The Boys from the Backroom is a line from Patrick Cowley's 'Menergy' (best version recorded posthumously with vocals by Sylvester).
The boys in the back room are laughin' it up
Shootin' off energy
The guys in the street talk checkin' you out
Talkin' 'bout Menergy
Who is to say that this mysterious 'menergy' does not refer to the powerful brotherhood of man coming together in solidarity to fight for liberation? Evoking, in turn, the back room of the Cafe Musain from Hugo's novel, the disco lyric, and more diffusely the title of 1970s gay horror play The Boys in the Band and 1970s British teleplay-about-the-working-class The Boys From The Blackstuff.
In the musical, the Backroom is the name of the underground disco where the Amis meet; disco was built in post-industrial semi-abandoned/semi-squatted/not-strictly-licensed spaces, so in tribute to the cafe, the Backroom is located in some kind of former food processing/distribution plant. The floor of the disco has been painted with a huge mural of the city.
The album cover was inspired by the Godspell font, and by my dad's 1970s LP of Joseph And His Technicolour Dreamcoat, which features a denim jacket covered with patches.
Thanks to Ofnuts GIMP script for the album-cover font effects; templatesss for assistance on the Downloads playlist layout and the Cast polaroid layout; the Yesterweb for everything I know about HTML/CSS; and friends, for everything I know about Les Miserables.
Eddie Kendricks took the longest to find, because there is no distinctive male vocal performance associated with Valjean in the musical. The Temptations are on the soundtrack and (former-member) Kendricks' has a smooth falsetto, a great face, and perhaps he could bring it on one of his girl-fronted tracks? Kendricks 1972 full version of Girl You Need A Change Of Mind was a popular underground disco hit.
Donna Summer and Sylvester have both been labelled "the Queen of Disco", powerful vocalists heading up two of the era's mightiest collaborations. I am working on fanwork about the Amis, set in The Boys from the Backroom setting, and Sylvester is also my "concept cast" for Enjolras there - androgynous and otherworldly, the face and voice of the revolution, the figure that everything is channeled through.
Carl Anderson played a fan favourite Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar (1973), and Thin Lizzy frontman Phil Lynott played Reverend Nathaniel on Jeff Wayne's War of the Worlds (1978). Both performers may plausibly joined a project like this. This musical gives Combeferre a feature song - in which he explains the science of revolution to Marius - and expands Grantaire's role. In terms of my other fanfic, I'm actually envisaging Combeferre rather differently to this - but we'll see, because I am pretty attached to this now - I'm still in the research stage.
The Bee Gees mark the point at which disco "sold out" from its radical roots, as well as being the face of dorky disco in the popular imagination; that's a good fit for "well meaning but doesn't quite get it politically" Marius, and I went for Barry because he had the worst hair and best coat. Marius represents loving something without quite understanding it. Evelyn “Champagne” King was discovered at 17 - a good age to play Cosette, and I've chosen her breakout hit 'Shame' as Cosette's solo song. The four members of Sister Sledge graduated between 1972-1977; I've chosen Kathy.
Teddy Pendergrass is responsible for me adding a fancast to the project, after finding his 'You Can't Hide From Yourself' and thinking "oh wow I want to see this person play the bishop for real". In this musical, this voice returns (as the bishop, or as a voice of the narrator?) to close Act II, because Pendergrass was also the lead singer of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes (and less coherently, in Act III on 'Where Are All My Friends?'). But, if it was really the 70s, I think this is who I'd cast as Valjean. The Sanctuary and, later, the Limelight were two NY venues in converted churches - so I envisage the Bishop as creating that space.
John Travolta made his debut on stage with Grease and Over Here!. He plays Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever: self-indulgent about his clothes and appearance, involved in gangs, absolutely gorgeous and a nightmare for women. Sounds like our boy! The Patron Minette get a solo number, and I like to imagine them dressed like John Shearer's photographs of NY gangs in the 1970s, with cut-off-sleeve denim jackets boasting of their affiliation.
