This Day in History: Les Miserables receives three prominent adaptations

December 27 is notable for being the premiere date of three different versions of Les Miserables. But why that date? It goes back to the heart of the story itself.
USA: 'Les Miserables' - New Marquee
USA: 'Les Miserables' - New Marquee / Walter McBride/GettyImages

As discussed in the November 16 version of "Today in History," some days are just better for performance arts than others. This is usually dictated by the theatrical seasons, but it can also be prompted by particular dates having significance to a particular product. As one example, December 27th is a remarkably prominent day in the history of Les Misérables.

The book by Victor Hugo was first published in 1862, and it explores the morality of revolutionary France. Though there are many characters with profound impact on the story, the primary plot follows the conflicts between Jean Valjean and Javert. Valjean's life was haunted by the legal repurcussions of trying to save his sister and her starving children, and Javert was the police inspector intent on seeing him pay for breaking the law.

Although the book is considered a classic of European literature, it has also had a prominent place in other media, as many adaptations have been made. Here, we will discuss three adaptations that all debuted on December 27th, along with an explanation of why this date became so important.

Anthony Perkins
Anthony Perkins / Jeremy Fletcher/GettyImages

December 27, 1978: CBS premieres a made-for-TV version of Les Misérables

The 1978 version of Les Misérables starred Richard Jordan as Jean Valjean and Anthony Perkins as Javert. Producer Norman Rosemont fought for the film to be produced, as part of his collection of historical dramas. One notable feature of this movie is that the Thénardiers have a very minimal role, which completely eliminates the love triangle between Eponine, Marius, and Cosette and allows the focus to stay on Valjean and Javert.

December 27, 1986: Les Misérables opens at the Kennedy Center

The musical version of Les Misérables debuted in France, in 1980. However, it transferred to England within a few years, premiering in the West End in 1985. This success primed a spot for the show on Broadway, but it needed to first be tested on an American audience.

From December 27, 1986 through February 14, 1987, Les Misérables played at the Kennedy Center in Washington D. C. Its success there prompted the musical to move to Broadway in March, starting what would be a sixteen-year run. At the time, it was the second longest-running show on Broadway, and it still holds the sixth-highest spot today.

December 27, 1992: Les Misérables opens in Copenhagen

Due to its success in England and the United States, Les Misérables was on its way to making theatre history. One of the major components of its success was that, despite focusing on a relatively minor part of French history, the story had international appeal.

On December 27, 1992, Les Misérables debuted in Denmark at the Østre Gasværk Teater. In this production, Kurt Ravn played Jean Valjean and Claus Kofod played Javert. While this show might not have been hugely influential, it is part of Les Misérables's long history of international success, with performances in at least 53 countries to date.

Portrait Of Eugène François Vidocq (1775-1857)
Portrait Of Eugène François Vidocq (1775-1857) / Heritage Images/GettyImages

Why December 27?

At first glance, December 27 is a strange choice in date for Les Misérables to debut. After all, the story is heavily based on the Paris Uprising of 1832, otherwise known as the June Rebellion. This incident took place on June 5 and 6, which seem like more relevant days to the history of the story.

In addition, many productions chose to debut based on their own needs. Openings were scheduled based on how long was needed to prepare, and if they were moved, it was often because of conflicting shows, not historical relevance.

With that being said, however, it is strange that there would be three major productions premiering on the same exact date.

As it turns out, the date may actually have something to do with Les Misérables's source material. Victor Hugo based many of the story's key moments on events he witnessed in his own life, but his protagonists were strongly inspired by Eugène François Vidocq.

Vidocq was both a criminal and an inspector, and both Jean Valjean and Javert borrow events from his life. One major event in his life—being sentenced to eight years of prison labor—was set on December 27, 1796. Victor Hugo's novel and its many adaptations begin in 1815, which sets Valjean's conviction in 1796 as well.

While there were almost certainly practical reasons for these three productions debuting in December, the exact date may well be an Easter Egg for passionate fans of the story, who would know of Vidocq and how his conviction on December 27 established the core of Jean Valjean's character.

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