The cast of the national tour of Les Misérables marches towards revolution in “One Day More”. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
“If anyone doubts that the contemporary musical theater can flex its atrophied muscles and yank an audience right out of its seats, he need look no further than the Act I finale of Les Misérables.”
These words opened the Weekend section of the New York Times on March 13, 1987. They were written by Frank Rich, then the paper’s chief drama critic, and his review positively gushed at the finesse and art with which Victor Hugo’s classic novel had been adapted to the stage. “In the musical theater at its most resourceful,” Rich noted, “every action can occur on stage at once. Such is the thunderous coup that brings down the Act I curtain.”
Composer Claude-Michel Schonberg, having earlier handed each character a gorgeous theme, now brings them all into an accelerating burst of counterpoint titled ”One Day More.” The set designer John Napier and lighting designer David Hersey peel back layer after layer of shadow – and a layer of the floor as well – to create the illusion of a sprawling, multilayered Paris on the brink of upheaval. Most crucially, the directors Trevor Nunn and John Caird choreograph the paces of their players on a revolving stage so that spatial relationships mirror both human relationships and the pressing march of history. – Frank Rich
It’s been 31 years plus change since Les Misérables opened on Broadway, and the national tour opening in Minneapolis on Dec. 18 is still running strong. Zach Berg, writing in the Iowa City Press–Citizen, described the show’s opening in that city last week, observed, “Some classics are classics for good reason. With its ever-churning score and its ability to provide theatrical spectacle after spectacle, the latest iteration of the over 30-year-old musical can woo new fans and longtime fans alike.”
If you’ve never heard Les Misérables, the Saturday Night Live parody sketch “Diner Lobster” probably left you a little confused and bemused:
One of a handful of modern musicals that truly spans the American consciousness and pop culture, Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s Les Misérables began, like many 1970s and 1980s musicals, as a concept album. To this day, Victor Hugo is one of France’s most revered and popular authors, and the rousing songs soon earned a cult following. Its first stage production premiered in 1980 at what is now called the Dôme de Paris, a massive 4,600-seat venue that has hosted some of France’s most expansive, large-scale musical productions – the so-called spectacles musicaux, theatre on a scale simply not possible in any Broadway or West End theatre. Les Misérables ran for three crowd-filled months before it was bumped by prior bookings.
Three years after the premiere of Les Misérables in Paris, theatre producer Cameron Mackintosh was approached about staging an English-language adaptation. Mackintosh had recently opened Andrew Lloyd Webber’s sung-through musical Cats on Broadway and took some convincing, but was eventually won over. He assembled a team to adapt and translate the musical, which was staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company in London in 1985.
Here is where a strange bifurcation occurred: critics and literary scholars condemned the musical’s dominating spectacle and massive cuts to the novel’s roughly 530,000 words. (For reference, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby comes in at 47,094 words, but still takes six hours to read in a theatrical production with no cuts.) Audiences, however, adored it – and, more importantly, bought tickets in record numbers. The three-month run at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Barbican Center theatre sold out, smashing the 25-year-old company’s box office records. The show transferred to the West End in October 1985, racking up more and more favorable reviews, and has continued to play there ever since.
By the time Les Misérables reached Broadway in 1987, the show’s critical reception had shifted to near-universal praise. Over the next 15 years, it amassed 6,680 first-run performances on Broadway; it has since been revived twice. A 2012 film adaptation starring Russel Crowe and Hugh Jackman was roundly (and justly) lambasted for terrible vocal casting, although Anne Hathaway nevertheless walked away with an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Fantine. Although the film’s director argued that he was trying to capture the feel of the stage version, fans near-universally prefer seeing the show onstage, both for its more abundant vocal talent and the lack of nauseating camera tilts.
Les Misérables plays at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis, MN from December 18-30.