The real revolution in 'Les Misérables' is Thatcherism
Next week, the film version of Les Misérables, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s smash musical, finally opens in commercial cinemas. Those attending will find themselves summoned back to a distant era of strife and inter-class friction. No, we’re not talking about Paris of the 1832 uprising. We’re pondering the high era of 1980s economic liberalism.
The melodic sung-through musical – adapted economically from Victor Hugo’s bullet-stopper of a novel – occupies a unique place in this writer’s heart. For some years in the late 1980s and early 1990s I worked as box-office manager of the London production. Every night, 1,500 tickets were flogged. Each morning, another massive sum was deposited in the theatre’s bank account at Coutts.
You will struggle to find a better metaphor for – or conspicuous manifestation of – the Thatcher ethos than the era’s blockbuster musical.
Until the mid-1980s, the West End was as tied to the postwar consensus as had been British Leyland and the National Health Service. Shaftesbury Avenue played host to polite revivals of Noel Coward plays and stroppy pieces by John Osborne. Every now and then a British hit such as Lionel Bart’s Oliver! or Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita would arrive, but, for the most part, the cosy theatre world remained untroubled by vulgar bombast.
At about the same time as the Conservative government deregulated the City, the West End teetered into diamante-studded excess. Les Misérables made its English-language debut at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Barbican Theatre in 1985. The show opened to sniffy reviews but, without ever scoring a hit single, accrued strong word-of-mouth support and, by 1986, now ensconced at the Palace Theatre on Cambridge Circus, it had become a throbbing, blaring, financial sensation.
That same year, Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera opened at the Haymarket Theatre and, if contemporaneous reports were to be believed, accrued a larger figure in advance sales than the GDPs of several sizeable western European nations.
No artistic entity represents the mid-1980s mainstream more effectively than does The Phantom of the Opera. You may have been huddled over the last album by the Smiths or screwing up your eyes at David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. These were mere diversions for students and weirdos. Fittingly for a decade fuelled on acquisition, Phantom was becoming the most lucrative entertainment entity in history (and the film version wasn’t even a hit).
Phantom looked like the 1980s. It wore too much lace and had too much product in its big, big hair. It espoused quietly conservative views through melodies that were simultaneously baroque and mindlessly uncomplicated. Theatre was suddenly an industry and Phantom – soon to open in New York – was the dominant multinational.
Les Misérables doesn’t carry so many aesthetic reminders of the 1980s. It was a bit grubbier, a bit less one-note and a great deal less lacy. But, by the end of the decade, that show was also spewing out money faster than (believe me) it could be counted. The phrase “fight to get a ticket” had been plastered outside the theatre and more than a few punters embraced the advice with unseemly enthusiasm. A sentimental show – that ended with a call for unity between all peoples – somehow turned otherwise reasonable folk into elbow-wielding psychotics with unwavering tunnel vision.
The ethics of the futures market – or the crap game – suddenly began to impose themselves on theatre sales. Respectable ticket agents secured allocations of the best tickets and then sold them months later for a healthy profit. Less respectable touts lurked menacingly outside the theatre and – when not threatening unco-operative box-office staff – constructed elaborate lies to explain why their tickets bore the phrase “restricted view”. Shady retired boxers, now acting as “independent” brokers, tried (unsuccessfully) to pass your correspondent many envelopes stuffed full of £5 notes.
Confirmation of the Thatcherite nature of the business came when Teresa Gorman, MP for a constituency in the emblematic Essex, posed with touts and declared them avatars for free enterprise.
Then, in 1990, the show’s revolutionary fervour appeared to spill through the foyer when the poll tax riots came to Cambridge Circus. Thatcher was soon gone and the high era for event musicals passed soon after. Les Misérables still plays in the West End. But theatre land is now mostly taken up with adaptations of films and “jukebox musicals” based on tunes by the likes of Queen and the Spice Girls.
That wasteland might have arrived even without the vulgar explosion of the Phantom years. But the elevation (or reduction) of the musical to the status of rapacious industry certainly helped the process along.
Every era gets the art it deserves.