Byter John P, a retired journo, sent me an email in response to yesterday’s Quote of the Day, “A flea can bite the bottom of the Pope in Rome” from the song Little People from the musical Les Miserables. In that song, youngster Gavroche sings of what can young (and thereby small) people can achieve.
John's email . . .
Interesting that you should choose one of the best bits of the original English Les Miserables lyrics by Herbie Kretzmer (based on the French lyrics by Alain Boublil).But there is an ironic twist to it.I was sent a cassette recording in late 1985 of the soundtrack of the premiere production of the English version of Les Mis, directed by Trevor Nunn and starring Colin Wilkinson as Jean Valjean, Patti Lupone as Fantine, Michael Ball as Marius and Alun Armstrong – Brian in New Tricks – as the innkeeper Thénadier.As with Cats a few years earlier, so smitten was I by the whole package that I began organising an indulgent theatre visit to Britain, confident that my credentials as a newspaper theatre critic would allow me entry to all or most West End theatres. And so they did.Anthony Hopkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Diana Rigg, John Mills, Judi Dench (and husband Michael Williams), Patrick Macnee, Tom Courtenay, Paul Schofield, Cliff Richard, Rosemary Harris, Alan Rickman, Lindsay Duncan, Julia McKenzie, Colin Blakely, Patricia Routledge, Michael Crawford, Sarah Brightman, Maureen Lipman, Howard Rollins and Tom Wilkinson were just a few of the performers I saw in 34 shows. Some of the 34 (notably Les Mis and Cats) were repeat visits to see both the original stars and their understudies – and new cast members – in action.Now to the ironic twist. Outside the Palace Theatre (where Les Mis played on the West End until 2004) was a small billboard which advised without fanfare that Les Mis would be opening in both New York and Sydney in 1987.The production was reshaped for the New York season. Some lyrics were changed and some songs removed. One of the songs affected was Little People. Perhaps because of the fear it might offend the big Catholic element in New York’s theatre audience, “A flea can bite the bottom of the Pope in Rome” (reprised in the original) was removed. Indeed, the whole song was removed.Sydney’s production incorporated the changes for New York. So Australian audiences have never had the chance to enjoy the cheeky song and that beautifully irreverent verse. I questioned its absence during a conversation with one of the producers at the lavish, champagne and prawn-filled Sydney opening night party (in the Hyde Park Barracks). He said simply: “There have been a few changes.”Hope you and the family are all well.Best wishesJ
Thanks John. Most informative and interesting.
Les Mis is my favourite musical. I never miss attending when there is a production on in Sydney or when local musical societies perform it, some of those being as good as the fully professional productions. (I have heard that Cameron MacIntosh insist on full information, observation etc before approving a go-ahead, to keep up the quality).
The original performers mentioned by John can be seen in the 10th Anniversary Performance of Les Mis on Youtube at:
This is the full performance but be forewarned that it is in costume but not with sets.
I believe that there is no better Valjean than Colin Wilkinson, no better Javert than Phillip Quast, no better Thenadier than Alun Armstrong and no better Madam Thenadier than Jenny Galloway, all of whom are in the above video.
Just writing about it has made me watch it again, which I am doing now.
Some more comments:
By Sophie Thomas
20 June 2019
Flying the French Flag in the West End for over 30 years, Les Miserables has become part of London’s theatre fabric. Seen by over 70 million people around the world, the production has become a must-see for any theatregoer.
- Although many believe the musical is set during the French Revolution era, the production actually takes place during the early 19th century. The musical opens in 1815, with audiences seeing the life of Jean Valjean throughout later decades.
- The musical was originally a rock opera, with a concept album created by Claude-Michel Schönberg and John Boublil in 1980. The album sold 260,000 copies.
- Les Miserables was first performed at the Palais de Sport in Paris, where it ran for 105 performances.
- The original production opened on 8th October 1985 at the Barbican.
- The first West End cast of Les Miserables starred Colm Wilkinson as Jean Valjean, Patti LuPone as Fantine, Roger Allam as Javert, Michael Ball as Marius and Frances Ruffele as Eponine.
- Initially, critics did not enjoy Les Miserables, with the production receiving scathing reviews. In fact, the show was considered to be ‘witless and synthetic’, doing little in testament to the Victor Hugo novel it was inspired by.
- Audiences loved the musical, with the show transferring to the Palace Theatre on 4th December 1985, where it took residency for over 19 years. Playing to larger audiences, the musical quickly gained momentum to become a must-see show across London theatres.
- After West End success, Les Miserables transferred to Broadway, opening on 12 March 1987 at the Broadway Theatre, running to 18 May 2003. During this time, it became the second longest-running musical in Broadway history.
- The show did not pick up the Olivier Award for best new musical in 1985, losing out to Me and My Girl.
- Patti LuPone, Colm Wilkinson and Alun Armstrong all received Olivier nominations for their performances.
- The show moved to the Queen’s Theatre on 3rd April 2004.
- In the West End production, there are 392 costumes that feature throughout, including 85 wigs and over 5,000 separate pieces of clothing.
- To date, Les Miserables has been performed in over 40 countries around the world. Whether there are productions in the United States, Australia, the Dominican Republic or China, global audiences can witness the iconic marching in ‘One Day More’.
- As well as its global presence, the book and lyrics have been translated into 22 languages, including Hebrew, Castillian, Flemish and Mexican Spanish (to name four).
- In celebration of Les Miserables’ continuous run, Queen Elizabeth II requested the musical to be performed to commemorate the Anglo-French alliance. Jacques Chirac watched 40 minutes of Les Miserables at Windsor Castle, with Cameron Mackintosh claiming the musical “is the most successful and most exciting artistic collaboration between France and England ever”.
- Les Miserables became the longest-running musical on 7th October 2006, with The Phantom of the Opera. The show is currently the third longest-running in the West End, behind The Mousetrap and The Woman in Black respectively.
- The production celebrated its 10,000th performance on 22nd January 2010.
- Les Miserables has won two Audience Awards for most popular show in 2012 and 2014 respectively.
One final item . . .
Many years ago when my daughter was aged about 7, she loved Les Mis, knew all the lyrics. My wife, myself and our daughter were driving somewhere and we had agreed to give our next door neighbour a lift. Her name was Pam and she was a deaconess in her church. Our daughter was in the backseat with Pam and had earphones on as she sang along to Les Mis on her Walkman.
There was an awkward silence as the only sound in the car was daughter singing the lyrics to Lovely Ladies (the prelude to Fantine becoming a prostitute to support her daughter):
I smell women
Smell 'em in the air
Think I'll drop me anchor
In that harbor over there
I'll love you till I'm broke
Seven months at sea
And now I'm hungry for a poke
Even stokers need a little stoke!
Waiting for a bite
Waiting for the customers
Who only come at night
Ready for the call
Standing up or lying down
Or any way at all
Bargain prices up against the wall
As I said, awkward.