The musical Les Misérables premiered on September 24,1980; Duracell’s Energizer Bunny debuted nine years later, but unlike the pink bunny, Schonberg’ and Boubil’s musical keeps getting stronger and stronger. Over 70 million people in 44 countries never grow tired of this magical stage work. (Aside from Hamlet, Kathleen and I have seen Les Mis more often than any other stage production.) And long after the Bunny icon has checked into to the Advertising Icon Rest Home, Les Mis will be steaming along.
The present version of Les Mis (directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell, designed by Matt Kinley inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo with costumes by Andreane Neofitou and Christine Rowland, lighting by Paule Constable, sound by Mick Potter, musical staging by Michael Ashcroft and Geoffrey Garratt and projections by Fifty-Nine Productions.) started its triumphant trip to New York in 2013, where it ran for another two and a half years before starting back out across America.
Now Les Mis is in Virginia, where the then new novel was read eagerly by the battle-weary Confederate soldiers around the campfires of Robert E. Lee. Private Stiles reported, “I certainly laid down that night one of Lee’s miserables, as we used to term ourselves after reading Victor Hugo’s great novel”[i] The veterans’ descendants crowded Norfolk’s Chrysler Hall, along with transplants from across the nation to hear Hugo’s story once again
The story has never let the people down:
From the day of its publication on 4 March `1862, Les Misérables has remained at the forefront of bestseller lists the world over. It has been read in French and in hundreds of translations by millions of people in any country you care to name. It was turned into a play within weeks, and has been adapted for radio and the cinema over the last century and a half more than any other literary work.[ii]
In Laurence Connor and James Powell’s version almost every moment of the original staging has been re-imagined. Theater artists in the early 20th century vainly sought what they imagined a “total theater” experience. This production achieves that goal, and then some.
The great Wall Street Journal critic Terry Teachout correctly identified the source of Les Mis’ structural power:
Its appeal is essentially operatic. Not only does it contain no spoken dialogue — every word is sung — but Messrs. Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, the authors, have crammed it full of surefire devices shamelessly pilfered from 19th-century opera. High notes, rousing choruses, a coincidence-crowded Victor Hugo plot, even a drinking song: All are present in profusion.
Every aspect of the current production is first rate, no expense seems spared, no great singer overlooked, nor technological wizardry ignored. Kathleen and I were simply overwhelmed, and we know this musical almost backwards and forwards.
Each production of Les Mis has its own personality. While some have been stentorian and concert-like, this Les Mis is an acting Les Mis. The performers are acting-singers rather than singing-actors. Not that they cannot sing. They can, and do, to beat the band. They are acting-singers because their primary performance choices concern the characters psycho-physical objectives as they unfold moment by moment in the dynamic given circumstances. (Think Fedor Chaliapin rather than Enrico Caruso.) Vocal production emerges after the character acts. A Beautifully Projected Voice is not the driving force behind these performances. An engaging and captivating story is.
In some productions the company members’ function is basically to focus the audience attention on the main players – Jean Valjean, Javert, Fantine, the inn-keeping Thenardiers, Cosette, and Marius. This company is a true ensemble; everyone does what is necessary to make the moment all that it can be. As a result, some of the secondary characters shine here as never before, thereby raising the stature of the major characters in the process. (A prime example is the role of the sadistic Bamatabois, here given his most memorable incarnation by former student John Ambrosino.)
The main players are young, “lean and mean”, acting-singers for whom this production will seem just the beginning of great stage careers. Nick Cartell’s Valjean grows with deliberate measured increments to the glorious finale. Javert is a worthy match as played by Steve Czarnecki. Fantine (Melissa Mitchell) and Cosette (Jillian Butler) are cast to highlight their mother-daughter physical resemblances, leaving one’s beautiful dramatic soprano voice and the other’s equally lovely lyric soprano voice to delineate age and circumstance. Joshua Grosso’s Marius captures the puppy-doggedness of young love which seems to want to burst out at any moment with Bernstein’s “It’s Love!” The Thenardiers (“Master of the House”) of Allison Guinn and Jordan Cole are unlike any others you may have seen, but remain on a par with the best of the low comedian interpreters. And Danielle J. Simmons simply stopped the show with Eponine’s “On My Own”.
The scenery is the same amazing theatrical wonderment the anniversary production debuted a few years ago and Paule Constable’s dramatic-romantic lighting continues to leave audiences gasping in awe. (She may very well be the most dynamic lighting designer working today.) Musical Director/Conductor Brian Eads’ sensitivity to the epic’s rising and falling action produces the most intensely dramatic musical accompaniment I can recall for this musical. And Kurt Oostra’s properties give the extremely busy company members plenty to do.
It is a rare treat to find oneself in the childlike state of pure wonderment and joy at a glorious performance. The production achieves what philosopher Jacques Maritain called the merging of the artistic experience with the religious experience. For the thousands of people in Chrysler Hall, “to love a person is to see the face of God” is not just a notion, it is a vibrant collective experience. Many could barely talk at the show’s end. Thunderous standing ovations. (These deserved). Numerous curtain calls. Beaming cast, sobbing audience. Who could ask for anything more?
People seem compelled to see this show over and over again. The hero, Jean Valjean embodies a great truth: even the poorest and most wretched among us has within him the potential to become a worthy citizen.
Les Mis is not a simple tale of good triumphing over evil. It is much more. It is the story of how terribly difficult it is to be good. Even the hero’s nemesis is not drawn as evil. For Hugo, as for us today, the Inspector Javerts of our world are simply blind to the truth of God’s overwhelming grace. God made a deal with Jean Valjean, -the opposite of the pact which Satan made with Faust. Whereas Goethe’s learned Doctor of Philosophy sold his soul to Satan for a life of luxury, Hugo’s miserable escapee exchanges his soul to God for a life of hardship. But it is the cross-bearing Jean Valjean, not Doctor Faustus, who is blessed in the end.
As we were leaving the theater, I overheard patrons comparing versions they had seen in London, Tokyo, Australia, Canada, only to conclude that this new one was the best.
[i] Robert Stiles, Four Years Under Marse Robert, Washington, DC: Neale, 1903, p. 252.
[ii] David Bellos, The Novel of the Century. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017.