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A Look Back at ‘Les Misérables’ Through the Years

12 July 2019 by John Staughton
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“Les Mis” at the Queens Theatre in the West End.

Known around the world as one of the most poignant depictions of early 19th-century France and the unquenchable spirit of the French people, “Les Misérables” has been a treasured piece of culture since the story first emerged from Victor Hugo’s pen in 1845. Partially inspired by his years in the fourth arrondissement and his personal experience amidst the gunfire and courage of the June Rebellion of 1932, his magnum opus has been adapted for film, radio, television, and most famously, a legendary stage production that proudly claims the title of the world’s longest-running musical.

Since it first opened to rapturous applause in London in 1985, “Les Mis” has run continuously for more than 30 years and 11,000 performances. However, this record-setting run is finally coming to an end on July 13, when the original production closes at the Queen’s Theatre. This is your last chance to be a part of history, and revel for a final time in this classic staging by Trevor Nunn and John Caird.

To honor such a momentous end of an era, a brief walk down memory lane seems well deserved, followed by a quick peek at the next creative chapter of “Les Misérables” in London.

The Book
Long before Colm Wilkinson implored the world to “Bring Him Home” as the original Jean Valjean or Patti LuPone dreamed her dream as an unforgettable Fantine, “Les Mis” existed as a revolutionary tome for generations. Victor Hugo’s era-defining novel is considered one of the greatest works of 19th-century literature, tracing the tangled Parisian lives of its key characters in the tumultuous years from 1815-1832, culminating with a heroically tragic stand at the barricades during the June Rebellion. More than 150 years later, it remains a consummate love letter to the temerity and tradition of the French people, and has been translated into dozens of languages.

“Les Mis” On Screen
The spine of a book cannot hold such an epic story, however, and it has been adapted into seven different notable films over the years, including in 1935 (winning Best Picture at the Oscars), 1952, 1982, 1998, and most recently in 2012, starring Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman. There have also been multiple television adaptations, notably the 2000 miniseries starring John Malkovich and France’s living legend Gérard Depardieu. There was even a radio adaptation by Orson Welles all the way back in 1937. Obviously, when a piece of art is this significant, it can hardly be contained by a single medium.

Hugh Jackman in the 2012 “Les Mis” movie.

The First Stage Production
While many people associate “Les Mis” with a night out in the West End, it’s important to remember that the very first production of the stage show occurred in 1980 at the Palais de Sports in Paris, five years before it ever graced a London stage. The premiere Parisian production may have been short-lived, but it captured the attention and energy of the right people, namely producer Cameron Mackintosh and directors Trevor Nunn and John Caird.

West End Debut
The show may be taking its final bow at the Queen’s Theatre this July, but it actually debuted in London at the Barbican Arts Centre on Oct. 10, 1985. Within two months, it transferred to the Palace Theatre, where it lived for nearly 20 years, before landing in its third and current home at the Queen’s Theatre.

Broadway Debut
Following its London premiere, it didn’t take long for the swelling praise of “Les Mis” to carry it across the pond, and by December 1986, an American production had opened on Broadway to thunderous acclaim. After more than 6,500 unforgettable performances, that fabled New York run came to a close in 2003. U.S. and international tours have naturally followed, as the world never seems to lose interest in this timeless masterpiece. It is estimated that “Les Mis” has been performed more than 45,000 times around the world since that first curtain went up.

London Return
For those who have never taken in a live production of the show, or are heartbroken to hear that this historic run is ending, never fear. “Les Misérables” in London will survive for one day more — and hopefully plenty after that — but in a fresh, never-before-seen form. On Aug. 10, a live concert version of “Les Mis” will open at the Gielgud Theatre, right beside the Queen’s Theatre in the West End. Starring Alfie Boe as Jean Valjean, Michael Ball as Javert, and Carrie Hope Fletcher as Fantine, this 16-week run will be a unique spectacle, to say the least, and tickets will be going fast. 

Hot on the heels of the Gielgud production, “Les Mis”will return to its beloved Queen’s Theatre in December, but for the first time in more than 30 years, a new production of the show will take center stage, a touring version directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell that was the toast of Broadway back in 2014 and toured widely around the UK.

While the final show on July 13 at the Queen’s Theatre will close with its fair share of tears, the show, as ever, must go on. Thankfully, with so many upcoming opportunities in London to enjoy “Les Misérables” in all its timeless glory, the future looks bright for long-time lovers and new fans alike!

Get tickets to see “Les Mis” at the Queens Theatre.