Les Mis�rables: the people’s choice

With the film version of Les Mis�rables set to be released, Caroline Bishop talks to the composer and performers about the reasons for the musical’s enduring appeal

Harsh words to swallow for Sch�nberg and his lyricist Alain Boublil, who had been working on their adaptation of Victor Hugo’s epic historical novel since 1978; they had staged the French-language premiere in Paris in 1980 and, long-inspired by British and American musical theatre, had dreamed of creating an English version for the West End. In doing so, they attracted a stellar team, presided over by the rising star of commercial producing, Cameron Mackintosh, under the auspices of the Royal Shakespeare Company. It was adapted and directed by John Caird and then-RSC artistic director Trevor Nunn, who together had directed the 1980 production of Nicholas Nickleby. Nunn had also had musical success with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats and Starlight Express. The cast, too, was top notch: Colm Wilkinson and Roger Allam as the ex-convict Jean Valjean and his police pursuer Javert respectively, American Tony-award-winning actress Patti LuPone as doomed young mother Fantine and Michael Ball, making his West End debut as Marius, the student revolutionary.

After all the build-up, the reviews after the first night at the Barbican Centre on 8 October 1985 had a devastating effect. “We thought it was the end of the adventure,” says Sch�nberg. No one could have predicted then that Les Mis�rables would shrug off those inauspicious beginnings to become the world’s favourite musical, translated into 21 languages, playing in 43 countries to an audience of 60 million worldwide over the ensuing three decades. Its popularity shows no sign of wavering; the public’s vote earned it the audience prize at the 2012 Olivier Awards and a major new film version starring Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway is poised to create an army of new fans.

People power saved the show. Confounding the critics, the theatregoing public loved it and word quickly spread. On the morning that the hostile press reviews came out, the Barbican box office still sold 5,000 tickets and the two-month run was near to selling out. Suddenly, the show wasn’t looking at a premature closure, but a West End transfer.

When the musical opened at the Palace Theatre in December 1985, the queues went around the block, says Frances Ruffelle, who played the tragic �ponine in the original cast. Then just 20, she was the first person to be cast in Les Mis�rables by Nunn, who had directed her in Starlight Express. The actress was shocked by the reviews because she had been hooked after hearing the original French score. “It was stunning. I fell in love with the music straight away,” she says. In rehearsals, it was obvious she was “in something very special and very different. I remember watching Patti [LuPone] doing her scene… I could not stop crying and I had to pull myself together. Everybody was like that: ‘Oh my God, what are we in?’”

It was, after all, not the usual musical fodder: set in the years leading up to the student-led Paris Uprising of June 1832, Les Mis�rables is a tale of love, redemption and strength in the face of adversity; it features a cast of convicts, prostitutes, thieves and student revolutionaries, few of whom survive to the final scene. Bolstering the already powerful story, Sch�nberg’s score tugs at the heartstrings, veering from achingly sad ballads – Fantine’s lament for a lost life, I Dreamed a Dream – to rousing revolutionary anthems such as Do You Hear the People Sing? It’s hard not to emerge moved by a story which, says Ruffelle, has universal appeal.

Part of the family

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“But of course,” she adds, “although we knew we were in something special none of us knew quite how special.” In fact, it changed Ruffelle’s life; she was one of only two cast members (the other being Wilkinson) to transfer with the show to Broadway in 1987, where she won a Tony Award. Along the way she began a relationship with Caird and fell pregnant with a daughter (the singer-songwriter Eliza Doolittle). Now she is taking a small role in the film. “It’s part of our family,” she says. “It means a lot to all of us. I’m so lucky to have been a part of that.”

Sch�nberg – who went on to write Miss Saigon, Martin Guerre and The Pirate Queen with Boublil – has had a quarter of a century to ponder why his first West End musical captured people’s hearts. Having a hugely popular literary work as source material was a good start, but it was the team’s fidelity to the grand sweep of Hugo’s 1862 novel that Sch�nberg believes contributed to the musical’s success.

