By Cameron Mackintosh
The opening night of Les Misérables at the Barbican Theatre on 8 October 1985 was one of those extraordinary occasions when against all the odds a theatrical alchemy took place that made everyone forget the years of work and months of rehearsal – racing against the clock – that went into adapting Hugo’s sweeping masterpiece for the musical stage.
After only a week of previews the show simply soared, and both the audience and the cast were elevated to a state of powerful emotion rarely seen in the theatre. Back in 1982, when I first heard the French concept album, a dream of what the show could be flashed through my mind – that dream was fulfilled beyond my expectations.
Intoxicated by the events of the evening, I rushed off to Fleet Street to get the papers. One of the first I read said “Les Misérables has, sadly, been reduced to The Glums,” and my heart sank. I couldn’t reconcile the sense of uplift and exhilaration I had witnessed in the theatre with these words.
Many of the other papers were equally dismissive but a few key critics came out fighting in the show’s defense. Later, many more of their colleagues joined in with their appreciation of the show’s qualities. But that bleak day after the opening left me poleaxed.
About midday I thought I would get all the bad news out of the way and ring the box office to find out how badly the reviews had affected ticket sales. I was greeted by an incredulous box office manager who wondered how I had managed to get through as they had been besieged, having already sold a record-breaking 5,000 seats that morning. I was stunned.
The public had just voted with its feet. Without any media hype or any mass marketing the public was able to see in Les Misérables what many a professional scribe could not. For me it was a great lesson in the real power of word of mouth and the often under-appreciated sense of perception of the public. Ironically, the musical’s reception in London almost exactly mirrored that of the original publication in Paris of Hugo’s masterpiece.
Since then many thousands of productions of Les Misérables have been performed and loved all over the world. One of the least likely subject matters for a popular musical of all time. But is it? Hugo wrote one of the most powerful and exciting stories ever published and it has remained a timeless classic for all nations ever since. Alain and Claude-Michel’s brilliant adaptation and collaboration with Herbert Kretzmer caught the essence of Hugo’s work precisely and made it even more accessible to a modern audience. No musical has had greater source material from which to draw its inspiration nor a more brilliant production team under the inspired leadership of Trevor Nunn and John Caird to stage it.
Little did I think when the show transferred to the Palace Theatre that it would run there for 18 happy years and then continue its triumphant run at the Queen’s Theatre, where the production has gained in intimacy and power, and still has standing ovations after nearly every performance.
During our 21st year, Les Miz, broke yet more records when in July 2005 the show was acclaimed as the British nation’s favourite musical by the listeners of BBC Radio 2 – Les Misérables receiving almost 50% of the votes of all the shows combined – and the Guinness Book of Records confirmed that Les Miz had had more concurrent productions (15 at one time) than any other musical in history. As well as the show’s professional success, to celebrate Victor Hugo’s bicentenary in 2002 it was made available to students under 19 to perform in the remarkably successful Les Misérables School Edition. In almost ten years, more than 145,000 students in over 2,900 productions worldwide have made the show their own with brilliant results. Now Les Misérables has, to my surprise, taken over the mantle of the world’s longest-running musical from another of my productions, Cats. As well as celebrating this milestone in London, we simultaneously opened a new production on Broadway.
A bolt out of the blue came when Susan Boyle sang “I Dreamed a Dream” on television’s Britain’s Got Talent. Almost overnight it became the world’s most popular song with now over 200 million YouTube hits and counting! The connection of this song with extraordinary worldwide exposure means that Les Misérables is a hit all over again. Cosette never fails to surprise us.
To mark its quarter-century at the end of 2010 I presented a special 25th anniversary production of Les Misérables in a new staging by Laurence Connor and James Powell. Victor Hugo’s extraordinary and revolutionary paintings, previously little known, proved a wonderful inspiration to designers Matt Kinley and Paule Constable and exciting new orchestrations and sound design brought Hugo’s story to even more colourful life. This production has been wonderfully received and is following in the footsteps of the original and opening up all over the world. The Queen’s Theatre is now the only place that audiences can see the brilliant original production. The 25th anniversary UK tour was an amazing sell-out success around the country with audiences and critics alike. It came full circle and finished with three weeks at the Barbican Theatre where the show had first opened 25 years before.
The culmination of 2010’s celebration was the staging of two spectacular Les Misérables concerts at The O2, in front of over 30,000 devoted fans. An international cast of stars, including Alfie Boe, Norm Lewis, Lea Salonga, Jenny Galloway, Matt Lucas, Nick Jonas, Katie Hall, Ramin Karimloo and Samantha Barks, together with performers from London’s Queen’s and the tour, and many of the show’s original cast, came together to mark this momentous occasion on 3 October. I would like to thank them and my tirelessly inventive production team for making sure that every performance of Les Misérables is, as described in The Times, “still like going to a First Night”.
Les Misérables is proving more successful than ever with the original London production holding record-breaking advance box office figures. The 25th Anniversary staging of the show with its new design, direction and orchestrations is also breaking box office records wherever it plays. It has already opened in the USA and Spain and is planned to open in South Africa, Canada, Japan, Korea, South America and Australia. So successful has the new sound design and orchestration been that I decided to install it at the Queen’s so the original production could also enjoy the tremendous benefit of the revitalised musical score. The DVD of the marvellous 25th Anniversary Concert at The O2 continues to be a bestseller and at long last a film version of the show, produced by myself and Working Title for Universal, is underway, under the helm of director Tom Hooper.
There is no doubt that Les Misérables will be storming the barricades for many years to come. I know that when I go “beyond the barricade”, the part I played in bringing Les Misérables to life as a musical will remain one of my proudest achievements.