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14 Revolutionary Facts About Les Misérables

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The world had never seen a musical quite like Les Miz before. After years of tweaks (and some terrible early press), this operatic take on Victor Hugo’s epic novel became an international sensation, beloved by millions. Let’s cross the barricade and have a closer look.

1. OLIVER! INSPIRED THE SHOW.

Both stories include a lovable, street-dwelling young rascal. In Oliver! he’s known as Jack Dawkins—or "the Artful Dodger"—and is arguably the musical’s most popular character. But when French lyricist Alain Boublil took in a London revival performance, he immediately thought of another literary troublemaker.

“As soon as the Artful Dodger came on stage,” Boublil recalled, “Gavroche came to mind. It was like a blow to the solar plexus. I started seeing all the characters of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables—Valjean, Javert, Gavroche, Cosette, Marius, and Eponine—in my mind’s eye, laughing, crying, and singing onstage.”

2. AT FIRST, LES MISÉRABLES DIDN'T MAKE MUCH OF A SPLASH.

Shortly after hatching his million-dollar idea, Boublil asked composer Claude-Michel Schönberg if he’d help him put together a new Les Miz rock opera. “Let’s do it,” replied the musician, who then started working on the show full-time.

Together, they created a concept album which broke the story down into ambitious, sweeping musical numbers. Released in 1980, it became a decently sized hit that sold 260,000 copies. This led to the first staged incarnation of Les Misérables, which debuted at Paris’ Palais de Sports arena a few months later. Though the production was well-attended, it wrapped after a three-month, 105-performance run.

Les Miz could’ve faded into obscurity right then and there—if one of the biggest names in show business hadn’t seen its true potential. British producer Cameron Mackintosh was the producer behind Cats, and as such, he had the theater world in the palm of his hand. In 1982, he obtained a copy of the Les Miz concept album and, liking what he heard, Mackintosh tapped lyricists James Fenton and Herbert Kretzmer to create an English-language version. Their Anglicized Les Miz would premiere in London in 1985 and reach Broadway in 1987.

3. THAT FAMOUS LOGO WAS TAKEN FROM AN ILLUSTRATION IN HUGO'S NOVEL.

Mackintosh’s Les Miz had an aggressive marketing campaign that demanded an instantly-recognizable emblem. London-based advertiser Russ Englin really delivered the goods. How? By turning his attention toward the source material.

Early editions of the Les Misérables novel often included artwork by Emile Bayard, Hugo’s favorite illustrator. By far the best known of these pieces was an ink drawing in which little Cosette sweeps up the Thenardiers’ floor, which appeared on the 1980 concept album. Englin simply cropped her head and shoulders from this image and placed a tattered French flag behind them.

4. “ON MY OWN” EVOLVED FROM ONE OF FANTINE'S SONGS.

In the French-language version, Fantine sings a regretful number called “L'Air de la Misère” (“The Poverty Song”), along with her other big showstopper, “I Dreamed a Dream.” However, Mackintosh felt that these tracks were a bit too similar. As he told The Guardian, “we didn’t want Fantine singing two ballads back-to-back before she expired—so we re-wrote [one] and gave it to Eponine.”

5. THE EARLY REVIEWS WERE ATROCIOUS.

When Les Miz opened in London’s Barbican Theatre, most critics panned it. The Observer’s Michael Ratcliffe dismissed the show as “a witless and synthetic entertainment.” Jack Tinker of The Daily Mail complained that “despite the grandeur of the music, the courage of the intentions, Les Misérables has, sadly, been reduced to The Glums.” And, in the mind of City Limits reporter Lyn Gardner, it was nothing but a “load of sentimental old tosh.”

Mackintosh was devastated—until he took a quick trip to the box office. There, he learned that in less than 24 hours after the maiden performance, Les Miz had sold an unprecedented 5000 tickets. “The public had just voted with its feet,” says Mackintosh, “… For me, it was a great lesson in the real power of word of mouth.”

