Before ‘Les Miserables,’ there was ‘La Revolution Francaise’
The new movie version of “Les Misérables,” which opened on Christmas, has given fans of the original stage musical a reason to revisit their old cast albums and reminisce about the Broadway show.
Songwriters Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil hit the jackpot with the musical -- and they are likely to continue raking in the dough with the new film. Audiences who have seen the movie may be curious to know what the writers did before “Les Misérables,” which wasn’t their first stab at a big, showy production.
Nearly 40 years ago, they created another historically themed musical that was a commercial success -- in France, that is, not in the English-speaking world. “La Révolution Française” debuted in 1973, seven years before “Les Misérables.” It depicts the 1789 uprising and overthrow of the Bourbon dynasty, followed by Robespierre’s Reign of Terror, all set to a catchy rock score.
“Révolution” started out as a concept album and received a staging at Paris’ enormous Palais des Sports and also at Théatre Mogador. (“Les Misérables” followed roughly the same path.) But “Revolution” was never translated into English -- its subject matter was most likely deemed too French -- and thus remains relatively unknown to Americans.
The video montage above offers a sampling of some of the songs from “Révolution.” The music, in all of its ‘70s glory, was written by Schönberg and Raymond Jeannot, with book and lyrics by Boublil et Jean-Max Rivière.
The musical (technically a rock opera) has a multitude characters that makes “Les Misérables” look like an intimate chamber piece by comparison. All of the historically important figures are represented. Schönberg himself sang the role of Louis XVI. There’s even an appearance by a young Napoleon Bonaparte, who gets a comic song with a group of laundry maids.
“Révolution” has been reissued on disc in France a few times, most recently in April. It’s enduring popularity is an anomaly in that country, where musical theater doesn’t hold nearly as prominent a place in the culture as it does in the U.S. or Britain.
Schönberg and Boublil would team up again for “Miss Saigon,” another hit. But their subsequent efforts, including “Martin Guerre” and “The Pirate Queen,” have not fared as well commercially.
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