• History

Read TIME’s Original Review of Les Mis When It Opened 30 Years Ago

2 minute read

When Les Misérables, the lavish stage musical based on Victor Hugo’s classic book, opened in London exactly 30 years ago, TIME’s reviewer didn’t exactly hold back: the show was “thrilling,” William A. Henry III proclaimed.

At the time, the main question on the mind of theater-goers was whether the musical would stack up to a hit staging of Nicholas Nickleby from the same director, which regularly sold out despite high prices and an epic running time of more than eight hours. The success of Nickleby prompted some to wonder whether Les Mis would prove a disappointment in comparison. TIME’s reviewer dispatched those concerns:

The answer is that the two do not have much to do with each other, except that both are drawn from 19th century novels and both end with haunting cries on behalf of the dispossessed. Nickleby was story theater, narrating its tale as much as acting it out, and using relatively simple sets, lights and costumes. Les Misérables is lavish, with turntables rotating iron gates, marble pillars and big makeshift barricades. Nickleby told of virtue rewarded and villainy punished, while Les Misérables depicts a world less blessed with moral order. But whether or not Les Misérables can match Nickleby‘s commercial impact, it is extraordinarily ambitious and exciting.

And now, decades later, that question seems almost silly.

Not only was Les Mis a huge hit in London, but when it came to Broadway in 1987, the show broke ticket-sales records and quickly became a phenomenon in New York City too. It ran until 2003, at which point it was the longest-running show on Broadway at the time and the second-longest ever. After just three years off, it returned to Broadway in 2006 and ran for about two years; a few years later, following the success of the 2012 movie version, it returned to Broadway again—where it’s still playing today.

Read the full review, here in the TIME Vault: A Jubilant Cry From the Gutter

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com