Les Miserables (WE 2015)
Oct 26, 2015
The 1980s was a great time for British musicals. Not one, not two, but five musicals opened in that decade that looked like they'd run forever and played all over the world. Cats (1981), Starlight Express (1984), Les Miserables (1985), The Phantom of the Opera (1986) and Miss Saigon (1989) reclaimed the mantle of the musical theatre from America and each sustained hitherto unimaginable runs. Saigon was gloriously revived last year and runs until next spring. Cats has returned for a Christmas season. Starlight continues to tour and inspire children to experience live theatre. Phantom remains perhaps the most famous musical in the world. But standing above them all is Les Miserables.
For the scale of its ambition (a 1,200 page French novel about student insurrection, religious devotion and romantic tragedy) to the ingenuity of its staging (two thirds takes place on a bare stage) to the symphonic sweep of its music (it pauses for applause just six times in three hours) and the overwhelming emotional force it has on audiences, Les Miserables is a masterwork of the popular theatre.
And in October it celebrated its 30th birthday.
Based on Victor Hugo's sweeping historical novel about good, God, love, forgiveness, redemption, insurrection and sacrifice Les Miserables' hero is Jean Valjean, a man imprisoned for nineteen years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister's son. He is pursued through the years by his jailer, Javert, who thinks no good can come of Valjean and seeks the chance to re-incarcerate him. Valjean's path crosses with Fantine, a prostitute who asks him on her deathbed to save her daughter Cosette from the villainous Thernadiers. Years later, Valjean's path crosses that of students who are mounting an insurrection and seeking a better tomorrow.
The interweaving of these various stories and a disparate collection of heroic and tragic characters makes Les Miserables one of the great plots of any musical - an art form which so often thrives in the broad brush and the one-sentence plot. But at its heart Les Miz is about the struggle to be (or stay, or become) good and ends with the famous line adapted from Hugo "to love another person is to see the face of God".
To celebrate Les Miz (as it is universally known) becoming the first musical in history to enter its fourth decade (Phantom will join it next year), producer Cameron Mackintosh presented a gala performance at the Queens Theatre in front of invited friends and a lottery-picked crowd of devotees. Compared to the show's tremendous 25th Anniversary concert staging at the 02 Arena in 2010 (which made such a star of Alfie Boe) and indeed the 10th Anniversary concert at the Albert Hall it was a more sedate, reverential affair. Original stars Colm Wilkinson and Patti Lupone returned to sing with their successors, and the massed ranks of a welsh kids choir filled the aisles to sing from their own imminent production.
This special finale and the various speeches were glamorous and stirring but the special event of the show that night like every night was the show itself.
It's impossible to overstate how fresh, precise and detailed Les Miserables remains. This is hugely aided by the fresh orchestrations that were incorporated a few years ago, which strip out many of the synthesised sounds that dated it and give it an even more sumptuous operatic flavour. It also has the most immaculate sound design of any show in London; a striking reminder of how shamefully rare it is to be able to hear the words in many major musicals.
The clarity and ingenuity of the Trevor Nunn/John Caird staging remains as vivid, simple and stylish as it ever was. Fans of their miraculous staging of Charles Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby (available on DVD) will recognise how many of the techniques they brought from that great show to this. These are aided by John Napier - surely the greatest post war theatre designer - whose bold minimalism conjures worlds out of just cobbles and furniture, delivering them fluently with the famous stage revolve. David Hersey's lighting design created many effects and settings which have become so famous since 1985 as to be cliches, but he invented them for this show and here they still are.
Until 2002, Cats (also produced by Mackintosh and directed by Nunn) had been the longest running musical in history. For years it's tagline had been "now and forever". This is surely a line that could now be adopted by Les Miz. It is impossible to imagine it ever closing. The story remains as relevant and universal as it was when Victor Hugo wrote it in 1862.
London is full of choice. But, really, if you want to see one of the world's greatest musicals in one of the legendary stagings, then it's Les Miz you want.
Originally posted: Places & Faces Magazine, November 2015