"Les Miserables" first stormed the barricades of musical theater in 1985 at London's Barbican Theatre. Produced by legendary impresario Cameron Mackintosh and directed by British theater titans Trevor Nunn and John Caird, that unstoppable production went on to invade Broadway, winning eight Tony awards, including best musical, before spreading Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil's musical revolution all over the globe.
Twenty-seven years later, the blood-stirring musical adaptation of Victor Hugo's 19th-century novel continues to invade the public imagination. From the 25th anniversary production at San Francisco's Orpheum Theatre to local revivals such as the Children's Musical Theater San Jose, "Les Miz" lives on.
Now Tom Hooper's lavish big-screen adaptation is raising the flag of "Les Miserables" for a whole new generation. The star-studded epic opens on Christmas Day, proving that the story of a short-lived Parisian revolt may well never die.
"It's far and away the best of those big British pop musicals," says musical theater junkie Greg MacKellan, artistic director of San Francisco's 42nd Street Moon, "and does what it does very well. The epic storytelling is accompanied by many intimate moments and songs that underscore and enhance the drama of the piece.
"And the score is truly stirring. 'One Day More' is one of the best first-act finales ever written."
Fans have been known to see the show dozens of times, often singing along with the score under their breath. They know all the songs by heart, and they can be merciless about revivals that play fast and loose with canon. If the set doesn't revolve, for instance, the audience just may revolt.
The extreme nature of the show's fandom means that all of the actors in the new movie felt pressure to deliver big. Samantha Barks, who has played the street urchin Eponine on stage in London, knew only too well that expectations would be perilously high.
"For me, having such a long history with the show, having played it on the West End, it's a musical that is very close to my heart," says Barks, who makes her film debut here. "That makes me a tough audience, so I understand that feeling. But honestly, even I was speechless."
Though Eddie Redmayne is no newbie to the stage (he won a Tony for "Red" in 2010) or to film ("My Week With Marilyn"), he confesses that trying out for this much-anticipated movie was quite intimidating.
"It was a labor of love for everyone involved in the movie; it wasn't just a job. All of us grew up with this musical, all of us love it," says the actor, who plays Marius, the student radical who falls for Cosette. "That's why half of Hollywood went out for the audition. Everyone wanted to become part of the history of 'Les Miserables.' "
Devotees of the musical are passionate in their ardor for the story. Some are wary of any new adaptation that messes with their beloved "Les Miz." For them, nothing can ever live up to their cherished memories of the original production.
"I saw it in London when it was at the Royal Shakespeare Company, before it was all the rage. Loved it! Loved it! The politics and the whole thing about taking charge and changing the world. The spectacle was amazing," says John Fisher, artistic director of San Francisco's Theater Rhinoceros.
"I wonder how it will work as a movie, as the stagecraft is what really made it soar. It was the culmination of all those Andrew Lloyd Webber epics, but done right. The movie can never top the show. Never!"
But others point to the heightened urgency of the musical's political themes, its evocation of the plight of the disenfranchised. They think that "Les Miz" may be more topical now than ever in its history.
"When the show first opened, it was the scope of the tale, the truly epic nature of the story, and the very accessible pop nature of the score that made the show a hit," says MacKellan. "But now it will be interesting to see how the movie plays, because here we are, 25 years later, and revolution is again a part of people's lives, as well as the poor and disenfranchised rising up to demand their rights.
"It might actually make the piece even more immediate than it was."
Redmayne says that the way Hooper shot the picture added to that sweeping sense of urgency.
"The building of the barricades was amazing," the actor says. "We were literally pummeled by falling furniture coming down from above us. It was a terrifying, chaotic experience that really captured the sense of urgency that scene needs. That barricade was built in 10 minutes. I can tell you that the danger and fear in our eyes was real."
Hooper also insisted on verisimilitude for the show's score, which is sung live so that the show's famous anthems don't sound canned.
"I can't imagine doing it any other way," Redmayne says. "It meant that we could be absolutely present in the moment. When we sing 'A Little Drop of Rain,' we really sing it for each other, almost in a whisper, because the camera is so close. It's that intimate."
For their part, theater buffs are torn about the movie's use of live recording. They know all too well that singing live, without benefit of digital wizardry, demands perfect pipes.
"The one concern I have about it is the singing," MacKellan says. "The show was written for huge, exciting voices -- Colm Wilkinson, Patti LuPone -- and I wonder if the less powerful voices will come across as well, given the live-singing nature of the filming."
But for Barks, whose voice is angelic, that sound technique is part of the film's genius, because the imperfections make the movie more human, more authentic.
"I love that we didn't just string together flawless vocals. It's real, and that's what makes it beautiful," she says. "That's what makes it different from every other 'Les Miz' you have ever seen. This score has already been sung by some of the best voices on the planet. You can buy a CD of that.
"The purpose of this is to create something new and exciting."
Opens: Christmas Day
Rated: PG-13 (for
suggestive and sexual
material and violence)
Cast: Hugh Jackman,
Russell Crowe, Anne
Director: Tom Hooper
Running time: 2 hours,