For Javert, I wanted a performer associated with rock - with a powerful soul sound; and preferably white, to underline the musical's political themes. Roger Daltry appeared in the Who's musical movie, Tommy, and narrative concept album Quadrophenia. For more context on the bigoted undertones of the battle between rock and disco, see here. If you're new to Daltry's voice, check out "Love Reign O'er Me" or "5:15".
Napoleon plays a core role in the production: performing as Marius's speech (Act 2: Power), as well as appearing during the battle of Waterloo. Glenn Leonard, Dennis Edwards and Richard Street share lead on the single; I've chosen Edwards, arbitrarily as a representative of that song. But I think the image is Paul Roebson in The Emperor Jones, because the photo is great (Roebson was a singer, as well as an actor and civil rights activist - and would have made a pretty cool Napoleon but was in retirement by the time The Boys from the Backroom was staged).
Disco was the defining genre of the 70s in America - dance music, shaped for the nightclub. It comes out of Funk, Motown, Soul and exotic imports; and splits out into the synth-driven sound of the 80s mainstream, as well as other dancefloor sounds like Hi-NRG, House and Garage. I've chosen songs from the 70s (neither too early nor too late), with a "classic" and American sound (as opposed to the colder, more synthetic feel of Eurodisco) - occasionally dipping back into funk; but really, the only criterion was "anything I like that fits".
Sylvester is best known for the late-disco/proto-hiNRG 'Mighty Real', which is brilliant, egg-cracking stuff. Sylvester is also my fan-cast for Enjolras in this setting, so even though this song is performed by 'the Narrator', I like the idea of Enjolras' performer coming on early in another role (or is it?) to open the curtains with the backdrop of history. Couldn't find a way to get 'Mighty Real' into the soundtrack, alas. Despite her association with disco, Sylvester wasn't actually a fan of the genre, only moving into it for commercial reasons - dreaming instead to make a concept album about obscure black women blues singers in twenties’ and thirties’ Harlem.
Teddy Pendergrass, oh my. This project is silly, but this song is a moment on the soundtrack where I can feel a parallel dimension shimmer through, and the musical feels real. Can you imagine this on stage as the Bishop? I can see it in my heart. I can't wait to dive into this guy's back catalogue.
I liked this as Valjean's 'theme', because of the various kinds of escape he embodies. Literal prison breaks (and a handful of break-ins), attempts to break out of cycles of poverty and violence and social situations he's trapped in, and breaking out of his own mind.
A theme that comes out from dance theorists is the way disco, dance and rave venues are so often post-industrial spaces (The Warehouse, The Garage, old refrigerators, dock buildings). Can we understand the mechanical, repetitive sounds of disco and the all-night sweat-work of the dancing as a kind of labour? I think that's both interesting but also kinda bollocks, but I do think this functions quite interestingly as the shadow-sound of "At The End of The Day", a pumped motivational song that can be repurposed from going out to dance to going back to the grind.
The other musical doesn't go into much detail about Fantine's backstory, whereas Hugo gives it several chapters. I included this mostly because I found the song and it's fabulous, but I also think it does a better job than 'I Dreamed a Dream' at expressing that Fantine's problem isn't a sad breakup with a lost love, but an asshole ex.
At the height of the disco craze, everyone was churning out disco, and this includes disco-flavoured mixes of show-tunes. Feels a bit of a cheat to include it, but it is very good.
A Fantine solo moment for (who else?) Donna Summer. Thank you to S. for putting me on to Ethel Merman's Disco Album, which transcends its camp novelty value to be actually pretty good; 'Something for the Boys' got cut at just the last minute, and in context here is horrifying. What about Lady Marmalade by Labelle? Labelle might notionally be a disco act, but the song just isn't fast enough or have the right beat. But you can swap it in.
