Les Misérables From Stage to Screen
Benedict Nightingale & Martyn Palmer (Applause Books 2013, Hardcover) 96 pages, illustrated and including inserts $45 suggested price
'A French musical? That sounds like a contradiction in terms.' That was the first reaction of producer Cameron Mackintosh when he was given the album of the French production of Les Misérables in 1982. The hope was that Mackintosh would stage the first British production of the musical. Some twenty-seven years later, it is still playing. Good thing he listened to the record.
Mackintosh's initial reluctance was certainly justified. French musical theatre? Opera and operetta certainly; however if you can name three successful musicals that originated in France, well you're a better theatre historian than I am. Besides that, Victor Hugo may have been a great poet but so was Lord Byron and no one has thought of turning Childe Harold into an all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza. And let's be real honest with one another, the novel Les Misérables really belongs in the same category as Moby Dick: Yes you read it, however much like vaccinations or teeth cleanings you can't really say you enjoyed the experience very much. Or maybe you did and if so, good for you.
Most of the story too makes King Lear look like a light-hearted romantic comedy. One goes from the 1830 uprising which removed Charles X (not the 18th century French Revolution as most people assume – this is a sure way of spotting pseuds at cocktail parties), to sewers, abandoned children, toothless prostitutes and every sort of character Rodgers and Hammerstein never dreamt of. No less than twenty-nine people die on stage every night. Yes there is a happy ending, but my what a trip to get there.
Still, thanks to the strength of the book and lyrics by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, some highly imaginative staging by Trevor Nunn and it must be said some very clever updates of the original poster featuring the waif Cosette – is there any form of hat that child has not worn? - here we are in a fourth decade of Les Misérables on stage and a second movie version is likely to have a rather good run of it at the Academy Awards.
As to the book, by theatre critic Benedict Nightingale and film journalist Martyn Palmer, first and above all it must be said that this is as lovely a book package as one will ever run across. One almost hates to open it for fear of cracking the heavy cover; plus there are all the surprises inside. Tickets, posters, invitations to après theatre parties are all found in nicely textured envelopes wedded to the binding. The experience is like getting presents along with the book.
The text itself, which covers both the stage productions and both films in approximately forty-eight of the overall ninety-six pages is also quite good. Anecdotes are chosen carefully and the writing is newspaper-tight. Individual chapters on Hugo, Jean Valjean, the various world tours give the reader just enough information to enjoy the photographs which are mostly in full, lush colour.
I suppose the usual definition of this sort of book is 'coffee table'. Well, personally I wouldn't dare let it come within five feet of a clumsily dropped cup. My copy is going on the piano, where it can be seen and looked at and explored.
Gorgeous book, ideal for any fan of the play or the movie.