7
Jul

“Les Miserables” – 25 Years Young

There’s a reason the music of your youth is the music that follows you throughout your life.  When you’re stumbling through the transition from adolescence to adulthood you make strong, immediate connections to things around you.  It’s the reason your first love is always so intense.  It’s the reason you feel invincible when you’re out with your friends.  It’s the foundation that leads to that nostalgic look back at “the good old days” in later years.  Those moments and memories that surround you during that time of your life become an integral part of who you are.  For me, one of those moments was with “Les Miserables”.

I came of musical age during the 80’s – hair metal, the birth of MTV, The King of Pop, and the advent of the “mega” Broadway musical.  For my money (and with no apology to “Phantom of the Opera” fans – I just never liked that show), there was none bigger than “Les Miserables”.  Debuting on Broadway in 1986, it became one of the most successful musicals of all time.

During my senior year in high school, we did a musical review.  The closing number was a medley of songs from “Les Miserables”.  I played the part of Marius.  We defended the barricades, Eponine died in my arms, and everyone dreamed of one day more.  It was the perfect exclamation point to that year and, in many ways, it was a much larger, if more subtle, metaphor for my entire high school experience (but that’s a story for another day).  It made a deep impression on me, and the music from the show would follow me and continue to fill me with wonder for the next 20 plus years.

I’ve seen “Les Miserables” more than a few times in those 20 plus years.  I’ve seen it on Broadway, London’s West End, Miami, Atlanta, Dallas – and a few weeks ago, I had a chance to see it in LA.  Back out on tour to celebrate it’s 25th anniversary, the show has been updated with new staging and stocked with a brilliant cast.  Some things have changed, but one thing remains – it still packed the same punch for me, even after all these years.

If you don’t know the story of “Les Miserables” well – that in and of itself is a good reason to go see the show.  Based on the book by Victor Hugo, it follows a man – Jean Valjean – as he spends his entire life in search of redemption and validation.  With much of it set against the backdrop of the failed 1832 student uprising in Paris, the story tackles everything from love, to betrayal, to rebellion, to redemption – all while celebrating mankind’s undying thirst for freedom and salvation.

The 25th Anniversary production is a reimagining of the original.  The music is still essentially the same, but the show has been almost completely restaged.  The production is now more intimate and, in many ways, more engaging. At the same time – I miss the rotating stage, the massive self-constructing barricades, and the epic minimalism that gave the original show much of its uniqueness and appeal.  A little more on that later.

I will say, when the new staging works, it works incredibly well.  Fantine’s days at the factory during Act 1 have the dirty, claustrophobic feel of a garment factory in the early 19th century. The first meeting between Enjorales and his band of friends takes place in the basement of a similar factory. Having a defined meeting place, as opposed to the more open staging in the original, serves to both bring the group closer together and draw the audience into their world. Their sense of camaraderie is palpable and the immediacy and import of their decisions is magnified by the restricted space they occupy.

The scene that benefits the most from the new staging is Javert’s suicide.  A key scene during Act 2, I’ve seen it played many ways; the bridge shooting up into the rafters after his jump, whirlpools of light on the stage, and with Javert simply flailing arms.  In this production, Javert leaps from the railing and stays suspended in mid-air.  The bridge breaks apart around him and flies offstage into the wings. On the wall behind him is projected a dark, swirling maelstrom.  As his last note rings out, he is sucked into that maelstrom and disappears from the stage, all while still suspended in mid-air.  It is a masterful interpretation of everything the song is about and is one of the highlights of the new production.

For all the success of the new staging, there are two major changes that weaken the show.  First is the formation of the barricades.  The centerpiece (quite literally) of the original show was a massive turntable making up the stage.  This revolving marvel of stagecraft was ingeniously used to provide both motion and perspective.  The culmination of that stagecraft was the formation of the barricades.  Two massive piles of wood and scraps would invert themselves, rotate 45 degrees, and come together in the center of the stage, forming the massive barricades put up by the students.  The entire construction would spin 360 degrees on the massive turntable, for all the audience to see.  It was awe inspiring – and in this new production, completely missing.  Without the turntable, the barricades come together with what feels more like a whimper than a flourish.

