Credits: Music by Claude-Michel Schönberg. Lyrics by Alain Boublil & Jean-Marc Natel. Book by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil.
Summary: Based on the 1862 novel by Victor Hugo, Les Misérables is set in 19th century France and centers on the life of French peasant Jean Valjean. Recently released from prison, Valjean (Convict 24601) breaks parole to create a new life for himself but has to evade the grip of the relentless Inspector Javert. The story reaches its climax against the background of the June Rebellion of 1832 in Paris (not the French Revolution, as some have mistakenly believed!).
West End: The musical opened at London’s West End in 1985, after an initial run at the Palais du Sports in Paris in 1980 and is still running (30 years later!).
Broadway: Opened in 1987 and ran until 2003. The first U.S. tour began in late 1987, followed by two more tours in 1988. Since then, there have been numerous international productions, as well as live concerts and broadcasts.
Broadway Revivals: There have been two revivals—one in 2006, and one in 2014.
Movie: Released in 2012, the movie starred Hugh Jackman as Valjean, Russell Crowe as Javert, and Anne Hathaway as Fantine.
Broadway: Nominated for 12 Tony Awards in 1987. Won 2, including Best Musical and Best Score.
Movie: Nominated for 8 Academy Awards. Won 3, including Best Supporting Actress.
Why This Musical: When Les Misérables originally opened on London’s West End, the critical reviews were dismal, but the show was so popular that its three-month run was sold out. Since then, it has run continuously in London for over thirty years! (The show celebrated its 30-year anniversary in October). The Broadway show ran for a solid 6,680 performances, making it one of the longest-running shows on in Broadway history. According to the UK website, the musical has been seen by over 70 million people in 44 countries and in 22 languages! Les Misérables is considered one of the “mega-musicals” of the 1980s—shows like Cats, The Phantom of the Opera, and Miss Saigon—that became global phenomena, selling millions of tickets and playing for years. Critics have blamed these shows for creating a “blockbuster” mentality in musical theatre which makes it difficult for smaller productions to get funded. However, there’s a reason Les Misérables has been so popular in around the world, and it’s not just about marketing and big budget sets. The musical is a powerful show with great songs and a cast of memorable characters, like Jean Valjean, Javert, Eponine, and the Thernadiers. The story forges strong emotional connections on numerous levels, and it puts the audience through the ringer in terms of character deaths.
My Connection: I saw first saw this musical in 1988 when it came to Los Angeles as part of the national tour. I went with a group of friends from graduate school, and I distinctly remember asking a few of them to switch seats, so I could sit next to Mike—a guy I had a crush on at the time (and who I ended up marrying, six years later). Shortly after that, Mike and I started dating, but I had to work at a field school camp that summer. As a going-away present, he gave me a cassette tape with the Broadway cast recording of Les Misérables, and I listened to it every night at camp. Even now, over 25 years later, I still haven’t gotten tired of songs like “One Day More,” and “On My Own.” Mike and I went to see it again in 2005 as part of “Broadway in Milwaukee,” and then in 2011, when our local high school did a fantastic production.
As far as the movie version goes….I know there are people who loved it, but I had issues. Visually, it was stunning, and I enjoyed the scenes with the revolutionaries (probably because one of them was played by Aaron Tveit), but some of the main characters left me cold. After listening to the Broadway recording for years, I couldn’t embrace Hugh Jackman’s singing voice as Valjean. And don’t even get me started on Russell Crowe as Javert. The high school actor who played him in the local production I saw did a much better job.
Where to See It: Les Misérables is often performed by community groups and high schools, so it’s not hard to find a live version somewhere. The 25th Anniversary Concert is available on DVD, as is the 2012 movie.
“Do You Hear the People Sing?”
“On My Own”
“One Day More”
Final Thoughts: This is an incredible show, but the movie doesn’t do it justice. Watch it live if you can, or catch one of the recorded performances.