Introductory Notes

From “A Whiz through Les Miz”  25th Anniversary DVD

  • The world’s most popular and longest running musical
  • Opened October 8, 1985 at the Barbican Theatre in London
  • New clippings and early reviews were very negative
  • Cameron Mackintosh (Producer): “I didn’t think we’d get through the first night.”
  • Claude-Michel Schonberg: Composer
  • Alain Boublil: Lyrics
  • Les Mis has toured in 42 countries and 21 different languages
    • 10,000+ performances in London
    • 45,000 worldwide performances
    • Seen by over 60 million people


From “Stage by Stage: The Making of Les Mis”  10th Anniversary DVD

  • The French musical, Les Mis, originally opened on September 18, 1980 in Paris
    • 100 shows
    • Seen by 500,000
    • It closed so quickly because the Sports Palace already had another booking scheduled
    • When it closed, 50,000 people were still wanting tickets.
  • Schonberg and Boublil met with Mackintosh, who had not seen the French version, and asked if he would like to bring it to London
  • Schonberg: “In the middle of this heavy story, I felt we needed a break.  So we turned Thenardier into a comic character, which he is not in the book.  We needed to give people a chance to catch their breath.
  • Victor Hugo was the most famous person of his time.
  • The most respected political figure of his time
  • Herbert Kretzmer: Lyricist who translated the French version into English, which is now the universal version, since all the other productions around the world is based off the London version.
  • Kretzmer described the translation:
    • One-third is a direct translation from the French
    • One-third is a rough adaptation from the French
    • One-third is original material
    • There are 6-7 songs in the English version that was not in the French version
  • One of our challenges was to disentangle 1832 from 1789
    • The action going on at the barricades is from a student insurrection of 1832, not the French Revolution of 1789.
    • Hugo doesn’t make this distinction very clear
    • He didn’t have to.  Life in Paris at the time was appalling
  • The first printing of Hugo’s “Les Mis” sold out in a week.
  • The American Civil War was just two years away.
  • Robert E. Lee and many of the Confederate soldiers had a copy of the book in their saddle bags.  The revolution that Hugo was talking about represented what they were fighting for.
  • The barricades can represent so many things… separated
  • After a long standing ovation [p. 140] scathing contempt.
  • First Night Party:  The cast and crew were excited for their accomplishments.  A massive standing ovation at the end of the opening night performance.  We were not prepared for the next day when they were manifestly “dumped on” by the British critics.  The posh papers said that they had trivialized one of the greatest works of Western literature.  A great work like that was not appropriate material for a musical production.  The tabloids said we had created a gloomy, dull, endless evening which was not what musicals were supposed to be.  They should be a light, frothy and frivolous evening with happy endings and everyone goes home humming the tunes.  However, the audiences’ response continued to be ovationary!  When Mac finally got through to the Barbican office the next day, they asked him, “How’d you get through?  We’ve just had the biggest day in the history of the Barbican.  We have sold 5000 tickets in the first 3 hours!”
  • Les Mis opened in Washington D.C. on Dec 27, 1986 before going to Broadway in NYC, where it opened on March 12, 1987
  • The magic of Hugo is that all of us can see a bit of each character in ourselves.  Jean Valjean represents the best in all of us.  Javert represents the worst in all of us.  Because of Hugo’s ability to connect so universally, the musical causes the audience to react the exact same way at the exact same moments all around the world.  We experience the same joy, the same laughter, the same sadness in every language and every culture.
  • The magic of Les Mis will always be personal.  It is very rare in popular entertainment to have something so thrilling, and moving at the same time.  You leave the theater having learned something and having felt something about yourself and your fellow man.  I think if Victor Hugo saw it, he would be very proud of it.
  • The universal aspect of Les Mis [p. 158] the family of humankind.

From The Complete Book of Les Miserables

  • In the preface of one edition of Les Mis that was never published – at his own request – Hugo had written, “This is a religious book.”
  • “Dante described hell in the afterlife, whereas I have described hell on earth.”  From a pre-publication interview of Hugo.
  • Like the musical, over 100 years later, Hugo’s Les Mis was initially, a popular, rather than a critical success.  One of the criticisms was “there was too much Christianity in it.”
  • Early critiques:  “This is a dangerous book.”  “This has been written for a universal audience.  I don’t know if it will be read by everyone, but it is meant for everyone.”
  • For all the poor and broken of the world, Les Mis knocks at the door and says, “Open up, I am here for you.”
  • After the Bible, it is probably one of the world’s best-selling books.
  • How much of the book is left out of the musical?  Surprisingly little.  Of course, the action is condensed and the plot is sped up and some of Hugo’s long, detailed digressions are not pursued.  Many of the subtle back-stories in the book are not explained in the musical.
  • Religious overtones:  There are many religious overtones in Les Mis that can go overlooked if you don’t know what you’re looking for.
    • Javert is someone who believes in a vengeful, OT God who will bring down plague and pestilence on all those who disobey the law.
    • Valjean, in the light of his experiences, has come to believe in redemption and that justice can exist in our world.
    • Thenardier not only believes that God is dead but that he died a long time ago and that we are all fair game for him.
  • There are three songs, sung in the second act, that highlight these religious overtones.
    • In “Bring Him Home,” Valjean introduces the NT notion of mercy and grace.
    • In “Stars,” Javert explains why, in his high-principled but warped mind, religion is indissolubly linked with law and order.
    • In “Dog Eat Dog,” Thenardier states his predatory view of the world.
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One thought on “Introductory Notes

  1. Yes, in the book, the Thenardiers are absolute moral reprobates/sociopaths. In the stage versions, Master of the House is FUNNY, but vulgar. They are the only characters in the show who actually talk a little nasty and take the name of the Lord in vain. But the full malice of Thenardier is not revealed in the stage versions until DOG EAT DOG. In the 25th Anniversary production of Les Mis, THAT actor playing Thenardier actually looks DEMONIC as he sings DOG EAT DOG, mocking God openly and reveling in his own greedy wickedness. It’s kind of a scary scene in the 25th anniversary dvd.

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