After 16 years in New York and more than $400 million in ticket sales, Les Miserables will play its final performance Sunday.

Cameron Mackintosh, its legendary producer, yesterday recalled how the show went from being an obscure Paris oddity to a worldwide blockbuster.

Les Miserables was first produced in the City of Light in 1980. But Mackintosh didn't get really excited until two years later, when he got hold of an album containing some of the songs.

"The next morning I rang up the biggest Francophile I knew -- Alan Jay Lerner -- and asked him to listen to it. He said, 'Cameron, it's a terrific show, but it's not for me. I write romantic idealism. You need someone tougher.'"

To adapt the show into English, Mackintosh hired James Fenton, a poet and, at the time, a critic for the Sunday Times of London.

Fenton was just setting off on a canoe trip down the Borneo and took Victor Hugo's massive novel along with him. In his memoir, he recalled tearing out chapters of the 1,000-plus page book as he finished them, feeding them to the crocodiles.

Fenton's adaptation turned out to be too poetic, so Mackintosh hired yet another critic, the Daily Mail's Herbert Kretzmer.

The show rehearsed 10 weeks, under the direction of Trevor Nunn and John Caird, and opened in 1985 to, Mackintosh, says, "some of the worst reviews you have ever read."

He took the creators to lunch to help them salve their wounds. During the meal, he rang the box office to check ticket sales.

"The told me they had sold 5,000 tickets that morning and that the phones had not stopped ringing," he says.

Mackintosh says it was a local TV program that started the positive buzz.

"That morning, they aired sort of a vox populi with audience members who had seen the show and loved it," he recalled.

Later rounds of reviews in the magazine and American papers were much better and within a week, Les Miserables was the hottest ticket in London, a feat it would repeat in New York and dozens of cities around the world.

By the way: Not long before he died, Lerner caught a preview of the show. He ran into Mackintosh at the theater and said: "I told you, dear boy, it was terrific, and I was right!"