It is apt that Les Miserables should be given a book treatment akin to a superhero blockbuster. Cameron Mackintosh’s juggernaut of a musical has become one of entertainment’s biggest brands, generating the stats (48,000 performances in 218 cities in 42 countries seen by 60 million punters), devotion (superfan Sally Frith has seen it 957 times — at an average of £30 a pop, that’s £28,710) and critical snootiness (“Euroschlock!” “turgid panorama!”) accorded the biggest film franchises. This glossy ‘making of’, augmented by removable memorabilia, arrives as Les Mis is topping the (UK) box office, gunning for Oscars and getting bigger 27 years on. Les Mis: The iOS Game (Barricade!) can’t be far off.
Kicking off with a foreword by Mackintosh, who argues the show is a “contemporary mirror of ourselves”, theatre critic Benedict Nightingale and film journo Martyn Palmer (of this parish) trace the show from Victor Hugo’s novel, to the disastrous French staging (a transmitter from the Eiffel Tower caused havoc with the radio mics), to the infamous four-hour RSC debut (Michael Ball remembers how the backstage call for the evening performance came before the end of the matinée) and its subsequent renaissance in the West End at the hands of the public. The book is good on the kick-bollock-scramble nature of the show’s creation — Stars and Bring Him Home were last-minute additions, On My Own’s lyric was hastily rewritten in Covent Garden restaurant Joe Allen — and is a powerful testament not only to the tenacity and vision of Mackintosh but also the creativity of composers Claude-Michel Schonberg, Alain Boublil and Herbert Kretzmer.
Once the show has opened, the book lacks a bit of narrative drive, analysing the characters, the international adaptations — when the show opened in the US, union rules meant that ensemble performers couldn’t be replaced, meaning that some of the students turned 50 years old as the musical ran and ran — Susan Boyle and the various anniversary celebrations. Things get back on track with the movie version, throwing up insights from all the major players and great trivia titbits, such as director Tom Hooper dressing his cameramen in period costume so they could mingle with the crowds carrying small cameras.
If the book falls down, it is that it offers little in the way of analysis of the success itself. As original stage director Trevor Nunn says, “It has ‘miserable’ in the title, 29 onstage deaths, no dancing and is about French history,” yet there is little here that gets to the heart of why it strikes a chord with so many people. Still, for the fanbase, the facsimiles of memorabilia — programmes, tickets, costume designs, John Napier’s astonishing set design, prop lists — are invaluable, the writing enthusiastic and the production values upscale. A worthy overview.
Reviewed by Ian Freer