A West End institution: The show must go on

When it opened in 1985, 'Les Misérables' was greeted by the sort of negative reviews that usually prove fatal. But it is about to become the world's longest-running musical. Louise Jury reports
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It may be hard to imagine now, but the auguries were far from good when Les Misérables, the musical, premiered at the Barbican Centre in London on 8 October 1985.

The show was condemned as pretentious, confusing and way too long by many critics, with the negative voices far outnumbering those in favour of the stage adaptation of the classic Victor Hugo novel mounted by the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC).

Cameron Mackintosh, the young theatre impresario, suffered a nervous few weeks deciding whether to go ahead with a planned West End transfer and the entire production seemed an unlikely long-term bet.

But 21 years later, the show affectionately known in theatrical circles as "The Glums" after a review which stated: "Les Misérables has, sadly, been reduced to The Glums," he and the RSC can chuckle at the memory.

For Les Misérables by the Frenchmen Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg is about to become the longest-running musical in the world, beating the record previously held by another Cameron Mackintosh venture, Cats, inspired by the cat poems of T S Eliot.

The decision was taken to bring the curtain down on that Andrew Lloyd Webber extravaganza on its 21st birthday, bowing out gracefully with a glitzy final performance in the West End four years ago.

But there seem few signs of the barricades coming down on "Les Mis", the story of former convict Jean Valjean's attempts to win respectability set against the turbulent backdrop of 19th-century revolutionary France.

Although the show transferred from its long-term home in the Palace Theatre at Cambridge Circus to the Queen's, a smaller venue down the street a couple of years ago, audiences keep flocking in. Sir Cameron told the London Evening Standard this week: "There is no reason why Les Misérables cannot go on for at least five years or more." He added: "I'm thrilled and amazed that we've managed to reach this milestone."

The show had a long gestation. The seeds were sown when Alain Boublil visited London in the late 1970s and saw a production of Oliver! the Lionel Bart musical based on Charles Dickens' classic story. The character of the Artful Dodger made him think of Gavroche, a Parisian waif who dies at the barricades in Hugo's 1,200-page story.

Boublil returned home and persuaded his long-time writing partner Schonberg that a musical of Les Misérables was possible. After two years' labour, a two-hour concept album was recorded and a stage version of the work ran for three or four months in Paris.

But it was only when the recording was brought to the attention of the British producer Cameron Mackintosh that the musical, as it is known today, began to take form. He had already mounted acclaimed revivals and the international hit, Cats, though productions such as The Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon were still to come.

But seeing the potential, he asked James Fenton, the poet and journalist, to create the English translation and asked Trevor Nunn to direct. Nunn, in turn, recruited John Caird as his co-director. Fenton's work was eventually deemed too poetical and most of his contribution failed to survive to the final show - though he still benefits from the royalties. Herbert Kretzmer, a critic and writer of songs including the comic Peter Sellers number Goodness Gracious Me, was brought in to work on the adaptation instead.

"What I was engaged in can't in any way be called translation," Kretzmer explained in an official history of the show. "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."

Caird, who had worked with Nunn on the RSC's Dickens adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby, added: "We saw it 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 dramatise the wretchedness of the times in order to give some focus to Hugo's anger."

As befitted an RSC production, the original cast was packed with names who have become award-winning fixtures of stage and screen since.

It was headed by the musicals star Colm Wilkinson and Roger Allam, the Olivier award-winning actor currently touring in a revival of the play Pravda, with a cast including Alun Armstrong, Peter Polycarpou, Michael Ball, Patti LuPone and a young Caroline Quentin. Early previews were hit by problems with the revolving stage, but problems with the ambitious set, by John Napier, the designer who had set new standards for design with Cats, were resolved by opening night. The re- actions were, nontheless, mixed. While The Daily Telegraph reviewer praised "an enthralling spectacle full of good tunes", his colleague on the Sunday title complained that a literary mountain had been reduced to a dramatic molehill. The Observer described the show as "this witless and synthetic entertainment".

Yet "Les Mis" was to prove critic-proof. With the public offering standing ovations night after night, the run was a sell-out and Cameron Mackintosh quickly realised there was no cause for alarm though the team continued to work on improving the offering. The original RSC show came in at four hours, soon reduced to three-and-a-half. When the show opened in the West End in December 1985, another 20 minutes were sliced off.

Another rewrite was carried out for the American production which opened at the Kennedy Centre, New York, a year later, before moving to Broadway in March 1987. The American modifications were then reintroduced back into the London show.

Within the first decade, gross box office takings had reached £600m and the show is now thought easily to have passed the £1bn mark. For the Royal Shakespeare Company, too, it remains a nice little earner as it continues to benefit in royalties from its continuing success. Some estimates put the revenues for the RSC at more than £15m.

There have been productions in Tokyo, Budapest, Sydney, Reykjavic, Toronto, Copenhagen and 125 cities across America among others - 221 cities in all. More than 53 million theatre-goers have seen the show in 38 different countries. Bill Clinton even used one of its songs, One Day More, for his 1992 presidential campaign.

The interest shows no end. Full 21st anniversary celebrations in London have been put on hold until early 2007 because producers are tied up with reopening the show on Broadway, so on 8 October British fans will have only a special concert version on Radio 2 to console them.

Sir Cameron remains amazed. "If someone had bet me when we first opened that Les Misérables would last five years, I would have taken them on and been very glad to have lost the bet," he said last week.

"I never thought its subject matter could have made it anything like the hit it has become."

Starring actors

Michael Ball

Has performed prominently on the West End stage for over two decades, in roles ranging from Phantom of the Opera to Aspects of Love and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. In 1992 he represented the UK in the Eurovision Song Contest, and launched a successful pop career. Last year, he returned to the West End in Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Woman in White to replace Michael Crawford, when he fell ill.

Ruthie Henshall

She is a leading light on the West End stage and best known in recent times for her performance as Roxie in the West End's Chicago, for which she was nominated for an Olivier Theatre Award. She later played Velma in the Broadway production of the show.

Colm Wilkinson

A celebrated Broadway star who began his career in the Seventies, and gave an award- winning performance as Valjean in Toronto in 1999.

Roger Allam

A stable presence on the London theatre circuit, winning Olivier Awards for his performance in Money at the Royal National Theatre . His recent work includes Ken Loach's The Wind That Shakes The Barley.

Caroline Quentin

Prolific actress who played one of the prostitutes in the original musical line-up and is famed for her long-standing role in TV comedy, Men Behaving Badly.

Peter Polycarpou

Became a household name after starring in the TV comedy, Birds of a Feather. He has also performed in Phantom of the Opera and played opposite Madonna in Evita.

Patti Lupone

She originated the role of Fantine in Les Misérables and became the first American to win the Olivier Award for her work in both Les Mis and The Cradle Will Rock.

Philip Quast

He currently stars as General Peron in the new West End production of Evita.

Alun Armstrong

He is a multiple award winner for his roles on stage and screen and starred in the acclaimed TV adaptation, Bleak House, last year.

Michael Macguire

Won a Tony Award for his performance as Enjolras in the original Broadway cast, and features in the TV drama The West Wing.