man who conceived the musical in I978, scoring a hit with the album even before the show was launched in Paris in 1980, was not the ﬁrst to spot the potential of Hugo’s novel. The epic story of a city and its people, wealth and poverty, love and loss, has formed the basis of nearly 35 movies, two of them Japanese. The musical version caused an immediate stir in France (though the critics detested such an afront to their celebrated
author), and Cameron Macintosh acquired the British rights within a couple of years, commissioning an English translation and drafting in Trevor Nunn and the RSC to stage it. But for all the good omens. a specially composed musical with operatic pretensions was hardly a ﬁnancial certainty. ‘That’s why I respect Cameron Mackintosh, because he does take risks,’ says Michael McCarthy who plays Javert in the current production. ‘He goes for what he believes in. He did that with Les Miz. because everybody said you’re mad, you’re crazy, you shouldn’t do it. The reason for its success is an absolute mystery to everybody. It deﬁnitely wasn’t the press because they slated it. They said it was an insult to the novel, because how could you summarise all 1264 pages of
12 The List lO—23 September I993