Les Misérables – From Page to Stage, in Marvellous Melbourne

Andreane Neofitou, Original costume design for Enroljas, Les Misérables, 1985. Courtesy of Andreane Neofitou

Do You Hear The People Sing from Les Misérables has long been one of my favourite anthems, ever since I first heard it performed in the landmark Cameron McIntosh production in the West End of London back in the day. For me it is all about the song’s spirit and its all-important message about the many freedoms we enjoy today, especially here in Australia; lest we forget.

Made into a recent movie featuring our own Aussie legends Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe, it’s the story of the French peasant Jean Valjean and his quest for redemption and his journey in life after spending years in gaol for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving child.

The tale touched a nerve with people worldwide. This one fact resonated loudly and long with many Australian families (including my own) whose ancestors came to this country transported for what we would consider minor misdemeanours.

Just like all musicals including opera, ‘Les Miz’ as it is affectionately known, is based on a story originally by someone else. In this case it is a novel by trend-setting French poet, author and dramatist Victor Hugo (1802-1885). He is considered one of the greatest Romantic writers of the 19th century and was certainly a visionary.

Victor Hugo, his life and times, as well as his original manuscript is being showcased at the heart of a new exhibition – Victor Hugo: Les Misérables – From Page to Stage at the State Library of Victoria in Melbourne from 18th July to 9th November, 2014

Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, vol.1, Brussels, 1862, State Library of Victoria

This truly wonderful display has been made possible by the Maison de Victor Hugo at Paris and Guernsey, the Bibliothèque nationale de France at Paris and, the Museé Rodin. As well, for the very first time, the archives of Cameron Macintosh. The exhibition is supported by an impressive array of sponsors and partners.

Showcasing the 1862 manuscript coincides with the Australian premiere of Cameron Macintosh’s stage production of Boublil and Schönberg’s Les Misérables now showing at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne.

Also included are photographs of old Paris, fabulous costumes and memorabilia from cinema and stage including rare scripts, scores and posters from the Royal Shakespeare company production in 1985.

There is also fabulous bust of Victor Hugo by French sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840 -1917).

CEO and State Librarian Sue Roberts noted the exhibition is a cultural coup for Melbourne. “Les Misérables is quite simply one of the greatest stories of all time” she said.

Since Victor Hugo’s novel was published in 1862 it has been translated into twenty languages, adapted for cinema at least fifty times, and has inspired three major musical theatre productions.

When Les Misérables was published, the response from the public was immediate. Some 6000 copies sold in a day, with the book becoming an international best seller within a few months.

This is an exhibition of world significance. “The exhibition lets us explore the events that led to the story’s creation and how it has remained part of the popular consciousness for over 150 years” Ms Roberts said.

In France Victor Hugo’s 945 page original manuscript is considered a national treasure, and this is the first time it has travelled outside Europe.

Having such a precious original mansucript travel to Australia in the first place speaks volumes of that extraordinary trust and connection that still exists today between the French and people of Victoria.

Australian performer Silvie Paladino supported by curator Guillaume Fau from the Bibliothéque nationale de France at Paris as she unveils Victor Hugo's original manuscript of Les Misérables on show at the State Library of Victoria 2014

Victoria the state was at first known as Terre Napoléon, the land of Napoleon, its great Southern coastline charted first by French explorer Nicolas Baudin who led an epic voyage here 1800 – 1804.

While the British may have claimed the land and colonized it, it was French explorers who first made known the richness and diversity of Australia and its life forms all over the world.

It was a privilege to be there and see this highly valued centrepiece of the show unveiled officially.

The delightful Australian performing artist Silvie Paladino was given the honour, supported graciously by Guillaume Fau, heritage curator and head of Modern and Contemporary Manuscripts at the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Silvie was only eighteen years of age in 1989 when she was chosen to play the role of Eponine on stage in Australia and New Zealand, then again in the West End of London in 1992. She returned to London in 1997 for another two years playing Fantine. Her personal story of her journey with the musical she related at the launch was very touching. It has defined her career and her life in so many ways.

Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, vol. 1, Brussels, 1862, State Library of Victoria

Today the precious manuscript, written in Victor Hugo’s own hand is entrusted to experienced Conservators.

Talking to the Conservator from the State Library of Victoria, I discovered the manuscript itself consists of twelve different types of paper, written over a ten year period, with some pages in red ink, unusual for the time. In this instance the lighting over its case is kept to a level that won’t damage the page that is open.

Victor Hugo’s great appeal was that he wrote with great simplicity and his words, written from the heart have not only a power and insight that engage all the emotions and senses, but also appeal to the moral centre and public conscience of everyman.

When he died he bequeathed his manuscript of Les Misérables to the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Charles Méryon, La Morgue (The Mortuary), 1854, National Gallery of Victoria, Felton Bequest, 1961

The exhibition also contains a great deal of historical material with interactive displays giving you and your family and friends the experience of being part of the musical production.

Exploring the life and times of Victor Hugo through events, educational programs for schools and free public talks will be a focus, with a variety of guest speakers at pop up talks, exploring themes of history, politics, French language, culture, literature, music, film and theatre.

There will also be curator-guided tours, including those conducted in French with a revolutionary band, young people and a community choir to sing the Songs of Revolution on various days.

Victor Hugo was an interesting character, the third son of a major and later general in Napoleon’s army.

His early life meant being uprooted from Paris to Elba or Naples or Madrid, yet returning to Paris with his mother, who was a royalist sympathiser.

From 1832-1848 he lived in the second floor apartment of the Hôtel de Rohan-Guéménée in the glorious Place des Vosges.

Formerly the Place Royale, it was part of King Henry IV (1553-1610) of France’s landmark property development around a square in the Marais district of Paris.

The apartment became a museum to Hugo’s genius in 1902. The display includes a writing table, different memorabilia and some astonishing interior decoration carried out during his exile in Guernsey.

The Chinese living room and medieval style dining room grab interest, as do the exhibits, which along with original manuscripts and first edition publications displays many of Hugo’s drawings and paintings.

Detail: Painting Paul Carpentier, Episode du 29 juillet 1830, rue Chilperic, face á la colonnade du Louvre (Event of 29 July 1830, rue Chilperic, before the colonnade of the Louvre), 1830 ©Musée Carnavalet, Roger-Viollet

Memories of his life as a poor student inspired the novel Les Misérables, and as a pursuer of classical knowledge, particularly the works of ancient Roman poet Virgil (Publius Vergillus Maro 70BC – 19BC), Hugo produced two tragedies, a play and elegies.

There is no doubt that after seeing the show at the State Library of Victoria, that I will now have to go along and see the musical once more. Then I can Hear the People Sing one last time, which is both personal and memorable.

Philip Quast as Javert, Boublil and Schönberg’s Les Misérables, Sydney 1987. Photograph Michael Le Poer Trench ©Cameron Mackintosh Ltd

‘Les Miz’ is one of the most popular musicals of all time, seen by over 65 million people around the world. This exhibition is a great credit to its ongoing story, one that will continue as we call on our knowledge of the past to invent the future.

Melbourne is the only city in the world where you will be able to immerse yourself from page to stage in Les Misérables.

Barricade scene in the first touring production of Boublil and Schönberg’s Les Misérables, Raimund Theater, Vienna , 1988. Photograph Michael Le Poer Trench ©Cameron Mackintosh Ltd

Come soon, and hear the people sing!

Carolyn McDowall, Writer, Editor, Publisher, The Culture Concept Circle, 2014

Les Misérables: From Page to Stage

State Library of Victoria

Swanston Street, Melbourne

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