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The Man Behind Les Misérables On How DC Started It All

Cameron Mackintosh recalls the blockbuster musical's fraught early days.

Photograph by Matthew Murphy.

In late 1986, before Les Misérables opened on Broadway, it made its United States debut with a run at the Kennedy Center. The musical—about the struggles of the underclass in 19th-century Paris—now arrives at the National in a revamped production, overseen, as with the original, by British impresario Cameron Mackintosh. We talked to him about Les Miz’s enduring appeal—and why he hopes this engagement will go more smoothly than that first.

I saw the original production at the Kennedy Center, and my most vivid memory is of the high-tech revolving stage breaking down mid-show. Were you freaking out about the technical problems?

We had a very successful first night. Then I remember having a jolly good lunch on Boxing Day, thinking, “Isn’t it lovely? It’s all going so well!” Just as I was about to munch into my crabcake, I was told that the stage had stopped completely, and in fact we had to cancel two performances. It was hideous. We had an automated system, and Washington was the first time we tried it. The word of mouth that came out of Washington doubled the advance on Broadway, so we have a particular heart for Washington with Les Miz. But we did have a few teething problems.

How is this production different?

Of course it’s the same show, but this is a grittier take. It feels a bit more contemporary. And why not? It’s 35 years later. And we changed the orchestrations, which are slightly more timeless than the original.

Is there something resonant about Les Miz being staged in DC right now?

You mean because of the political situation? Well, only that it’s all about passionate beliefs, which certainly on both sides of the divide is what’s happening in your country and indeed in ours. People—particularly younger people—are feeling stronger about the way the world is governed than ever, and that is one of the themes that run through it.

The show has been criticized for being too bombastic, too emotional, too catchy. How do you feel about that?

It’s all a matter of taste, isn’t it? Look, kids don’t do it in high school because they think it’s bombastic—they do it because they see something in the characters and the story that speaks to them. Big, important stories that actually touch ordinary people are what made the great operas and great musicals work. Serious musicals, like serious operas, are the ones that last forever. As long as somebody dies and the audience weeps, something can go on forever.

Les Misérables will show at the National Theatre from December 20–January 7; $48 to $98.

This article appears in the December 2017 issue of Washingtonian.

Politics and Culture Editor

Rob Brunner grew up in DC and moved back in 2017 to join Washingtonian. Previously, he was an editor and writer at Fast Company and other publications. He lives with his family in Chevy Chase DC.