Creation of the Musical


On October 8, 1985 Les Misérables opened at the Barbican Theatre, London and musical theatre history was made. It then moved to the Palace Theatre on December 4, 1985. On March 12, 1987, the American production opened at the Broadway Theatre.

Since then, Les Misérables by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, with lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer, has travelled the globe and won many major awards throughout the world, including eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical. Les Misérables has touched the heart of its international audience as few shows in history have ever done.

Claude-Michael Schönberg, Cameron Mackintosh and Alain Boublil at the 1987 Tony Awards

This power derives both from the enormous strength of the theatrical adaptation (originally produced by Cameron Mackintosh, directed by Trevor Nunn and John Caird) and from the timeless reality of the titanic novel upon which the show is based, Victor Hugo's classic, Les Misérables.

More than 130 years later, "huge sores" still litter the world, and Hugo's words still describe the undying message of his novel.

Les Misérables reminds us that we are each part of the same human family, and that whatever our outward differences may be, our longings for individual liberty and peace are the same.

Around the world, performers and audience members alike have been deeply moved by their exposure to Les Misérables. With each new production and each new audience, the power and the magic of the show continues to grow.


The Original French Concept Album

Although Puccini and several other nineteenth century composers considered turning Les Misérables into an opera, it was not until 120 years later that Alain Boublil saw Oliver!, the British musical based on the novel by Charles Dickens, in London, where the character of the Artful Dodger brought to mind a singing Gavroche.

Boublil and his long time partner Claude-Michel Schönberg transformed Les Misérables into a musical theatre work that has become almost as famous as the epic novel from which it was adapted.

In adapting Les Misérables, Boublil and Schönberg returned to the book to unearth the elements of the story, characters, and action that would propel the drama. In order to begin a project like Les Misérables, based on a well-known and beloved novel, says Schönberg, "You must love the book. It's like a big river, that book—you have the feeling of the river rolling and rolling until the sea. When I read the book, I was already listening to the music."

After two years of give-and-take between composer and lyricist, a two-hour demonstration was recorded. Released in 1980, the recording sold 260,000 copies. It became the French concept album with the added collaboration of Jean Marc Natel as co-French lyricist.

The first stage version of the work was produced at the Palais des Sports and seen by 500,000 people.


Cameron Mackintosh

In 1982, Peter Ferago, a young director who was greatly impressed with the recording of Les Misérables, brought it to the attention of British producer Cameron Mackintosh.

Mackintosh was then the perfect candidate to bring the grand story and emotional sweep of Les Misérables to the stage. From critically acclaimed revivals of such classic musicals as My Fair Lady, Oklahoma and Oliver! to original shows like Side by Side by Sondheim, Tom Lehrer's Tomfoolery, Little Shop of Horrors, and the international hit Cats by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Mackintosh had established a reputation as a maverick theatrical producer willing to tackle projects others thought impossible. The successes of The Phantom of the Opera, Miss Saigon and Carousel were still in the future.

He asked poet and drama critic James Fenton to create the English translation with Boublil and Schönberg, and persuaded Trevor Nunn to direct. Nunn made the excellent proviso that he direct with John Caird (his co-director for Nicholas Nickleby, based on the novel by Charles Dickens) and that Mackintosh open the show at the Barbican Theatre under the auspices of the Royal Shakespeare Company.


Trevor Nunn and John Caird

The creative team went back to work. Herbert Kretzmer eventually replaced James Fenton as the English librettist. Boublil, Schönberg and Kretzmer as well as Nunn and Caird, returned to the Hugo novel to shape a new hybrid in English.

"What I was engaged in can't in any way be called translation," comments Kretzmer. "A third of the work to be done consisted of a form of translation, a third was free adaptation, with completely new words to existing music, and a third of it involved writing completely new songs."

Says Caird, "We saw it from the start as a very big project, and we knew that the only way we could work on it was to go back to Victor Hugo's book and start again … We decided to specify and dramatize the wretchedness of the times in order to give some focus to Hugo's anger…"

"I approach the material as if doing a play by Chekhov or Shakespeare," says Nunn. "Nothing is allowed through as a simple matter."

Of the writing process, Boublil says, "It was a real, total collaboration. Not only on the writing but also on the casting process. We really made a new team of writers, and we made a new show."


'Les Mis' in Tokyo

In the tradition of the novel, it was the people and not the critics who made Les Misérables a hit. Although the show opened at the RSC to initially mixed reviews in the British press, audiences reacted with great enthusiasm. As a result, the entire RSC run was sold out. Night after night, the audience responded with standing ovations.

The show moved to London's Palace Theatre in December of 1985, and later transferred to the Queen's Theatre where it is still running, and at this date is the longest running musical in British theatre history. The American version of the show opened at the Kennedy Center in December 1986, before opening on Broadway on March 12, 1987.

Les Misérables has also been produced in Tokyo, Budapest, Sydney, Reykjavik, Oslo, Vienna, Toronto, Prague, Copenhagen, Madrid, Stockholm, Paris, Amsterdam, Duisburg, Singapore, Hong Kong and Cape Town. It has toured a total of 125 cities in America and extensively throughout Japan, Canada, Austria and the UK. In every country except Asia, where subtitles were used, it has been performed in the native language.

It has been recorded in many languages; it won several Tony awards and other major theatrical and recording awards in other countries.

The lithograph of Cosette, the show's famous logo, was created by illustrator Emile Bayard, a wealthy Parisian society painter. Bayard, who lived from 1837 to 1891, was famous in his own lifetime for his brilliant portraits of the characters in Les Misérables.