Remix culture makes great songs eternal, so I actually know this one from 90s club-set miniseries Queer as Folk.
lol. But really listen to the lyrics: "Isn't it marvellous and strange that the same Providence that rules the lives of great men determines the flow of history but also the lives of ordinary fellows and human relationships?" is a thesis that'd fit straight into a 19th century novel. Hugo would have fucking loved ABBA. But is it disco? It's really more rock and roll drenched in lametta, but I don't care, it's great.
Boney M's underrated great. Splitting the story into three acts instead of two asked the question of where the acts should naturally end. I think love songs from parents to their children are such an underrated genre (see also Stevie Wonder's 'Isn't She Lovely' and that Icelandic Eurovision entry from 2020), and it seems so right that Valjean making this commitment is the end of the story's first arc.
The legend, representing Italo-Disco. My original structure for The Boys from the Backroom is based closely on the other musical, and my excuse for including this song is a) plausible stand-in for 'Castle on a Cloud', b) you probably haven't heard it yet, and haven't lived until you have. Originally, Valjean singing to a sleeping Cosette was the final image of the act. But Sunny dribbles - it doesn't have a proper ending - and uh I just didn't want to cram this song into 4 minutes. So here we are: the album version, a full 16 minutes.
Italo-Disco became popular as part of a process of Europe selling an American-created genre back to itself. As disco fell out of fashion in the late 70s, fewer American releases were made and creativity waned within a saturated market. One strategy disco-heads turned to was importing variants on the genre from where it was taking off abroad, of which Halls of Katmandu is among the most iconic; it was almost impossible to get a copy. This is one of two songs in the musical associating Cosette with a "late disco" sound - more synth-driven, and, basically, sounding more like the 80s (in contrast to the "early disco" sound which is arguably just funk played faster). It's just so good.
I've got a soft spot for act 2, some of my fave songs and moments here. All set in Paris, about the conflicting groups and individuals poised on the brink of revolution. This Act is also all about snapshots - it could occur across a single day, in contrast to the multi-year narrative in Act 1; and it starts from a birds-eye view of the city, narrowing right down to the intensity of the human heart. How Hugolian.
This act begins and ends with a bit of Sister Sledge, a band featuring four sisters - and they're still going, with their kids and grandkids now part of the act. Isn't that lovely? The Amis are a bigger part of TBitB, and are a good place to introduce the act. And after all, this story is all about family and chosen family, right? Right. So here we begin
Somewhat similar to the dance-work of Get On Up And Do It Again in Act 1, occupying the same role as Look Down. Imagine this: the Amis starting the Act with a song about their playfulness, their connection as friends, but giving way on the stage to this broader view of their organisation's serious side. I love this song. There's some great political disco in this act.
This is one of my favourite new discoveries during this project. This act is very much "Les Miserables, But Make It Cats", I really love the way the Paris stage gives way in turn to one group followed by the next - the Patron Minette operating in contrast to the Amis, the General Populace and the Police, drawing attention to the similarities and differences between these factions.
I love this song. I really feel the absence of a Patron Minette number in the other musical now. The Montparnasse fandom might want to add in Amanda Lear's 'Blood and Honey' to the mix. 'Walk the Night' is the mix's representative of gay disco, but the thing about leather culture is you really can't shame it as "dark and deviant" because we get off on that. If I was staging this, I would consider just costuming the Patron Minette as the socially deviant leather-hustlers this song clearly demands; sorry not sorry. For some idea of what that might look like, check out William Friedkin's salacious-but-still-quite-good Cruising (1980), filmed in real venues of the era.
Ok, but seriously though, these lyrics. One critique of 'On My Own' I've picked up from my friends is that, like 'I Dreamed A Dream', it sort of frames Eponine's main problem as heartbreak, instead of being a teenager so hungry she's hallucinating. I actually think the lyrics of Tragedy do an better job of communicating this side as well.
