Les Misérables ''I Dreamed a Dream'' has been melting hearts and boosting careers for more than 30 years. EW goes behind the ballad.

By Rob Brunner
Updated January 18, 2013 at 05:00 AM EST

The day after Thanks-giving, Anne Hathaway attended a screening of Tom Hooper’s film version of the musical Les Misérables. The L.A. theater was packed, and Hathaway didn’t know what to expect. Twenty-seven minutes in, Hathaway sings the show’s most famous ballad, ”I Dreamed a Dream.” ”The woman who was sitting in front of me started crying so hard that she was actually sobbing out loud,” says the 30-year-old actress. ”That was a pretty cool experience.”

The song seems to be having that kind of effect on people. It’s just four and a half minutes of an epic 158-minute movie, but it has already become the film’s signature wet-eye moment. ”There’s an inherent bigness to the song, a certain anthemic nature that I knew might not work as well on screen,” says Hathaway. ”So I really wanted to pull back and try to get into the fragility of the story.” It worked: Hathaway’s performance has earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress, and she just nabbed a Golden Globe for the role. Her version of ”Dream” is the most-purchased individual track from the movie’s soundtrack, which recently hit No. 1 on Billboard‘s album chart.

Of course, ”Dream” has been a beloved musical-theater staple since Hathaway was a toddler. The song — the haunted last cry of Fantine, a single mother and former factory worker desperate to protect her daughter — explores lost love and missed chances in a way that’s resonated for more than 30 years. ”Fantine is so heroic in her love for her child,” says Hathaway, who’s felt a deep connection to the song since her mother, Kate McCauley Hathaway, understudied the role in a touring production of Les Miz in the early ’90s. ”It’s a terrible thing to have to watch a hero broken.”

”I Dreamed a Dream” was born in a small duplex apartment in Paris’ 16th arrondissement, where in early 1978 the pop-song composer Claude-Michel Schönberg sat down at a little white piano and hoped for ”a sparkle of light.” He started with a phrase from Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel,Les Misérables, which he and lyricist Alain Boublil had decided to adapt into a musical-theater piece. ”J’avais rêvé d’une autre vie,” he sang to himself, quickly teasing out a now-familiar melody. ”I’ve dreamed of another life.” Schönberg and Boublil hoped to capture Fantine’s desolation when she realizes that, for her, there will be no happily ever after. ”That’s one of the worst feelings that you can have, that your life has not been what you thought it was going to be,” says Schönberg. ”That’s what I wanted to express through a song.”

In 1980 Schönberg and Boublil released their Les Misérables as a French-language concept album, which featured a young singer named Rose Laurens singing ”J’avais Rêvé D’une Autre Vie.” The album was a hit, and later that year they staged a three-month live version at Paris’ Palais des Sports. That, the songwriters believed, was pretty much that.

Two years later a young British theater producer named Cameron Mackintosh — enjoying his first major success with the musical Cats — happened to hear the French Les Miz album. ”I went, Wow,” Mackintosh recalls. ”I was just blown away by it.” An extensively reworked Les Misérables, with English lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer, opened at London’s Barbican Theatre on Oct. 8, 1985. Critics yawned, but audiences fell for heart-piercing showstoppers like ”Bring Him Home,” ”On My Own,” and, of course, ”I Dreamed a Dream.”

American theater legend Patti LuPone embodied the first English-language Fantine, and her mix of technical expertise and emotional sensitivity set the tone for the soon-to-be-cherished role. ”I was dating some guy in New York who broke up with me over the phone,” says LuPone. ”Well, what do you think informed the song for the rest of my run? My broken heart. The other thing that happened is I developed a bronchial cough. I had a hacking cough and a broken heart. So every night when I went on stage, I felt like I did have tuberculosis and my heart was broken. I’ll tell you what, it isn’t easy. You have to sing through tears. You get to that point in the song and you’re tearing your heart out.”

Les Miz soon grew into a hit, and Broadway beckoned. ”We were hoping that we could have maybe a two-month run in London,” says Schönberg. ”New York? Broadway? It’s incredible. Nobody knew that it was going to be a successful show. Nobody.” When it opened at the Broadway Theatre in March 1987, Randy Graff took over as Fantine, and ”I Dreamed a Dream” continued to blissfully bum out theatergoers — and performers. ”It’s so rich for an actress, because it’s not just a one-note song,” says London stage star Ruthie Henshall, whose version from the 1997 10th-anniversary concert is a particular fan favorite. ”It has the colors of the rainbow in it.”

”Dream” won more admirers over the years, covered by theater veterans as well as stars like Neil Diamond and Aretha Franklin. But the song’s biggest moment came courtesy of a 47-year-old cat lover from Blackburn, Scotland, who was competing on Britain’s Got Talent in 2009. Susan Boyle looked more like a vicar’s wife than a budding pop superstar, and much of the room — including judges Simon Cowell and Piers Morgan — was skeptical when she walked on stage. Then Boyle opened her mouth, Cowell’s eyebrows jumped, and, 116 million YouTube views later, her ”I Dreamed a Dream” became a global phenomenon.

Not everyone is enamored of Boyle’s steamroller performance (LuPone calls the hype around Boyle’s breakthrough rendition ”reality bulls—”). But Mackintosh credits the moment as instrumental in getting Les Miz to the big screen after more than two decades. ”It absolutely was the trigger to a series of things that made this the right moment to do Les Misérables in the cinema,” says Mackintosh, who at the time of Boyle’s triumph was prepping a major 25th-anniversary concert and stage revival. ”It was one of those great miracles that nobody could ever plan.”

Three years later Hathaway arrived at Pinewood Studios outside London to sing her own rendition of ”I Dreamed a Dream.” For Hathaway, who had been preparing for months and, in some ways, most of her life, the experience was almost too much to take. ”It wasn’t fun, and it wasn’t satisfying,” she says of the shoot, during which she sang live to a piano accompaniment that was piped into a hidden earpiece, ”because I wasn’t exploring a truth that I was happy about. As a human being I am devastated that Fantine exists, that people on this planet go through that. So getting closer and closer to that emotion just kept getting darker and darker. With each take my rage took a quantum leap forward. I just had this tempest inside of me. I wish I could say that I was inside of it and loving every second, but I really wasn’t.” Finally, after eight hours and many takes, Hathaway was spent. ”I just went home,” she says, ”and crawled into my husband’s arms.”

Later, in the editing room, Hooper decided to use a single continuous close-up shot of the entire song, which only amplifies the scene’s uncomfortable intimacy. ”You sort of sense that there is something there outside Les Misérables,” says Mackintosh. ”It’s a piece of film and a performance where people will go back and say, ‘Do you remember seeing that?”’

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Les Miserables (2012)

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • Bille August