“This book is a written opera really; it is over-romantic, over the top, always exaggerating. It’s like a running, deep river and you can’t fight against it; you must follow the flow of the novel. So, of course, people consider the music is over the top; it’s exaggerated, but that’s the nature of the piece. It’s impossible to give a small or minimised version of Les Mis. All the things that the critics criticised are the reasons why the show has worked.”

On the musical’s 25th anniversary in 2010, The Guardian’s theatre critic Michael Billington – who was “decidedly cool” about the show at its premiere – echoed this assessment by writing: “Les Mis succeeds because it is spectacular Victorian melodrama. When the chips are down, what we really crave is a contest of good and evil, and lashings of spectacle.”

With a stellar production team behind it, the big-screen adaptation promises plenty of that. Produced again by Mackintosh, with Working Title – the company behind British films including Billy Elliot and Atonement – it is directed by Tom Hooper, Oscar-winning director of The King’s Speech, who has faced a daunting task. “You have a very complicated story, through music, which is the biggest success in the world,” says Sch�nberg. “To take all these elements on board and to be bold enough to dare to be in competition with the stage show; it’s very difficult for a director.”

Surprisingly perhaps, it has not been difficult for its creators to relinquish their musical to a new director and different medium. “He’s a big man now, he’s not a child anymore,” Sch�nberg says of the musical. “So there is a distance between us and the show. We were the first to say to the screenwriter and director, please, don’t be too respectful to the stage show. We are here, if we don’t like it we will tell you, but take in grace the subject, the story and the score, and do what you feel you have to do. We have been successful enough with the show to take that risk.”

Thankfully, Hooper evidently has a firm grasp of the emotional heart of the piece. Much has been made of the fact that he got every actor to sing live on set, rather than pre-record their vocals, as is the rule. “That was a bold decision, and we all agree with it,” says Sch�nberg. “Because of the nature of Les Mis, it’s very important that the emotion comes first.”

It is an enticing prospect for audiences to see if Crowe, Eddie Redmayne (who plays Marius) and others hitherto unknown as musical performers can meet the challenge. Certainly, the stipulation about singing live didn’t deter anyone. “The biggest stars in Hollywood wanted to audition and that’s very rare,” says Sch�nberg. It’s testament to both the regard in which the musical is held and how far its influence stretches that by playing Fantine, Hathaway is following in the footsteps of her mother, who understudied the role on a US tour.

Strong competition

The huge cast is packed with British musical theatre actors too, including Samantha Barks, who has already proved she can sing her role live. Barks made her West End debut as �ponine in 2010 and appeared in the 25th anniversary concert. The 22-year-old, who wasn’t even born when Ruffelle originated the role, fought off strong competition – actress Scarlett Johansson and singer Taylor Swift were rumoured to be interested – to be cast in the movie, making her big-screen debut alongside co-stars most young actors can only dream about.

She was impressed by their commitment: “These guys are huge screen stars, they’ve got such experience, but they were all so excited to be doing this film. Everyone fought hard to get these roles; not one person got handed it. I think that shows in the passion that people attacked this project with.”

The shoot at Pinewood Studios was “just mind-blowing to me,” she says, citing the costumes and astonishing scale of the sets. Despite nerves at acting to camera for the first time, her familiarity with the role made it a smooth transition. “What was nice about it, and comforting in a way, was going into a whole new world as a character that I knew so well and that I did feel very close to. I definitely found it very comfortable being able to sing live, I loved that freedom.”

Having been in the stage show so recently, Barks is well-placed to judge what the film medium brings to the musical. “Getting to see things so intimately is an absolute treat,” she says. “You really get the full range, right from an intimate moment of someone crying into your shoulder to a huge battle with students being thrown off the barricades. The film is similar enough to keep the heart and soul that people connected with so much in the stage musical, but it’s different enough to give them something new.”

On paper it seems to have the right elements to be successful – and if so, it should inspire a whole new audience to see the stage production. But there is a lot of pressure on Hooper and the others, because in the end it is down to the show’s legion of fans worldwide to assess whether this film has done justice to the people’s musical. One thing is for sure, it won’t matter what the critics think.