Producer Cameron Mackintosh, cast members Amanda Seyfried, Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway and director Tom Hooper pose at a promotional event for the movie Les Miserables in Tokyo November 28, 2012. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon
Here is a thing it is difficult to remember in the midst of its box office tidal wave: Les Misérables owes its birth to a debate over public arts funding. We think of blockbusters as antithetical to the high arts that public funding might typically support, but in Les Mis’s case, at least, the relationship was symbiotic. Some might say parasitic, of course, but the story reveals that we don’t quite know who was leeching off of who.
Les Misérables was originally staged in 1985 under the auspices of the Royal Shakespeare Company, a large portion of whose budget was provided by the English Arts Council. It wasn’t the RSC’s idea to develop it, mind you. Cameron Mackintosh, a private producer coming off a wave of success with 1981’s Cats, had been looking to put on an English version of the musical, which was developed and staged in Paris in French. Mackintosh wanted a good director for it, and found himself knocking on the door of Trevor Nunn, then the RSC’s co-artistic director. Nunn and his co-director, John Caird (then an RSC associate director), substantially overhauled the plot and the script. They also gave the production what was, until the emaciated cheekbones of Anne Hathaway entered our collective consciousness, the musical’s signature image: the revolving stage. In other words, the look and content of the show were developed not just with public money, but by people who had made their careers in a publicly supported arts environment.
Blockbusters, onstage and onscreen, are typically seen as ego projects. Production notes present a narrative of the great director who wants to implement his vision. Nunn, however, clearly had his eye on another prize altogether. As a condition of agreeing to direct the show, Nunn insisted first that it be an RSC production, then that the casting be at least partially drawn from the company and, third, that Caird be his co-director. Those demands, small though they might seem, were crucial: the fortunes of the company with the immense, huge fortune generated by the musical itself. By late 2012 the company’s then–artistic director, Michael Boyd, reported that the RSC had taken in about £19 million in royalties. It’s a small sum, of course, when compared to the overall intake of a musical whose ticket sales alone have garnered something like $1 billion. And one imagines Mackintosh’s cut, let alone Nunn’s personal royalty, rather larger. Still: the point is that the RSC made its money back, and then some. And that’s not even to cover the income stream something like the original cast recording made for those RSC actors who got to participate.
At the time, the public was not particularly grateful for the gesture. Bad reviews led to a dislike for Nunn that began to feel personal. Until he hooked up with Mackintosh (Nunn also directed Cats), Nunn had been less of a populist director, more prone to staging minimalist productions of Macbeth in warehouses than big showstoppers. Now, they said, he was a sellout. They alleged that he was “using” the public’s money for self-aggrandizing purposes. The grumblers noted that the production budget—the equivalent of about £1 million today—was far larger than those of other RSC productions. So loud was the clamor that the Sunday Times actually began to investigate Nunn’s personal finances, and found he was earning a great deal of money outside the company. This, they thought, was a bad thing. (Nunn sued for libel, but it resulted mostly in a correction of certain reported sums.)