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Les Misérables: From Epic Novel to Epic Musical


One of Britain’s most profitable musical exports, Les Misérables has captivated audiences worldwide with its mix of stirring spectacle and high emotion. Critical response has, however, been deeply divided. Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s ‘megamusical’ has often been accused of trivializing the mammoth nineteenth-century novel by Victor Hugo on which it is based, reducing Hugo’s epic of social injustice to populist sentimentalism. To challenge the cliché of the inferiority of adaptations and the bias towards ‘high art’ that such criticism generates, this essay specifies the relationship between Hugo’s global bestseller and the world’s longest-running musical. This connection has received much less scholarly attention than the fame of each work would suggest. By exploring their affiliation within the contexts of both Hugo’s Romanticism and the libretto’s collaborative development from Paris to London, a revealing likeness is identified that clearly underpins the success of the ‘show of shows’.


This article is a selection from The Oxford Handbook of the British Musical, edited by Robert Gordon and Olaf Jubin.


Featured Image: engraving of Cosette sweeping from Victor Hugo's 1862 novel Les Misérables. Émile Bayard, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.


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