Too fucking short, I could listen to this all day. Most places I've diverged from the outline of the other musical were sparked by discovering a song I could not live without. In the novel, Marius meets the Amis and (recognising they are a politically radical group), delivers a long speech about how brilliant Napoleon was, veering straight into a defence of gorgeous fascist authoritarianism. I don't see this as being Marius' song - or, maybe he forms one of the backing singers; instead, I think we bring on Disco-leon himself. The shadow of the 'great man of history' haunts the book, as it does many literary bricks of the era. But seriously, how fucking cool would this be on stage.
Hyperventilating with joy at finding this, cheers to the Rate Your Music community's Top 400 Disco Singles list. The political lyrics are fun, but wow can you dance to it? That saxophone. I see this as the same scene, following on from Marius' speech - and Combeferre, who sets him straight, is therefore promoted to a singing Ami with a solo. He is, after all, exactly the sort of person who would slam down about the "science of revolution". Giving Combeferre a solo is in great part because when brainstorming for actors, my husband suggested Phil Lynott - lead singer of Thin Lizzy (I'm not a fan) as well as Parson Nathaniel (HUGE fan) in the War of the Worlds concept album - and I just couldn't unsee it. (The B-Side to this single is also fantastic as music, but lyrically is built as a weird-but-nope racist metaphor, so ymmv.)
I wanted our stand it for 'Do You Hear The People Sing' to be instantly recognisable, to have that "I know this and I want to sing along" quality among a mix that is often obscure. Strictly speaking, this should be Enjolras' song - but…if you wanted to cast a 70s disco-funk singer as little Gavroche, there is only one candidate - young Michael Jackson, breakout star from the Jackson 5 and walking advertisement for anti-child-entertainer labour laws.
Gavroche is often done dirty by the other musical - making him into an adorable street brat rather than a full participant in the revolution with an authentic knowledge of what's being fought for. In this musical, perhaps he leads this song. He's more of the people than Enjolras is, you know? And the 2012 film does his part in 'Look Down' really nicely to express this.
If you are on a Michael Jackson boycott, suggested replacements: For something with that same "I know this and I want to sing along!" quality, Ain't No Stoppin Us Now by Mcfadden & Whitehead. For something calling you to get involved, Let’s Start The Dance by Hamilton Bohannon. Or - for something with a more political mood - Give The People What They Want by The O'Jays
One of my favourite songs, ever. Disco is such an otherworldly genre, something a little haunted about it, a nightworld mirage. There's so many songs about love and lust, but this one - for a phantasmic dancer wrapped up in the awe of art - has a strangeness I adore. Grantaire's a fandom favourite, so this musical gives him his missing love song; and I think this one is perfect for it. Within the logic of this story, to sing and dance is to be free; Grantaire isn't just swept away by Enjolras' philosophy of revolution that he cannot comprehend, but his brilliance and release in the way he moves, halo with a disco ball channelling the light and splitting it everywhere.
Nuff said. This sounds 'late' to me (it's 1979) - synth-driven rather than funky, the sound that would come to define the 80s - but I don't hate that, it's a nice fit for this sudden explosion of young people in love. It's not complicated, but then love isn't complicated.
This is now the Pendergrass Stan Zone. Barely making the cut as disco, and expressing the funk-soul roots of the genre, I liked closing out an energetic mix with something a bit more reflective to cool down to. Because it's the same voice from Act 1, I like to imagine the same performer returning - perhaps in character as the Bishop, or perhaps not.
Evelyn King was 17 when she recorded this album, so I chose her as the fancast for Cosette on this project; and taking a harder look at her signature song, and after discussing with Cosette-fan friends, it actually does an alright job as her solo song on the album. A conflict between wanting to be with her lover, but also not leave or let down her family. Cosette is a good place to open and close this act - the story ends with her in ambiguously comfortable life, and so this act starts with her as an opening bookend as well. I understand why Cosette gets a "good girl" persona through the other musical and the novel, but I love the way this song pulls out a more sensual flush of obsession and guilt. She did go to Catholic school where all men were banned from sight, after all.
