You tend to forget that the world’s most popular musical began as a concept album with music by Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyrics by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Nate, sung in French. When it premiered as a performance piece in Paris in 1980 it played only three months, and was then forgotten. Three years later it came to the attention of Cameron Mackintosh, fresh from his success with Cats, who hired Herbert Kretzmer to write the English version and, in conjunction with the Royal Shakespeare Company, the musical opened in London in 1985. 30 years later it is still running, making it the longest-running musical in West End history. The Broadway production opened in 1987 and it too became the second longest running show in Broadway history. It has since been produced in 42 countries ad has been translated into 21 languages. Yet it took almost 30 years to reach the screen, a daunting challenge since essentially it was an all-singing opera.
Both directors Alan Parker and Bruce Beresford were once announced for a film version, but ultimately Mackintosh chose Tom Harper to direct the film. The year before he had directed the Oscar-winning The King’s Speech, for which he won the Academy Award but not the Golden Globe. The HFPAs more daring choice was Steven Soderberg and his The Social Network. Hugh Jackman had a lot to do with getting the film made. Not only was he a bankable star who hailed from the musical theatre, but he had openly expressed his desire to play Jean Valjean. Even though no stars ever emerged from the many theater productions, Mackintosh assembled an all-star cast for the film. Besides Jackman, he chose Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Eddie Redmayne, Amanda Seyfried, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter, and Aaron Tzeit.
All the songs from the original, except two, were used in the film and a new one, “Suddenly”, was added. Anne Hathaway lost 25 pounds to play Cosette for which she was justly rewarded, winning both the Golden Globe and Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Jackman also lost weight for the opening scenes, but his only win was the Globe. Eponine was played by Samantha Barks, an English actress yet to be heard from again. She won the role even though Taylor Swift, Scarlett Johansson (who also auditioned for the role of Fantine), Lea Michele, and Evan Rachel Wood expressed interest.
The film departed from the way the great Hollywood musicals were made. Instead of pre-recording the songs and then lip-synching during filming, the actors all sang on camera aided by an earpiece that relayed a live piano accompaniment. Later in post-production, the orchestra was added. The film was well received but it was no Mamma Mia!. It earned $150 million domestically and twice as much overseas. Mamma Mia’s worldwide gross was $600 million. Les Misérables was nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning only Makeup and Hairstyling and Sound Mixing and Best Supporting Actress. In fact, the only Best Picture Award it ever won was from the Hollywood Foreign Press.
And by the way, “Suddenly” didn’t get a Best Original Song nomination from the Academy.