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The Making of Les Mis

Les Misérablés is the most successful musical in history, but as a new book makes clear, the path from book to stage and, later, silver screen, was not an easy one.

We're doing a musical show... and it’s got Misérablés in the title. It’s got 29 onstage deaths... It’s largely about French history... there are no real dance routines, no tap shoes, no sequins, no fishnets, no staircase, no big stairs, no cowboys, no chimney sweeps, no witches, no wizards. Moreover, there’s virtually no advance at the box-office and it’s received thumbs-down reviews. How can it possibly succeed.”

How indeed, but director Trevor Nunn, one of the major figures involved in bringing Victor Hugo’s novel to the stage, needn’t have worried because, against all the odds, the musical had, by the time of its 27th birthday in 2012, run up 11,209 performances in the West End alone. Worldwide, more than 100 professional companies had given 48,000 performances of the show in 42 countries – and those numbers are being added to as you read this feature. It is, in short, the world’s longest-running musical.

If it was possible to divine the reasons for this extraordinary success then we would all be writing musicals but, suffice to say, Les Mis, as it has become known, still captivates theatre, and now cinema, audiences because of its winning mixture of great music, a wonderful story, memorable characters and that all too elusive feelgood factor.

In their new book, Les Misérables: From Stage to Screen (Carlton, £30), which forms the basis of this feature, Martyn Palmer and Benedict Nightingale detail the origins of the musical and its transition onto stage and then screen.

Beginnings

The novel that started it all, Les Misérablés, by Victor Hugo, was first published in 1862, and was largely written in Guernsey, where Hugo was in exile at the time. The book focussed on the struggles of ex-convict Jean Valjean and his experience of redemption in the period 1815 to 1832. The plot spans 17 years and is set against the backdrop of a tumultuous period in French history, culminating in the 1832 June rebellion.

Although critically slammed when first published the novel went on to be a great success across Europe. The French Revolution had taken place in 1789 and its repercussions were still being felt at the time the novel was published. Napoleon may have institutionalised the gains of the Revolution but across Europe, in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, many felt disenfranchised and exploited.

© LES MISERABLES: FROM STAGE TO SCREEN BY MARTYN PALMER & BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE (CARLTON, £30)

» CLICK HERE TO READ THE FULL ARTICLE

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