A classic of the genre, standing in for a kind of Building the Barricades moment in the narrative, but also as a replacement for 'Drink With Me'. I see Grantaire as taking the verses, about celebration, love and party time, but the Amis taking the choruses and giving them a more serious intention.
Another iconic song of the era. I've chosen a 3 minute taster, but you can replace it with a longer mix if preferred (I've tried to be considerate about song lengths, but the history of disco is a history of how to make songs longer, from buying two '45s of the same song to blend the tune into endless length, looping bits you like, and remixing your own extended versions onto tape. Consequently, the short version is never the right answer, and you can often find 6 or 12 minute or even longer versions, which are just dreamlike lost-on-the-tide bodyscapes) Chosen to pick up on all the light/fire/electric energy the Amis are associated with.
Isn't this a great find? Perfect as a Little Fall of Rain stand-in, and just a really unusual, beautiful thing. It's hard to find sad disco.
Thanks to Tim Lawrence for turning me on to Arthur Russell, who did experimental disco (if you like this, there's more!). I've chosen the full 7 minutes (there's no point doing avant garde jazz-psych disco unless you can get lost in it) and the mix by period DJ François K. Yes, it's disco: you can dance to it.
This takes directly from Enjolras' speech at the barricade - claiming that the next century will be "a happy one". Like a lot of ideas in this musical which didn't make it into the other one, I really like the idea of a climactic and hopeful song in this moment.
yes. YES. Here's the sewers song, and as well as an intimidating mood, "looking down the barrel of the devil's gun" is a great description of where our protagonists are. The Amis are alone against the soldiers; Marius is moments from death; Valjean is being threatened by Thenardier and Javert; and Javert is brooding on his near-death experiences with merciful lawbreakers. All while wading through cthonic purgatorial shite. I did find a short version, but couldn't see the point.
Did you know Grace Jones did music? Neither do I, I thought she was just a style icon and I've got to say I don't dig her sound. But finding a Javert Suicide Song was a struggle in this peppy genre, and this is ideal.
lol. But a close-read of the lyrics makes this a good Marius anthem more generally - about falling from wealth to poverty, and discovering his old friends no longer care for him. I guess I'd have liked to swap this out for maybe a big wedding song to keep the energy up.
My early versions of the mix had a handful of songs here which tracked closely to the mood of the other musical - but frankly, I just didn't like them. I'm not dancing for three hours only for the jive to dribble. After some research, I decided to just use my all-time-favourite disco song instead.
Fire is the element most associated with the Amis in the novel (along with light and electricity). It's uplifting, the lyrics of the vocal break hit the spot, and additionally, it's familiar: younger-though-tbh-not-all-that-young-any-more listeners might recognise it from the popular 90s cover by Take That.
I particularly love the way that Vertigo calls out to dancers - get back to the floor, you know what we're playing next; you can feel what this track was made for, where it was played, the symbiosis of how disco evolved around the people who loved it. This is late disco (1978) but evergreen, featuring the mighty pipes of Loleatta Holloway, who appeared on many disco hits, and had a late career revival as (reportedly) the most sampled singer of all time (which wasn't always a great experience for her, often being denied credit for her contribution to tracks, with bands bringing in a skinny girl to lipsynch in live performances and videos). The backing trumpets are house band MSFB who also performed...
What else? To love another person is to see the face of God. That may not be a real Hugo quote, but it's not a bad summation of what the book feels is important - not the church or any particular political ideology or movement, but being able to act from love for your fellow-man. This is the longest track in the show, and is envisaged as a cooldown for the project as a whole - time to slow down, bliss out, let go of the narrative and vibe. An early track embraced and remixed by disco curators, setting the pattern of the genre as danceable yet lush instrumentals.
Oh lord, it took me forever to narrow down which version I wanted - I've gone for the warmer, somewhat more saccharine, older-feeling original Tom Moulton mix; but you should also look into the colder, sadder, more forward-facing Larry Levan mix, which you might recognise from Pose. I love both. 3 minute songs are for cowards.