WHILE Les Miserables has been a worldwide phenomenon of stage and screen, another tune-filled adaptation of a Victor Hugo novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, has languished for almost 50 years. Now London's King's Head Theatre is staging Quasimodo by Lionel Bart; the creator of Oliver! is acknowledged as one of the founders of the modern British stage musical.
''The music is genius and the adaptation honest, dark and sexy,'' says Adam Spreadbury-Maher, the Australian-born artistic director of the venerable north London tavern theatre.
The 118-seat venue might not be putting on as lavish a spectacle as Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Shonberg's Les Miserables, but Hugo's tragic tale of the hunchbacked bell ringer of Paris' Notre Dame Cathedral and his unrequited love for gypsy girl Esmerelda packs as much punch as that epic tear-jerker, according to Spreadbury-Maher.
Quasimodo has languished since Bart wrote it in 1963-64 and apart from a workshop production for people in the theatre industry in 1995, featuring original Les Miserables star Frances Ruffelle, it has never been seen.
Part of the reason, explains Spreadbury-Maher, is that Bart developed cancer and died, aged 68, in 1999. In addition, he says, although there was great interest in Bart's version including from Cameron Mackintosh, another, French, musical on the same theme in 2000 bombed with audiences and critics.
''Any producer worth his salt would be scared off by such a public 'mild response' and not dip their toe in the water again on the same subject until at least, well, say 13 years later,'' Spreadbury-Maher says.
A self-described passionate seeker of new and neglected theatrical works, Spreadbury-Maher is back home visiting family in the Australian Capital Territory, where he studied music and theatre directing at the Canberra School of Music, before Quasimodo opens in London in March.
After a brief career here the 31-year-old headed for Britain in 2005, alternating theatre directing with opera and setting up a successful theatre pub, The Cock Tavern, in 2009 with revivals and new works by, among others, Arnold Wesker and Edward Bond. A cut-back version of Puccini's La Boheme transferred to the West End and won a 2011 Olivier Award.
As a champion of Australian theatre, the venue also staged a slew of Australian plays not seen before in London, including Hannie Rayson's Hotel Sorrento, Jack Hibberd's A Stretch of the Imagination and Louis Nowra's Cosi.
Alongside the Cock (which closed in 2011 but may reopen in 2013) Spreadbury-Maher took over the running of the King's Head in London's Islington in 2010; founded in 1970, it was the first new pub theatre opened in England since Shakespeare's day.
He rebranded it as London's little opera house, a rough-and-ready vibrant alternative to Covent Garden and the English National Opera's Coliseum. His 2012 version of Tosca, set in East Germany, was a co-production with Sweden's Malmo Opera. It also puts on straight plays, including an award-winning production of Tennessee Williams' Vieux Carre.
Quasimodo is the venue's first musical and its director, Robert Chevara (who is also the King's Head's associate director), is working closely with the Lionel Bart estate, Spreadbury-Maher says. The show's choreographer, Lee Proud, also worked with Bart and the costume designer, Jonathan Lipman, designed for the 1995 workshop; ''and Lionel Bart drank at the King's Head'', he adds.
The songs are all there, he says, but there was never a definitive ''book'' or script. When Bart sent the original score to his friend and fellow song and musical writer Noel Coward, ''the Master'' as he was known responded: ''Brilliant, dear boy, but were you on drugs when you wrote it?''
Bart, who was gay, spent his life hiding his orientation and more than 20 years were spent in a haze of addiction to alcohol and pills, having lost the millions he made from his musical adaptation of Dickens' Oliver Twist.
Notwithstanding Coward's comment and the fact that it is a ''diamond in the rough'', it's an insightful masterpiece, says Spreadbury-Maher, a dark look at sex and ostracism that emphasises Bart's identification with Quasimodo as an outsider.
Realising Bart's ambition of staging it is his main priority, he says. ''If the show moves into town, then a larger audience will get to see Quasimodo. If nothing else, the King's Head is bringing Lionel Bart's final masterpiece to the world for the first time since he started writing it exactly 50 years ago. And that's pretty cool.''