Les Misérables, colloquially known as Les Mis or Les Miz, is a sung-through musical based on the novel of the same name by French poet and novelist Victor Hugo. It has music by Claude-Michel Schönberg, original French lyrics by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel, with an English-language libretto by Herbert Kretzmer.
Set in early 19th-century France, it is the story of Jean Valjean, a French peasant, and his quest for redemption after serving nineteen years in jail for having stolen a loaf of bread for his starving sister’s child. Valjean decides to break his parole and start his life anew after a kindly bishop inspires him by a tremendous act of mercy, but he is relentlessly tracked down by a police inspector named Javert. Along the way, Valjean and a slew of characters are swept into a revolutionary period in France, where a group of young idealists make their last stand at a street barricade.
Originally released as a French-language concept album, the first musical-stage adaptation of Les Misérables was presented at a Paris sports arena, the Palais des Sports, in 1980.
In 1983, about six months after producer Cameron Mackintosh had opened Cats on Broadway, he received a copy of the French concept album from director Peter Farago. Farago had been impressed by the work and asked Mackintosh to produce an English-language version of the show. Initially reluctant, Mackintosh eventually agreed. Mackintosh, in conjunction with the Royal Shakespeare Company, assembled a production team to adapt the French musical for a British audience. After two years in development, the English-language version opened in London on 8 October 1985, by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Barbican Centre, then the London home of the RSC.
At the opening of the London production, critical reviews were negative. The Sunday Telegraph’s Francis King described the show as “a lurid Victorian melodrama produced with Victorian lavishness” and Michael Ratcliffe in the Observer dubbed the show “a witless and synthetic entertainment”, while literary scholars condemned the project for converting classic literature into a musical. Public opinion differed: the box office received record orders. The three-month engagement sold out, and reviews improved. The London production, as of March 2013, has run continuously since October 1985: the second longest-running musical in the world after The Fantasticks, the second longest-running West End show after The Mousetrap, It is the longest-running musical in the West End followed by The Phantom of the Opera. In 2010, it played its ten-thousandth performance in London, at Queen’s Theatre. On 3 October 2010, the show celebrated its 25th anniversary with three productions running in London: the original production at the Queen’s Theatre; the 25th Anniversary touring production at its 1985 try-out venue, the Barbican Centre; and the 25th Anniversary concert at London’s O2 Arena.
The Broadway production opened 12 March 1987 and ran until 18 May 2003, closing after 6,680 performances. It is the fifth longest-running Broadway show in history and was the second-longest at the time. The show was nominated for 12 Tony Awards and won eight, including Best Musical and Best Original Score.
Subsequently, numerous tours and international and regional productions have been staged, as well as concert and broadcast productions. Several recordings have also been made. A Broadway revival opened in 2006 at the Broadhurst Theatre and closed in 2008. The show was placed first in a BBC Radio 2 listener poll of Britain’s “Number One Essential Musicals” in 2005, receiving more than forty percent of the votes. A film version directed by Tom Hooper was released at the end of 2012 to generally positive reviews. Les Misérables returns to Broadway on March 23, 2014.