Tom Hooper’s big-screen version of Les Misérables is currently enrapturing cinema audiences. Kate Wilkins remembers a very different production, one that was also epic – in its own way…
I confess. I adored Les Mis. Hugh Jackman’s Valjean, Anne Hathaway’s Dream, the sweeping panoramas of nineteenth-century France – I loved it all. I didn’t even mind Russell Crowe’s voice. Much. And then in the midst of the crowded cinema, an unexpected wave of nostalgia came crashing in.
Ten years ago, aged 16, I was in a school production of Les Misérables. To date, there have been around 3,000 productions of the ‘School Edition’; back then, the rights had only recently been released in the UK. Watching the film took me back to that heady summer, when our rural Yorkshire comprehensive was touched by Hugolian passions and Cameron Mackintosh’s Midas touch.
Aged seven, the deepest desire of my heart was not to grace the West End, but to star in one of the local secondary school’s famous productions. Anyone who managed to scale those heights was talked about in hushed, reverent tones. So-and-so’s big sister was Nancy in Oliver! – she may as well have won an Oscar. By the time I started at the school, its productions were the stuff of legend – literally, as a musical hadn’t been staged for
years. Rumour was it that the heads of Drama and Music had such a colossal tiff during the last show, they had vowed never to collaborate again.
There was an end-of-term concert, and A Level Drama students occasionally offered up their pretentious, improvised creations to a politely confused audience, but there was no collective endeavour, nothing that brought students from every year group together in the special fizz and magic that is a whole-school musical.
I was just starting Sixth Form when a whisper went around. A musical was coming – “a big one, with hundreds of parts, apparently,” a girl from choir announced, nonchalantly. My pulse quickened. A real musical! And not just any musical – Les Misérables?! I hadn’t seen it at that point, but I knew it well; I’d stood transfixed in my bedroom listening to various leading ladies’ recordings of I Dreamed a Dream. Was this for real?
It was a ridiculously ambitious show for our run-of-the-mill comp to put on. “How on earth did they make all the scenery? Where did you get the chairs from to build the barricades – were all the kids sat on the floor during classes for the duration of the production??” teased a friend. It wasn’t just the demands of the set. This show required good singers, kids or not, and reliable musicians – there is not much room to hide in those massive songs. It was pioneering, too: the first ever European school performance had only taken place the year before, in a Welsh high school. This wasn’t safe, tried-and- tested school musical fare; no Guys and Dolls or Oklahoma! for us, thanks very much.
There was a bit of sneering going on in the staff room, I imagine, mostly because the teacher who had ventured to stage this behemoth did not actually specialise in Drama or Music – she was a member of the Modern Languages department, who happened to love the show (she’d read the original novel in French, which hugely impressed me) and had organised a couple of school charity concerts once upon a time. But then the head of Music got involved (coerced?) and the thing was definitely on.
They definitely weren’t prepared for such an overwhelming response. The usual suspects, geeks like me who sang in the choir, were already accounted for. But Gareth Malone and televised talent show mania had yet to hit the nation proper, and it was most definitely not cool to sing in public. Yet the auditions were swamped by students of all ages and all abilities. There was a hunger in the land, and it had been completely underestimated: everyone wanted to be part of this. Even some of the loud and proud chavs found themselves signing up (they excelled at the riot scenes).
Rehearsals were shambolic, raucous and utterly joyous. They were also endless, and took up weekends as well as weeknights. Perfecting the trademark marching step for ‘One Day More’ took hours. Getting the factory workers and great unwashed to master the tricky tempo of ‘At the End of the Day’ surely caused a grey hair or two. The elaborate gate at Rue Plumet, made by some earnest art students, got perilously wobblier as rehearsals went on.
Yet slowly, a quiet revolution was taking place. Socio-economic and social barriers broke down as everyone threw themselves into it. Friendships formed across year groups (a thing unknown in our school); Year Eights now waved to Year Elevens they saw in the corridors and received kindly smiles, both groups having spent the previous evening merrymaking chez Thénardier. Kids who were braying each other in the yard one day were comrades on the barricade the next. No one was laughing now at the shy, unassuming lad who had been cast as Gavroche and from whose mouth burst forth the most pure treble sound and pitch-perfect Cockney scamp accent. Something special was happening. The high idealism that permeates Hugo’s novel and Enjolras and Co’s revolutionary fervour was making itself felt. There was a sense of coming together; of equality and yes, fraternité, from the Sixth Form principals to the smallest Year Seven beggar. The spirit of the show and its story suffused us all.
To my delight I was cast as Fantine. The wish of my seven-year-old self was granted: I had a part, and now that huge, famous song was going to be mine; mine for a few moments, backed by virtually a full orchestra! It sure beat singing along to the CD in my room. I was having such a good time, and so great was my love for the show, I secretly rejoined the chorus after Fantine’s untimely death and marched off to the barricades (our frazzled director didn’t seem to mind: the more people on stage who actually knew the words, the better.)
Performance week came. The school hall was packed to the rafters; I’m sure we broke several fire regulations. It wasn’t all harmonious: not enough muskets for all the student rebels meant nightly tussles to see who could secure one for the big fight scenes. My younger brother and another student were soon waging their own private war. The bigger lad was usually the victor until one night when, with an agility worthy of Gavroche himself, my brother whipped the gun out of his rival’s hands a nanosecond after they walked on stage (you could almost hear my mother’s groan from the audience). Then there was the time the sound went to pot and the audience were treated to the disembodied voice of Javert cursing his “****ing mike” from behind the curtains. Unfortunately, he had just thrown himself into the Seine and was meant to be dead.
But we soldiered on. The barricades didn’t collapse, and neither, to everyone’s astonishment, did the gate in Rue Plumet (“Thank God, that’s the bloody Rue Plumet done with for another night”). Valjean hit the top note in ‘Bring Him Home’, and didn’t develop laryngitis. It turned out we did have students who could sing and act at the same time, and who did it well. Really well.
On the last night the applause seemed to go on for hours; we drank it in. We had created something important and beautiful. We had punched well above our weight as a body of performers and as a school. No plush private theatres, posh lighting rigs nor a generous, well-connected alumnus in sight, and yet here it was – a show with verve, energy and power. Forgive me while I take a short break to wave the socialistic banner (this is Les
Misérables, after all!).
There was a golden moment when the heads of Drama and Music shook hands and the teacher who’d founded the whole thing was dragged on stage and made to take a bow. She had balls, I see that now. But why Les Mis? What made her want to do it? Pride, attention-seeking? (Hubris?) Or a desire to make a difference, to open minds, to offer us something more than what many kids in our school had been conditioned to expect?
In her piece on Hooper’s film for the Telegraph, Serena Davies identifies the appeal of Les Misérables as an “aspiration to grandeur” that is “refreshing in a popular culture dominated by reality TV’s obsession with triviality and childish tasks”. I think that’s probably what all the altruistic but (bless them) slowly-losing-the-will-to-live staff involved in the production – not forgetting my long-suffering mother, ferrying us back and forth to countless rehearsals – ultimately wanted for us. Big aspirations. In any debate about social mobility and elite universities, it’s what students in non-selective education are somehow characterised as lacking, according to media pundits.
Clearly, they’ve never heard the people sing.