Before "Les Misérables," the musical based on Victor Hugo's 19th-century masterpiece, Broadway was besieged by bouncy show tunes and leggy showgirls, with no interest in weighty stories, literary themes, or historical subjects. Before "Les Miz," serious plays were straight plays, and adaptations of classic novels were for playwrights, not orchestra pits.
"Les Misérables," the revival of which opens Thursday at the Broadhurst Theatre, changed all of that, and its remounting provides an opportunity to recall what the Broadway musical once was before a barricade was erected that separated the literary from the merely flimsy and fun.
Throughout the history of Broadway (with few exceptions, mostly arising from the narrative ambitions and lyrical conceits of Stephen Sondheim), composers and lyricists couldn't advance beyond the kind of show-stoppers that typically closed out Act I — the guy gets the girl, and they tap dance away into some offstage sunset toward a happy ending. Indeed, for the most part, the book to a musical has nearly always been a misnomer, merely an excuse to string some catchy songs together into a choreographed spectacle of white lights, high kicks, and big smiles.
That all changed with "Les Misérables," a European import that dramatically elevated Broadway's rich musical tradition. Between 1987 and 2003, it became the third longest running musical in Broadway history behind "The Phantom of the Opera" and "Cats," and around the world it is second to none.
With its production and popularity, suddenly, despair and social upheaval could set the stage for a story that examined the moral and historical consequences of stealing a loaf of bread. Misery became the title character, and the final curtain resulted in both redemption and ambivalence — a far cry from toetapping sentimentality, and an uncommon experience for American audiences accustomed to tidy resolutions and feel-good endings."Les Misérables" married the anguish of opera and the sweep of a tragic novel into a night of music, poetry, dance, and bitter humor.
The cultural impact of "Les Misérables," a product of its time, arriving at the end of the Cold War when politics went global and superpower alignments began to thaw, was revolutionary, and not only because it depicted the aftermath of the French Revolution. The signature songs — "One Day More!" "I Dreamed a Dream," "Do You Hear the People Sing?" "Bring Him Home" — were notably singable without sacrificing the mental heft of the novel's themes. It was a musical both sensory and cerebral."Les Misérables" taught American theatergoers that musicals could resound with literary intelligence, and that serious works of literature set to music could result in an entertainment experience of great emotional intensity.
The idea that a classic novel of such moral complexity could be adapted into a Broadway musical would have been unthinkable to the Gershwins and Irving Berlin. "Les Misérables" made up for all of Broadway's missed earlier opportunities, and became not only a commercial bombshell that exploded the American song standard set by "Oklahoma" and "Annie Get Your Gun," but also the first thinking-person's Broadway musical — a spectacle of period costumes, bawdy jokes, revolutionary passions, historical injustices, and moral quandaries that English professors, philosophers, and novelists alike could get behind.
Indeed, without "Les Misérables," no one would have conceived of adapting E.L. Doctorow's "Ragtime," or Alice Walker's "The Color Purple," for the musical stage.
This latest "Les Misérables" is superbly satisfying and freshly orchestrated with some terrific performances. Yet, regardless of the differences between this production and the original, "Les Miz" has now officially become timeless, a vintage artifact of Broadway that is meant to be re-experienced.
Now, given its transformative influence of what a Broadway musical can be, the question becomes: What's next? With "Mama Mia" and "Jersey Boys" proving that recycled pop songs and syrupy story lines can draw more tourists than anything first introduced in a college literature course, is there hope of seeing musical versions of "Anna Karenina," "Death in Venice,"or "Bleak House?" Was "Les Misérables" merely a master of its own house?
(Last season the Metropolitan Opera presented an adaptation of Theodore Dreiser's, "An American Tragedy," suggesting that perhaps opera houses are better suited for adaptations of novels, both literary and gloomy.)
"Les Misérables" may end up being remembered as a Broadway musical mutation, a freak note in the catalog of musical theater, a one-time phenomenon where the misery of Paris ended up being orchestrated into the most famous musical in the world.
Mr. Rosenbaum is a novelist, essayist, and law professor, and the author of the novel "The Golems of Gotham."