6. TODAY, EACH PROFESSIONAL PERFORMANCE INCLUDES A WHOPPING 392 COSTUMES.

That translates to 5000+ individual articles of clothing—and 85 wigs!

7. DURING A PRE-BROADWAY MATINEE, ONE TECHNICAL SNAFU FORCED $120,000 IN TICKET REFUNDS.

Aude, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Broadway producers will often test out their shows in non-NYC theaters before taking them to the Big Apple. On December 26, 1986, Les Misérables began an eight-week stint at the John F. Kennedy Performing Arts Center in Washington D.C.

But, there was a major malfunction that first week. To get from scene to scene, the original Les Miz production famously used a rotating stage. Half an hour into the December 28 matinee performance, the turntable stopped working properly. Technicians found that, due to “glitches … in the controls,” it could only rotate at unsafe velocities. When the performance was subsequently canceled, $120,000-worth of ticket refunds had to be distributed.

8. “BRING HIM HOME” WAS SUNG AT JIM HENSON'S MEMORIAL SERVICE.

The man behind Kermit the Frog, Cookie Monster, and countless other great American characters adored this prayerful song. On May 16, 1990, 53-year-old Henson suddenly passed away. Five days later, droves of performers that he’d inspired and mentored gathered to honor their captain at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. Among them was Muppet Show regular Louise Gold, who sang a beautiful rendition of “Bring Him Home” at the service.

9. THE ORIGINAL BROADWAY COSETTE WAS ALSO THE SINGING VOICE OF DISNEY'S POCAHONTAS.

Before taking on the Les Miz gig, Judy Kuhn worked with lyricist Stephen Schwartz on a musical called Rags, which flopped spectacularly and didn’t even live to see its fifth performance. But apparently she made a good impression on him. When Schwartz and fellow songwriter Alan Menken started toying with the idea of an animated film about Pocahontas, they asked Kuhn to record a conceptual song they’d put together called “Colors of the Wind.” She agreed and eventually did the heroine’s singing in the actual movie.

10. OUT OF PURE SPITE, LONDON'S FIRST FANTINE WORE MEN'S CLOTHES DURING ACT II.

Moonfall, Youtube

In the original British run, leads were required to change costumes and join the chorus when they weren’t playing their primary role. Stage icon Patti LuPone, who already had a Tony, was playing Fantine and really hated this policy. For a while, LuPone avoided chorus duty by pointing out that she was also doing another show at the time and needed to rest her voice. Once the other musical wrapped, however, this excuse fell apart. Frustrated, LuPone decided to be difficult and insisted on going out in drag for most of Act II. Today, most professional Fantines now follow her lead and wear male garments after intermission.

11. LES MISÉRABLES IS THE FIFTH LONGEST-RUNNING BROADWAY MUSICAL OF ALL TIME.

Only Phantom of the Opera, Chicago, The Lion King and Cats have enjoyed a longer Manhattan lifespan. Worldwide, over 70 million people have seen a professional production.

12. PRESIDENTS CLINTON AND OBAMA TURNED "ONE DAY MORE" INTO A CAMPAIGN SONG.

Late in Clinton’s ’92 presidential run, he had Les Miz’s stirring Act I finale played at a New Jersey rally. Our current commander-in-chief took a page from his fellow Democrat’s playbook and repeatedly used “One Day More” during the 2008 and 2012 races.

13. THE 2012 FILM VERSION HAD AN UNUSUALLY HUGE SOUND DEPARTMENT.

Director Tom Hooper made the unconventional—though not unprecedented—choice to record his actors live on-set, as opposed to taping their vocals in a studio beforehand. This approach demanded a sound crew that was three times larger than what an average film possesses.

“We all know movie sets are very noisy places,” says production sound mixer Simon Hayes. To muffle extraneous footsteps, off-screen carpets were laid down wherever the crew could find space for them. Additionally, a silent wind tunnel was used in lieu of standard wind machines.

