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Does ‘Les Mis’ still matter?

Returning revamped after a brief hiatus, ‘Les Misérables’ is back for a record-setting thirty-fifth year in the West End. But does it still stand up?

Les Miserables mash up, 2020
Colm Wilkinson (original 1985 Jean Valjean) and Jon Robyns (current 2020 Jean Valjean)
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‘You are not asked to like “Les Misérables”. You are asked to admire it.’

So declared former Time Out theatre editor Susie MacKenzie in a terse third-of-a-column review of a musical that opened at the Barbican in October 1985 (no star rating, we were too highbrow back then).

It’s now part of the myth of  ‘Les Misérables’ – enthusiastically burnished by its lead producer Cameron Mackintosh – that the critics hated it but the public lapped it up, propelling it to world dominance on the back of pure people power. In fact, the reviews were mixed and McKenzie’s response is typical: the musical – a co-production between Mackintosh and the RSC – was so disorientingly bombastic that reviewers seemed a bit dazed and confused by the whole thing. This was long before ‘Les Misérables’ became ‘Les Mis’, and nobody had any inkling it would go on to become the longest-running London musical of all time.

That’s exactly what Trevor Nunn’s production of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s all-singing Victor Hugo adaptation became, though. Following Jean Valjean – a humble French peasant who spends 19 years in jail then battles appalling odds to make something of his life – ‘Les Mis’ has become a true London icon. It hopped from its short stint at the Barbican to 19 years at the Palace Theatre, then on to a further 15 at the Queen’s Theatre. It’s been seen around the world – it’s the sixth-longest-running Broadway show of all time – but London is its real home, where it’s the longest-running musical ever. Maybe the stratospheric UK success of a show about the little-known Paris Uprising of 1832 is a sign that we’re a truly international city. Maybe it just proves that musical theatre – which lest we forget, also gave us ‘Starlight Express’ – is just pretty random.

Whatever the case, with still-ubiquitous tunes such as ‘One Day More’ and ‘I Dreamed a Dream’, ‘Les Mis’ has indeed experienced one day more, then another day more, then several thousand other days more. What’s its secret? Lots of things. There are undoubtedly some stone-cold bangers in the song list. Serious, emotional musicals tend to have more success than silly, lightweight ones, and ‘Les Mis’ is very, very serious. Success begets success: in part it’s popular because it’s now so famous. And Mackintosh has kept it in good order: it continues to makes use of world-class performers, and it’s been discreetly tweaked over the years, with the somewhat ’80s-tastic original score updated a few years back. The recent blockbuster film didn’t hurt either.

However. The last year has been the weirdest one in the show’s history, as – and you might want to take notes – the original production closed in July, to be temporarily replaced by a concert version, which has in turn been replaced by the ‘new’ version that’s been rolled out across the globe over the last few years, leaving London the last place in the world where you could catch Trevor Nunn’s RSC production. Cameron Mackintosh would like us to accept the ‘new’ version of ‘Les Mis’ as pure continuity, and although you can understand why Nunn is fuming, the fact is that Mackintosh has a point. As it turns out, the changes are fairly superficial: broadly speaking, the iconic revolving stage is out, some fancy new projections are in, and that’s about the size of it.

So why do it? A cynical soul would perhaps speculate that Mackintosh no longer wanted to share credit with the RSC, which had enjoyed a solid stream of revenue from the show over the last 34 years. But the superproducer is a notorious perfectionist, and we should probably take him at his word when he says that he sincerely thinks this is a better version.

The truth, though, is that while Mackintosh made ‘Les Misérables’, it is now much bigger than him, and I suspect he’d only dare tweak it so far. It is not just a musical. Here in London it is the musical, and it will live on a long time after its producer is gone – and perhaps the rest of us too.

‘Les Misérables’ is booking at the Sondheim Theatre until Oct 17.

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