More people have seen Les Miserables in the West End than have read the Victor Hugo novel on which it is based! Okay, I made that up. But it could well be true, so popular is the tale of love and uprising in 19th Century France.
The musical, which launched actor Michael Ball to musical theatre stardom, follows a former convict trying to rebuild his life and the policeman hunting him. It tells of unrequited love and love at first sight. It is a political tale and a personal one. It is a sprawling piece of theatre that has had London audiences enrapt for decades.
And if you haven’t seen it, here’s why you should put that oversight right:
To be one of the in-crowd
70 million people worldwide have seen Les Miserables. Just take a minute to consider that. 70 million. If everyone who had seen Les Mis formed a country, it would be among the top 20 largest populations in the world! Can you afford not to be part of that country? I don’t think so.
Because it’s the world’s longest running musical
This is, of course, one of the reasons so many people have seen the show. But you don’t run in London’s West End for more than 30 years without being an excellent production. No musical currently playing has run for as long as Les Mis, though many have tried. Don’t think this is exactly the same show that was first staged at the Barbican in 1985. It’s not. There have been tweaks and changes to make it better. It’s had 30 years of honing and polishing to get where it is.
Because it proved the critics wrong
That 30-year run just goes to show that critics don’t know everything. It is now part of theatrical legend that those writers whose job it is to watch shows for a living were not in love with the production when it debuted. The Observer’s Michael Ratcliffe called it “a witless and synthetic entertainment”. And while everyone is entitled to their opinion, obviously, this was clearly one occasion when critics were not in tune with their readership.
Beacuse it has won 140 awards
In fact, the critics may not have been in tune with award panels either. The production has collected more than 140 theatre awards. That’s more than one each for every member of cast and crew needed to stage a performance of the show in the West End (101, since you asked).
For One Day More
This is a personal choice, but for my money One Day More is the greatest Act I closing number in the West End. It is a technical feat of musical brilliance that brings together every strand of the story in a climactic crescendo leaving you eager to charge through the interval and get to Act II faster than a loaf-stealing convict trying to escape a driven policeman.
For Claude-Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer’s other songs
You don’t get to be a musical of Les Miserables’s standing with only one great song. Bring Him Home, On My Own, I Dreamed A Dream – they’re all now standards that will send a chill down your spine. Even if you’ve not seen the show, you’ve probably heard someone cover these songs on Britain’s Got Talent, The Voice or any number of talent shows. But they’re never the same as when performed live on stage within the context of the hit musical.
For Valjean vs Javert
It’s one of musical theatre’s great conflicts. The convict who stole to feed his family against the policeman who believes in a black and white view of justice. It would be easy to simply say good versus evil, but that’s not the case. No-one roots for Javert, but he’s by no means a baddie. It’s the grey areas that make the show that much more compelling.
For the Thénardiers
For all the seriousness of convicts, revolution, unrequited love and self-sacrifice (do take tissues), there’s also light relief. In Victor Hugo’s novel, the Thenardiers are hideous human beings for whom no act is too repulsive. On stage, they’re far more fun. They’re by no means nice, but they bring some much needed pantomime to proceedings, adding enough dark jollity to become fan favourites.