Les Misérables, How Victor Hugo Gave Birth To The World's Longest Running Musical.
Les Misérables is the world’s longest-running musical, a global stage sensation seen by more than 120 million people in 52 countries and in 22 languages. But one man who has never seen it, nor even imagined that the story could ever be presented as musical entertainment, is its author, Victor Hugo
Hugo was the son of a military officer who served as a general under Napoleon. Hugo Jnr. trained to become a lawyer but, encouraged by his mother, turned instead to a career in literature.
Just as well because he was destined to become one of the most important poets, novelists and dramatists of his time.
Victor Marie Vicomte Hugo was born in Besançon, France, on February 26, 1802. His first collection of poems was published when he was just 20 in 1822, and his first novel came out the following year.
The work for which he was best known for a long time in the United States – Notre Dame de Paris – was published in 1830. The massive Notre Dame cathedral in Paris had fallen into disrepair and Hugo hoped that his book would draw attention to its plight and help save it.
So he was disappointed that it was translated into English as The Hunchback of Notre Dame because he intended the cathedral itself to be the main focus of the book, not the characters Quasimodo the hunchback or Esmeralda the gypsy girl.
After he published his first two novels he turned his attention to poems and published five volumes of poetry between 1829 and 1840.
Married in 1822 to his childhood sweetheart, Adèle Foucher, Hugo stepped back from publishing his work after his 19-year-old daughter and her husband were accidentally drowned in 1843. But in private he took up his pen and began creating Les Misérables.
Hugo had been planning a major novel about social misery and injustice since the 1830s, but it was not until 1862 that Les Misérables was finally published. He had spent over 20 years writing the book which ran to 1,400 pages and contained 365 chapters. It is one of the longest novels ever written.
The 1838 story Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens proved to be the inspiration behind the musical version of Les Misérables. In 1968 the musical Oliver! was released featuring a mischievous boy that Dickens described as the Artful Dodger.
French songwriter Alain Boublil went to see Oliver! in London and said later: “As soon as the Artful Dodger came on stage, Gavroche [the street urchin in Les Misérables] came to mind. It was like a blow to the solar plexus. I started seeing all the characters of Les Misérables in my mind's eye, laughing, crying, and singing on stage.”
He took the idea to French composer Claude-Michel Schönberg, and together they created the musical masterpiece that was to triumph across the globe and to become popularly known simply as "Les Mis".
But back in the 19th century, Hugo was becoming deeply involved in French politics. He fought for social reform, highlighted the miserable conditions of the poor in France, opposed the death penalty and social injustice and advocated free education. When the governance of France was seized by Napoleon in 1851 an outraged Hugo left the country in self-imposed exile, not returning until Napoleon’s overthrow in 1870.
But he became one of the most important French Romantic poets, novelists and dramatists of his time, assembling a massive body of work while living in Paris, Brussels and the Channel Islands. He was also an illustrator, producing more than 4,000 drawings in his lifetime.
More than a thousand musical compositions have been inspired by Hugo's works, many composers adapting his plays into operas, including Verdi’s Rigoletto.
When he died of pneumonia in 1885 aged 83, France was plunged into intense national mourning and his request for a pauper’s funeral was swept aside. Instead, over two million people joined his funeral procession in Paris to the Pantheon, where he was buried.
He had written in old age: “I am not one of those sweet-tempered old men. I am still exasperated and violent. I shout and I feel indignant and I cry. Woe to anyone who harms France! I do declare I will die a fanatic patriot.”