Les Misérables (which translates literally as “The Miserable Ones”and is often colloquially shortened to ‘”Les Mis”) is considered by many the world’s most successful musical. Although it opened in 1980, it actually takes its inspiration from the famous 1862 French novel of the same name, written by Victor Hugo. Hugo–who also wrote The Hunchback of Notre-Dame and the opera La Esmeralda–was a passionate supporter of republicanism, and his political beliefs are very apparent in the subject matter of Les Misérables.
It is an epic story that unfolds across an era of civil unrest beginning in 1815 and climaxing in a student uprising, the June Rebellion in 1832. The narrative focuses on the fictional struggles of an ex-convict called Jean Valjean, alongside an ensemble cast of downtrodden factory workers, prostitutes, and student revolutionaries. One of the most important novels of the 19th century, Les Misérables is a tale of redemption, republicanism, and romance–and as such, it was very well suited to a subsequent adaptation into musical theater.
Les Misérables the musical was written by writer Alain Boublil and composer Claude-Michel Schönberg, and opened to great acclaim at Paris’s Palais des Sports–a vast 15th-arrondissement indoor sports arena contained within a geodesic dome–on 18 September 1980. However, even though it was a popular production that sold out the duration of its three-month run, it nevertheless closed after its booking at the Palais expired in the run-up to Christmas.
Les Misérables was only to become truly famous when an English producer, Cameron Mackintosh, listened to the French recording and decided to translate it for the English stage, with lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer. This London production opened at the Barbican Theater on 8 October 1985, and soon afterwards transferred to the Palace Theatre on 4 December 1985, where it played 7,602 performances before transferring to its current home, the Queen’s Theater, on 3 April 2004. London’s Les Misérables is now the longest-running musical in history, with over 10,000 performances and counting. Globally, productions have played in 291 cities, in 42 countries, and 22 languages–to an estimated total audience of over 55 million people. At the end of the day, Les Misérables the musical has triumphantly followed in the footsteps of Les Misérables the novel, and been embraced by many nations in many tongues all over the world.
Caption: The “Les Miserables” character, Cosette, as drawn by Emile Bayard.