Perhaps you recently saw the film Les Miserables. Perhaps you got a little caught up in the story of Fantine, the fired factory worker whose desperation to take care of her daughter fuels much of the early plot. Perhaps you made it to the moment where Fantine — played by Anne Hathaway — sings her signature ode to lost love and dashed hopes, “I Dreamed a Dream.” Perhaps you, like much of the rest of the sentient universe, broke down into a blubbering pile of raw-throated eye-gush emotional goo. You are not alone. Hathaway’s version of the song — which recently earned her an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe win — has gotten everyone talking about a tune that was already one of Les Miz‘s most popular standards. “What [director] Tom [Hooper] and Annie have done is created a really raw, pure version of the song,” says Working Title co-chairman Eric Fellner, one of the movie’s producers. “There have been many great versions of the song, but I don’t think anybody has performed it this way, because it’s never been acted on screen before. It’s just very, very emotional.”
As Fellner points out, there have been plenty of memorable takes on “I Dreamed a Dream” since composer Claude-Michel Schonberg and lyricist Alain Boublil wrote the song in Paris in 1979. Read on for a few of our favorites, along with some memories from people involved.
For much more on the history of “I Dreamed a Dream” and Anne Hathaway’s performance in the movie, pick up this week’s issue of Entertainment Weekly.
The original “I Dreamed a Dream” was first heard on a French concept album based on Victor Hugo’s book. It was one of two tunes sung by Fantine, who was voiced by a French singer named Rose Laurens. (The other Fantine song, “L’Air de la Misere,” would later become “On My Own,” which in the English-language musical is sung by Eponine.) “[I Dreamed a Dream] came late in the process of the creation, because we thought we needed another song for Fantine,” says Schonberg, who wrote “Dream” on a white piano in his small Paris apartment. The composer started with just a single line from the Hugo book, teasing out a melody and hoping for inspiration. “When I’m writing something, I sit down at the piano the same way I will be sitting down in the theater,” he says. “I say, ‘I’m in the dark in my seat, the curtain is open, she is arriving onstage. What am I going to see and what am I going hear?’ When I try to visualize what’s going to happen onstage, I might sometimes feel kind of a sparkle of light on the other side of the tunnel. To feel that there is something coming…that’s the best moment of the creation. Because you don’t share it with anybody. You’re on your own, and it’s a very intense moment of joy when you feel that you’re starting to catch some music in the air and this music makes sense and you know that the power of this music will drive you from the first bar to the last bar of the song. That’s a fantastic moment.”
Here’s Rose Laurens performing the French “I Dreamed a Dream.”
In 1985, theater producer Cameron Mackintosh brought Les Miz to London, now with English lyrics (courtesy of Herbert Kretzmer) and Broadway star Patti LuPone in the Fantine role. LuPone says that at first she didn’t quite grasp the song’s power. “When I started working on ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ with Claude-Michel and Alain — I’m not the type of person who has an immediate response,” says LuPone. “I’m a truly an organic actor singer, and it takes a while for it to get into my body, to know whether it’s a good song. When you’re in rehearsal, you’re rehearsing. Then all of a sudden you’re in performance, and then you understand what the effect is of the song. A stage actor performs for an audience. Your performance is only half done until an audience gets in and informs the rest of the performance. The first night of the very first preview was something that I will never forget, because the audience stood up [at the end of the show] and was screaming ‘bravo!’ and clapping with their hands above their heads. We all discovered the power of this piece in the playing of it.”
Below, check out LuPone’s version from the first English-language production of Les Miz.
Les Miz proved to be a massive hit, and to celebrate its 10th anniversary Mackintosh assembled a “dream cast” to perform the show’s music in concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall. London theater star Ruthie Henshall sang “I Dreamed a Dream.” “We all knew we were part of something very, very special,” says Henshall. “Everybody just stepped up to the plate. We all performed it like it was the last time it was ever going to be sung. We all were so nervous. I remember walking to the mic and thinking to myself, ‘Come on darling, stop your legs from shaking.’ I was talking to myself as I walked up to the mic. And then as I started singing, I don’t remember anything else but just falling into the song. It will remain one of the most exciting nights of my career.”
Here’s Henshall singing “I Dreamed a Dream” at the 10th anniversary concert.
There have been plenty of other notable renditions of “I Dreamed a Dream” over the years, including the Susan Boyle performance on Britain’s Got Talent that made the song — and Boyle — a global pop phenomenon. But Hathaway’s version in the film is something different. Singing for a camera rather than the balcony lets her go smaller, emphasizing intimacy over power.
Hathaway spent months working out the performance, but when it finally came time to shoot the scene, she didn’t know what would happen. Her “Dream” sequence was shot over the course of an eight-hour day, which came soon after she had filmed the similarly intense scenes where Fantine gets her hair hacked off and molars yanked out. “I got really emotional during the haircutting and then I went into this kind of dark place for the teeth pulling,” says Hathaway. “I remember at the end of that just going, oh, s—, I haven’t even sung ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ yet and I’ve already hit the emotional apex where I was planning on going. So I walked into ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ after all that preparation and research going, I have no idea what’s about to happen.”
Here’s what did happen when Hathaway reimagined “I Dream a Dream.”