14. QUEEN ELIZABETH II ONCE THREW A COMMAND PERFORMANCE IN HONOR OF THE LASTING ANGLO-FRENCH ALLIANCE.

In 2004, she treated French President Jacques Chirac to 40 minutes’ worth of Les Miz highlights at Windsor Castle. Also in attendance were British Prime Minster Tony Blair and one Cameron Mackintosh—who’d been knighted in 1996. Though some journalists felt that, given the occasion, presenting a British take on something as quintessentially French as Les Misérables was in poor taste, Mackintosh adamantly supported the Queen’s choice.

“This,” he said, “is the most successful and most exciting artistic collaboration between France and England ever, and it has a universal story about the triumph of the human spirit. What could be more suitable?”

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#TBT
Hey, Vern: It's the Ernest P. Worrell Story
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Mill Creek Entertainment

In her review of the 1991 children’s comedy Ernest Scared Stupid, The Washington Post film critic Rita Kempley described the titular character, the dim-witted but well-meaning Ernest P. Worrell, as “the global village idiot.” As portrayed by Kentucky native Jim Varney, Ernest was in the middle of a 10-film franchise that would see him mistakenly incarcerated (Ernest Goes to Jail), enlisting in the military (Ernest in the Army), substituting for an injured Santa (Ernest Saves Christmas), and returning to formal education in order to receive his high school diploma (Ernest Goes to School).

Unlike slapstick contemporaries Yahoo Serious and Pauly Shore, Varney took a far more unusual route to film stardom. With advertising executive John Cherry III, Varney originated the Ernest character in a series of regional television commercials. By one estimate, Ernest appeared in over 6000 spots, hawking everything from ice cream to used cars. They grew so popular that the pitchman had a 20,000-member fan club before his first movie, 1987’s Ernest Goes to Camp, was even released.

Varney and Ernest became synonymous, so much so that the actor would dread going on dates for fear Ernest fans would approach him; he sometimes wore disguises to discourage recognition. Though he could recite Shakespeare on a whim, Varney was rarely afforded the opportunity to expand his resume beyond the denim-jacketed character. It was for this reason that Varney, though grateful for Ernest’s popularity, would sometimes describe his notoriety as a “mixed blessing,” one that would come to a poignant end foreshadowed by one of his earliest commercials.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1949, Varney spent his youth being reprimanded by teachers who thought his interest in theater shouldn’t replace attention paid to math or science. Varney disagreed, leaving high school just two weeks shy of graduation (he returned in the fall for his diploma) to head for New York with $65 in cash and a plan to perform.

The off-Broadway plays Varney appeared in were not lucrative, and he began to bounce back and forth between Kentucky and California, driving a truck when times were lean and appearing in TV shows like Petticoat Junction when his luck improved. During one of his sabbaticals from Hollywood, he met Cherry, who cast him as an aggressive military instructor named Sergeant Glory in an ad for a car dealer in Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1981, Varney was asked back to film a new spot for Cherry, this one for a dilapidated amusement park in Bowling Green, Kentucky, that Cherry considered so unimpressive he didn’t want to show it on camera. Instead, he created the character of Ernest P. Worrell, a fast-talking, often imbecilic local who is constantly harassing his neighbor Vern. (“Know what I mean, Vern?” became Ernest’s catchphrase.)

The spot was a hit, and soon Varney and Cherry were being asked to film spots for Purity Dairies, pizza parlors, convenience stores, and other local businesses. In the spots, Ernest would usually look into the camera—the audience shared Vern’s point of view—and endorse whatever business had enlisted his services, usually stopping only when Vern devised a way to get him out of sight.

Although the Purity commercials initially drew complaints—the wide-angle lens created a looming Ernest that scared some children—his fame grew, and Varney became a rarity in the ad business: a mascot without a permanent corporate home. He and Cherry would film up to 26 spots in a day, all targeted for a specific region of the country. In some areas, people would call television stations asking when the next Ernest spot was due to air. A Fairfax, Virginia Toyota dealership saw a 50 percent spike in sales after Varney began appearing in ads.

Logging thousands of spots in hundreds of markets, Varney once said that if they had all been national, he and Cherry would have been wealthy beyond belief. But local spots had local budgets, and the occasions where Ernest was recruited for a major campaign were sometimes prohibited by exclusivity contracts: He and Cherry had to turn down Chevrolet due to agreements with local, competing car dealers.