The second, and more emotionally damaging change, comes during Gavroche’s death.  He scrambles over the barricades in search of ammunition for the students, but we only hear him fall to the military’s guns – we never see it. It’s still potent, but nothing like the original.  Without the turntable, we lose the opportunity to see what it happening on the other side of the barricades.  We don’t get to see Gavroche run for the bullets, and we don’t see him toss the bag of ammunition to Enjorales just as the soldiers cut him down.  That moment has always been one of the most poignant in the show for me.  Without it, the second act is now missing one of its most important emotional touch points.

(As an aside, the relationship between Gavroche and Grantaire is still one of the most nuanced and underrated sub-plots of the show – and played quite well in this updated version. For all his drunken proclamations and dismissive attitude, Grantaire is the one who ultimately takes Gavroche under his wing and tries to protect him at the barricades.  Not seeing Gavroche’s death, the audience instead is focused on Grantaire’s anguish at the final gunshot. The next time you see the show, watch closely the way Grantaire and Gavroche interact.  It’s that attention to detail and layering of the story that makes “Les Miserables” one of the greatest musicals of all time.)

As I mentioned earlier, the cast for this production is top notch. First, Betsy Morgan is one of the best Fantines I’ve seen. All too often it’s easy for Fantine to veer into shrill and slightly unsympathetic. Morgan brings a much needed warmth and resonance to the role. The timbre of her voice in its lower register is marvelous and she handles the higher register without problem – thankfully not suffering from the thin, abrasiveness that seems to afflict many sopranos.

Brianna Carlson-Goodman also shines as Eponine.  Eponine always has been, and continues to be, one of my favorite characters in all of musical theater – so I may be a bit biased.  Her story of unrequited love is one that was easily grasped by my teenaged self, just discovering the show – but the depth of her character is such that 20 years later, I still make that same connection the moment she steps on stage.  Carlson-Goodman is the understudy for Eponine in this production, but luckily I was able to see her at the performance I attended.  She brought both vigor and vulnerability to the role, and stole most of the scenes from Marius and Cossette.

The Thenardiers are always among the crowd favorites when cast well.  Here, Michael Kostroff and Shawna M. Hamic turn in virtuoso performances.  Kostroff seems be channeling both Tim Burton and Eric Idle as he delivers a Thenardier every bit as smarmy, reprehensible, and entertaining as you could ask for.  Hamic counterbalances him perfectly, providing some of the show’s biggest laughs, all while not losing the sadness and resignation that lurks just beneath the surface of Madame Thenardier.
Last but not least is J. Mark McVey as Valjean.  He is everything you could want from Valjean, short of Colm Wilkinson walking out onto the stage.  His voice is crisp and clear, and he easily takes command of the stage.  What makes or breaks a Valjean for me, and many others, has always been “Bring Him Home” (more so now that I am a father myself).  A delicate balance between controlled power and emotional accessibility, the song has become one of the signature moments in the show.  McVey effortlessly draws the audience in with the first note and refuses to let them go.  It’s pitch-perfect, both musically and emotionally.

Do I still prefer the original version of the “Les Miserables”? Yes – it will always be the “real” show for me. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t love this one as well. Just as a classic song can be reimagined for a new generation, so can a great musical. This new, tighter staging will likely open the show up to more venues, and I hope that means more people will get to see the show for the first time.  With or without the turntable stage, the music and the heart of the show is still as good as ever.

I can think of few better ways to spend an evening than at a performance of “Les Miserables”.  Its music helped define the end of my childhood and has been with me my entire adult life.  All that time, and I still get a chill when the students raise their red flag in hope and defiance.  I still sit silent and stunned as Fantine’s body is bathed in white light after her death.  I still shed a tear when Eponine dies in Marius’s arms. I still feel the bullets’ impact as Gavroche is gunned down in the streets.  I still share the loss Marius feels when all his friends have died, leaving him to mourn.  And most of all, I still feel the truth in those words Valjean shares with Fantine and Eponine as he joins them in death – “To love another person is to see the face of God.”

© 2011, The Word Zombie. All rights reserved.

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