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One Day More

Picture: Mathew Murphy

Les Misérables

Birmingham Hippodrome

9 August to 27 August, 2022

Victor Hugo’s mammoth five volume novel Les Misérables is universally regarded as one of the greatest literary works of the 19th century, and indeed, all time.

It ran to 655,478 words in the original French - War and Peace running to 600,000 by comparison - and was hugely popular with the public. The publication came after an astronomical, unheard of book deal, 300,000 francs, the equivalent of £3 million in today’s money, for a licence which ran for just eight years! Deals today are usually the author’s lifetime plus 50 or 70 years copyright.

The five volumes were published between the end of March and mid May in 1862, with 100,000 copies snapped up by an eager public in two months.

Hugo was a literary superstar and the novel had a Harry Potter style launch with no advance copies, no quotes, no information, with a “from the man who brought you The Hunchback of Notre Dame comes a new blockbuster” marketing approach.

Much of the book, incidentally, was written in Guernsey where Hugo was in self-enforced exile for 15 years from 1855 after attacking Napoleon III in an influential and damning political pamphlet.

Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, nephew of the much more famous Napoléon Bonaparte, had seized power by force in 1851, declared himself emperor, and had dispensed with democratic government so after Hugo’s fierce attack, exile seemed a sensible option.

hugo portrait

 Victor Hugo by Étienne Carjat, 1876

When the book finally burst on the streets the reception from the literary establishment was lukewarm at best, most fellow writers and critics slammed it . . . but hey, what do critics know? It even had the distinction of being added to the Index Librorum Prohibitorum by the Catholic church, the list of prohibited books deemed to be heretical or immoral and Catholics were forbidden to read it.

Staunchly Catholic France’s confessionals must have soon been working overtime though as the public lapped up the tale of the real working class hero Jean Valjean in their droves. It was an international best seller. The publisher, Albert Lacroix in Brussels, who had borrowed the 300,000 franc advance from a bank, repaid the loan in a matter of months.

Hugo’s tale of the ex-convict, jailed for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving child, of his life and redemption, struck not just a chord, it struck gold. Worker’s groups clubbed together to buy a copy, a black market opened up, it had become a must-read phenomenon.

History, with less skin in the game than critics and rivals at the time, was to place it on the top shelf occupied by literature’s elite, although in today’s 280 character world of the Twitterati, its 1,500 or so pages may be seen now as perhaps too daunting to attempt.

Not to worry though, there have been more than 60 films over the years, along with cartoons, comics, radio plays, TV adaptations and a host of stage plays, the first in 1862, the same year it was published, a heavily rewritten version staged at Saddler’s Wells in London.

Hugo’s son Charles put on his own two act version in Brussels in 1863 and the same year plays appeared in Washington and New York in the frenzy of Hugomania.

The current, 2022 Les Misérables production trailer

The story these days, in Britain at least, is perhaps best known, and in many cases I suspect, only known by the musical from Claude-Michel Schönberg (music) and Alain Boublil (original lyrics) which runs at Birmingham Hippodrome to 27 August.

The novel’s five volumes are Fantine, Cosette, Marius, The Idyll in the Rue Plumet and the Epic in the Rue St. Denis, which covers the barricades and battles of the short-lived revolution, and finally, the hero of the piece, Jean Valjean, given his own final volume.

The volume names are the story in a nutshell, the main characters and main action of book and musical, the novel taking us from the time of Waterloo in 1815 to the June Rebellion which lasted for just two days in Paris in 1832 – not the French Revolution which had ended in 1799.

The 30-year-old Hugo, incidentally, although not involved in the uprising, had heard gunfire and had wandered down a side street to see what was going on only to find himself trapped behind the barricades with bullets flying around him from all directions. The seeds of Les Misérables had been sown.

Valjean is the ex-con turned hero, Fantine the single mother and cruelly wronged worker who turns to prostitution to support Cosette, her daughter, who, unbeknown to her, was being abused by the Thénardiers who she was paying to look after her, and Marius is the idealist who fell for the grown up Cosette in the heady days leading up to the noble and futile insurrection.

The musical has echoes of Evita in that it was first released as a concept album, then turned into a musical, in this case an arena show at the Palais des Sports in Paris in 1980.

Rose Laurens, the original Fantine on the concept album - sound is a little ropy at the start but it is the only copy around

It ran for three months and that could have been that, except producer Cameron Mackintosh was sent a copy of the album in 1983 and asked to create an English version of the musical. He wasn’t too keen but was persuaded to do it, so set up a team with the Royal Shakespeare Company to create an English version which opened in 1985 at The Barbican Centre, the RSC’s London home. It has since added more than £30 million to the RSC coffers in royalties.

With eery echoes of the 1862 launch of the novel, the critics were not impressed with the new musical, it was deemed too highbrow, the subject too little known or cared about, it was witless and synthetic, even the title was depressing, quickly dubbed The Glums, which were among the less than inspiring comments, but, once again, the public disagreed, this time in their millions, making the show the longest running musical in the West End and the world’s second longest running musical after the off Broadway run of The Fantasticks.

It has been seen by some 130 million people - so far – in 53 countries and 22 languages with this new production hailed by critics, on side by now, as the Les Mis for the 21st century. The music, mind you, is still some 40 years old and the story 160 years old but the new staging now has scenery  inspired by the paintings of the multi-talented Victor Hugo.

original concept album

The original concept album

For comparison the original French cast concept album from 1980 is available on Amazon Music and Spotify, and other streaming services, as are various recordings of the 1985 English adaptation.

Much of the music of the original will be recognisable such as the power and despair of the original French J’avais rêvé d’une autre vie (I Had Dreamed of Another Life) being full of the same anguish in I Dreamed a Dream.

The Cameron Macintosh 1985 version had new lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer who refused to use literal translations, although he had them to hand and incorporated some, but he added new lyrics sometimes with new arrangements on the same themes along with new songs entirely such as Drink with Me or the sad Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.

There were changes in emphasis and staging, for example, the French Demain (Tomorrow) had a slower tempo, fewer voices and ends with quiet words from Jean Valjean which was turned into the soaring multi-part big number ending of Act 1 with One Day More.

One notable song missing from the French version is the iconic Bring Him Home which Schönberg revealed he wrote specifically for Colm Wilkinson, the original Jean Valjean in the 1985 production. It is said he heard Wilkinson warming up with vocal exercises in his dressing room in rehearsals and the vocal range inspired the song.

The cast appeared at the 1985 Olivier Awards ceremony where the musical won just one award. Patti  LuPone, the original Fantine, won best actress in a leading role in a musical. The best new musical went to Me and My Girl. Not the best picture definition in these 4K days but this was the original UK cast.

From blockbuster novel, to French concept album to hit West End, Broadway and international musical, Les Misérables has come a long way and you can see why at Birmingham Hippodrome to 27-08-22.

Roger Clarke


If you want to discover where it all started you could aways buy the book, or it is available for free, in English, as an e-book from sites such as Project Gutenberg, or from 99p on e-readers such as Amazon Kindle books. 

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