Still, Varney made enough to buy a 10-acre home in Kentucky, expressing satisfaction with the reception of the Ernest character and happily agreeing to a four-picture deal with Disney’s Touchstone Pictures for a series of Ernest features. Released on a near-constant basis between 1987 and 1998, the films were modest hits (Ernest Goes to Camp made $28 million) before Cherry—who directed several of them—and Varney decided to strike out on their own, settling into a direct-to-video distribution model.

“It's like Oz, and the Wizard ain't home," Varney told the Sun Sentinel in 1985, anticipating his desire for autonomy. “Hollywood is a place where everything begins but nothing originates. It's this big bunch of egos slamming into each other.”

Varney was sometimes reticent to admit he had ambitions beyond Ernest, believing his love of Shakespeare and desire to perform Hamlet would be perceived as the cliched story of a clown longing to be serious. He appeared in 1994’s The Beverly Hillbillies and as the voice of Slinky Dog in 1995’s Toy Story. But Ernest would continue to be his trademark.

The movies continued through 1998, at which point Varney noticed a nagging cough. It turned out to be lung cancer. As Ernest, Varney had filmed an anti-smoking public service announcement in the 1980s. In his private life, he was a chain smoker. He succumbed to cancer in 2000 at the age of 50, halting a series of planned Ernest projects that included Ernest Goes to Space and Ernest and the Voodoo Curse.

Varney may never have gotten an opportunity to perform in a wider variety of roles, but he did receive some acknowledgment for the one he had mastered. In 1989, Varney took home an Emmy for Outstanding Performer in a children’s series, a CBS Saturday morning show titled Hey, Vern: It’s Ernest!

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he told the Orlando Sentinel in 1991, “because it's as hard to escape from it as it is to get into it.''

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Pop Culture
Epic Gremlins Poster Contains More Than 80 References to Classic Movies
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Ape Meets Girl

It’s easy to see why Gremlins (1984) appeals to movie nerds. Executive produced by Steven Spielberg and written by Chris Columbus, the film has horror, humor, and awesome 1980s special effects that strike a balance between campy and creepy. Perhaps it’s the movie’s status as a pop culture treasure that inspired artist Kevin Wilson to make it the center of his epic hidden-image puzzle of movie references.

According to io9, Wilson, who works under the pseudonym Ape Meets Girl, has hidden 84 nods to different movies in this Gremlins poster. The scene is taken from the movie’s opening, when Randall enters a shop in Chinatown looking for a gift for his son and leaves with a mysterious creature. Like in the film, Mr. Wing’s shop in the poster is filled with mysterious artifacts, but look closely and you’ll find some objects that look familiar. Tucked onto the bottom shelf is a Chucky doll from Child’s Play (1988); above Randall’s head is a plank of wood from the Orca ship made famous by Jaws (1975); behind Mr. Wing’s counter, which is draped with a rug from The Shining’s (1980) Overlook Hotel, is the painting of Vigo the Carpathian from Ghostbusters II (1989). The poster was released by the Hero Complex Gallery at New York Comic Con earlier this month.

“Early on, myself and HCG had talked about having a few '80s Easter Eggs, but as we started making a list it got longer and longer,” Wilson told Mental Floss. “It soon expanded from '80s to any prop or McGuffin that would fit the curio shop setting. I had to stop somewhere so I stopped at 84, the year Gremlins was released. Since then I’ve thought of dozens more I wish I’d included.”

The ambitious artwork has already sold out, but fortunately cinema buffs can take as much time as they like scouring the poster from their computers. Once you think you’ve found all the references you can possibly find, you can check out Wilson’s key below to see what you missed (and yes, he already knows No. 1 should be Clash of the Titans [1981], not Jason and the Argonauts [1963]). For more pop culture-inspired art, follow Ape Meets Girl on Facebook and Instagram.

Key for hidden image puzzle.
Ape Meets Girl

[h/t io9]

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