Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Road Show: Les Misérables

“You only get one cry in life, you’ve chosen well!” – Rip Torn to Alec Baldwin on 30 Rock, upon giving his character a promotion.
Original Broadway poster

Far too many people cry at too much trash disguised as “art”. The Blogger knows people who cry at Twilight, Britney Spears concerts and Jackie Collins novels. Too bad these people have such terrible taste. The Blogger has been known to cry at only one book, film and play in his life. These are, respectively, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Tim Robbins’s Dead Man Walking, and the musical of Les Misérables, or “Les Mis”, as he and millions of others affectionately call it.

Dubbed “the world’s favourite musical”, Les Mis was first performed in France in 1980 and premiered in London’s West End in 1985. The original French score was performed by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, with an English language libretto produced by Herbert Kretzmer. Twenty-six years after its debut, the musical has yet to close and still plays eight performances a week. Such a feat for a long-running show is completely unheard of. The Broadway production, despite some initially mixed critical response, cleared the board at the 1987 Tony Awards and played for sixteen years in New York, with a successful revival less than three years after its closing. The libretto has been translated into 21 languages and performed over the last quarter-century in 38 countries, including Germany, South Korea, Chile, Japan, Argentina, the Netherlands, Israel, Sweden, Australia, Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Mexico, Hungary, Poland and Spain.

Colm Wilkinson, the original
Jean Valjean
Les Mis is no small production. The score demands two dozen major and featured parts. It has been greatly reduced from the original 1,400 page novel by Victor Hugo and yet performances may still run close to three hours. Set over several decades in post-revolutionary France, the main narrative thread concentrates on Jean Valjean, a man who served nineteen years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread for his starving family. This role is one of the most challenging in Broadway history and requires an operatic vocal mastery (it is often played by trained tenors). Upon release, Valjean is hounded by police inspector Javert, a man so relentless in pursuing Valjean over the decades that he’s essentially the world’s most inexhaustible parole officer. Valjean becomes a successful businessman who adopts Cosette, the impoverished daughter of the fragile prostitute Fantine. Fantine’s character is best known for singing “I Dreamed a Dream”, a now-iconic Broadway standard known popularly as Susan Boyle’s audition song for X Factor. Cosette was plucked from the brothel-owning Thenadier family, whose daughter Eponine grows up to fall in love with Marius, Cosette’s beloved. Marius’s school chums are at the forefront of the Paris Uprising of 1832, an insurrection at which thousands of rebellious, ill-equipped universe students who never held a gun in their lives were massacred. Through all this, fortunes are made and lost, the population starves and die, characters somehow survive and carry on through their hard lives together.

Lea Salonga as Fantine in the 2006 Broadway revival
Unlike most musicals, there are no dance numbers here. The musical has proven to be a draw for top musical talent over the decades, as roles have been performed by revered Broadway stars such as Colm Wilkinson, Patti LuPone, Alfie Boe and Lea Salonga. Other stars who have taken roles in various productions throughout the years and in the world include Matt Lucas, Deborah (formerly Debbie) Gibson, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Ruthie Henshall, Nick Jonas and Lea Michele. I personally know several people who each own several cast recordings produced over the last two and a half decades. In a British nationwide poll, the listeners of BBC Radio Two chose Les Mis as “The Nation’s Most Popular Musical”.

So what exactly draws people back to “the world’s favourite musical” time and time again? What can explain the fact that a tenth anniversary concert in Royal Albert Hall is one of the best-selling home videos of time? Why would the 25th anniversary be such an occasion that it sold out an entire weekend of performances at London’s massive O2 arena, a venue typically reserved for rock concerts by Madonna and U2? Why bother making a film, a project that has not yet gotten off the ground despite rumours in the 1980s that this would happen? Hugh Jackman has now apparently signed to star in the long-awaited film version, and Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper, fresh off The King’s Speech, is slated to direct.

Because unlike so many Broadway shows that are arch, ironic, sentimental, silly or pure spectacle, Les Mis is at its very heart sincere.

This is a musical that speaks in political ideas and stands as a liberal humanist manifesto. It is hopeful about the evolution and betterment of people as a collective whole, while giving human suffering the dignity it merits.

The cast, ready for revolution
It is also ingeniously constructed to fit in dozens of roles. In songs such as “One Day More” and “Do You Hear the People Sing?”, characters sing in rounds, each bringing their own viewpoint on a collective event into the narrative, and then join collectively to sing the chorus. It’s this artistic slight of hand that ties together the sprawling narrative that almost seems to spin out of control. It’s on an epic scale worthy of a massive treatment, and the fact that the musical is nowhere nearly as long as Wagner’s massive Ring Cycle is astonishing. Les Mis believes in the power of human redemption and living a noble life. Its single most potent lyric appears just moments before its rousing, joyous finale: “To love another person is to see the face of God”. 

People respond to this, and enthusiastically so. You can see it in the joyous reception by the audience at the anniversary performances. There are numerous shots of women with their makeup ruined by their tears, of men with glistening eyes, all of them mouthing or singing along to the score, line by line, and standing in rapturous applause. Les Mis offers uplift from the depths of human decay and misery, and that’s where its power lies, not from a self-help book or a catchphrase. This is a play that dares to believe in the innate goodness of Man, without qualification. It has been adapted into an abridged version approved for high school students to perform, and to introduce this masterpiece to young people, further ensuring its enduring legacy.

Do you hear the people sing?
As for why the Blogger likes it? It’s the same reaction writer William Goldman had when he mentioned The Shawshank Redemption as his favourite film of 1994:

“Because it moved the shit out of me.”

While I am fond of the dragon clock-tower in Wicked, the puppet sex in Avenue Q and the glittery top hats in A Chorus Line, no gimmick could possibly wrench tears or reduce me to a blubbering, quivering, happy mess like I am at the end of a Les Mis performance. It is one of those albums that one could take to a desert island and be content to listen to without wearying of it for the rest of my life. I have seen the recent broadcasts of the 25th anniversary special and I still occasionally book off an entire evening and play the whole darn thing through.

Les Mis’s 25th anniversary concert is currently playing on PBS. Check local listings for show times and dates. Proceeds from purchasing the DVD or cast recording will benefit PBS, which they will sorely need as the arts always suffers through political regime. What have you done for the arts lately?

What are you waiting for? Go see it on tour! Click here for more information. It is currently playing in Los Angeles and will continue to tour indefinitely.