Artsmash Critic Tim Smith covers classical music, theater and visual arts in Baltimore and beyond

A little backgrounder on 'Les Miz' as hit musical returns to Baltimore for ninth time

Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

For the ninth time since 1990, Baltimore will get to experience “Les Miserables,” the high-emotion mega-musical based on the Victor Hugo novel about petty crime and inordinate punishment, poverty and greed, revolution and romance.

The show’s run at the Hippodrome Theatre, Oct. 9 to 14, will give a further boost to the tally of people who have seen the show around the world — more than 130 million, according to the producers.

Whether you’re a newcomer to “Les Miz” (as the musical is popularly known) who could use some background on the piece, or a longtime fan interested in a refresher, here are some assorted tidbits about the show, its origin and impact:

The deal of the century

In 1861, a Belgian publisher signed up Victor Hugo to write “Les Miserables” and agreed to pay a then-unprecedented amount, equating to about $4 million in today’s money.

The deal was made on the isle of Guernsey, where Hugo was living in exile. No stranger to the kind of revolutionary sentiments threaded through “Les Miserables,” Hugo had fled France after running afoul of the autocratic French ruler Louis-Napoleon. Hugo returned to his homeland when Louis-Napoleon fell from power.

A weighty book

Coming in at more than 600,000 words, Hugo’s “Les Miserables” is every bit the epic. It generated great interest before publication, thanks to an intense publicity campaign, and enormous demand when it was issued in a series of five volumes published over the course of a couple of months in the spring of 1862.

A chapter a day

“Les Miserables” is ideally suited to daily reading. There are a total of 365 chapters.

The point of it all

The short preface Hugo wrote for the novel has never lost its resonance or relevance:

“So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth … so long as the three problems of the age — the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night — are not solved … so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.”

In a nutshell

Although the novel contains numerous tangents and digressions, the principal plot line remains clear. It centers on Jean Valjean, imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s hungry child. Upon release, he becomes an upstanding citizen, but is relentlessly hounded by police inspector Javert, whose obsession and corrupted morals blind him to Valjean’s noble nature.

Other characters — including Cosette, raised like a daughter by Valjean, and Marius, the student she eventually marries — fuel the story as it unfolds during a period of social and political turmoil in France. (That turmoil is not the French Revolution, which was more or less over by 1799, but subsequent upheavals, including the Paris Uprising of 1832.)

There is a lot of death along the way, but redemption, too.

From album to stage

The musical version of “Les Miserables” started as a concept album with music by Claude-Michel Schonberg, lyrics by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel. It was adapted for the stage (in French) and premiered in Paris in 1980.

A few years later, an English-language version, with lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer and contributions by Trevor Nunn, John Caird and James Fenton, was developed by producer Cameron Mackintosh. This is the version that established “Les Miz” as a musical hit.

Everyone’s a critic

Reviews of the October 1985 premiere of “Les Miserables” in London’s West End were not exactly ecstatic. One critic dismissed the show as “The Glums.” Another wrote: “Watching it is rather like eating an artichoke — you have to go through an awful lot to get a very little.” Audiences disagreed. “Les Miz” has run continuously in the West End for 33 years.

After a two-month tryout at the Kennedy Center in Washington, a Broadway production opened in 1987, won eight Tony Awards, and ran for 16 years.

Tour after tour

The first touring production of “Les Miz” in the United States was launched in 1987. Several more followed.

In Baltimore, “Les Miz” made its initial appearance at the Morris Mechanic Theatre in 1990, with additional visits in 1992, 1994, 1997 and 2000. Prior to this year’s visit, the show was performed at the Hippodrome in 2004, 2011 and 2013.

At last count, the musical has been performed in 45 countries and in 22 languages, including Japanese, Korean, Hebrew, Hungarian, Polish, Icelandic, Norwegian, Swedish and Catalan.

A dream come true

It has been almost a decade since a 48-year-old amateur singer from Scotland named Susan Boyle, determined to fulfill her dream, successfully auditioned for the TV show “Britain’s Got Talent.”

She chose for her big number “I Dreamed a Dream,” the solo in “Les Miz” for the character of Fantine, a hapless factory worker-turned-prostitute who, facing death, asks Jean Valjean to care for her illegitimate daughter, Cosette.

Boyle’s fervent performance of this heart-on-sleeve anthem, along with the sight and sound of the studio audience going from skeptical to ecstatic, resulted in a viral YouTube sensation.

The invariable parody

The wry revue “Forbidden Broadway” took its share of shots at “Les Miz” over the years, including a parody of “I Dreamed a Dream”:

“I dreamed a show in days gone by / Where all the scenery looked so pretty / I didn’t sing one song then die / And all my costumes weren’t so gritty. … I dreamed a show in days gone by / Where … I didn't have to belt high C / and be as miserable as me.”


If you go

"Les Miserables" runs Oct. 9 to 14 at the Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw St.. Tickets are $54 to $225. Call 800-982-2787, or go to ticketmaster.com.


tim.smith@baltsun.com

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