Dust off that playbill you saved. Les Misérables, arguably the most successful stage show ever produced, turns 30 this year.
Based on the novel by Victor Hugo, Les Misérables opened in London’s West End in October 1985 after a two-year process of reworking Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schoenberg’s French-language concept album into a fully-staged English-language production. Upon opening, the show was criticized on a literary level for attempting to distill the substance of a 1,200-page work into a few hours on the stage. The theatrical reviews were similarly negative and nearly unanimous. Synthetic. Witless. Lurid. Melodrama. Les Mis was a miss.
But audiences didn’t agree, and shows began to sell out. The show moved to Broadway in 1987 and has spawned a staggering number of touring productions, international productions, concert versions, and recordings, as well as the 2012 film. Despite changing venues, the London production has run continuously since its opening.
In June 2013, Music Theater International acquired the license for Les Misérables, giving theater groups outside the official companies the opportunity to produce the show. Almost immediately, the Hilliard Arts Council premiered Les Mis in Columbus, broke records for ticket sales, and proved that Columbus audiences not only would come out to see a locally-produced Les Mis, but really wanted to. Star Players, Otterbein University Theater, and Weathervane Playhouse quickly followed with their own versions.
Isn’t anyone sick of this show yet?
How did this happen? How did a musical originally written in French, based on a classic work of literature (also originally written in French), about an unsuccessful anti-monarchist revolution, ever become a global sensation?
It’s a question, given the musical’s epic scope and powerful score, with an answer that’s difficult to put into words.
“Each person comes to Les Mis and they love it. And they love it for a different reason,” said David Bahgat, who is currently directing Columbus’s next Les Misérables, opening at Gallery Players in mid-March. Whether people identify with Fantine’s sacrifices as a parent, Eponine’s unrequited love, Jean Valjean’s moral transformation, or the idealism of the student revolutionaries, Les Mis provides a point of emotional connection for almost anybody.
“If you’ve ever had a feeling or a want or a desire to fight for something that’s important to you, then the show is that,” Bahgat said, adding that there are also Les Mis fans who come to the show primarily for its grand and recognizable “sung-through” score, one of the few musicals that is substantial enough to provide satisfying concert versions of the show.
“If you’ve ever had a feeling or a want or a desire to fight for something that’s important to you, then the show is that,”
“The tunes resonate inside of you,” Bahgat said. “You listen to the songs and you feel something from them.”
Although Les Misérables became beloved in its original concept—spinning turntable, pivoting barricade, and even the distinctive Caslon Antique font projected onto a drop to label times and places—its regional and local productions now have an opportunity to make a unique statement with a show approaching middle age.
“We went outside what people were probably normally expecting and used to seeing, with a concept that was a little different,” said Adam Karsten, who directed Les Misérables at Weathervane Playhouse in Newark. “But it’s also a challenge to keep [the show] fresh.” Not only did Weathervane adapt the show to a three-quarter false-thrust stage with no wings or flyspace, but the production also offered a more allegorical interpretation of the show in depicting characters that connected to class struggle, revolution and God.
Reinterpeting the musical was an artistic risk but one that Karsten believes paid off for Weathervane’s audiences, and it will become more frequent as additional companies produce the show.
“It’s ready for adaptation. It strives for adaptation,” Karsten said. “And the great thing about theater is you can always present a story, a moment, an emotion, through a different lens to an audience.”
Indeed, as the Weathervane production team readied themselves for their show, they watched the success of the Dallas Theater Center’s contemporary, quasi-steampunk makeover of the musical. Liesl Tommy, a South African director who had never seen the show or film, put the musical’s relevant political themes at center stage with a multiracial cast, a Valjean in an orange prison uniform, and protesters with cardboard “fair wage” signs facing men in riot gear.
From Principal Skinner’s POW number 24601 (the same number as Valjean) in an episode of The Simpsons, to a reference to Inspector Javert on Homeland, Les Misérables is undoubtedly one of the few musicals to infuse itself into our larger culture, even if its political message has yet to spark a revolution. For now, the excitement for many revolves around the chance to perform in a show they have grown up loving.
“It’s ready for adaptation. It strives for adaptation. And the great thing about theater is you can always present a story, a moment, an emotion, through a different lens to an audience.”
Columbus actor and musician Brian Horne recalled the high of waiting backstage at Hilliard to make his appearance as Enjolras, a role that contains many of the show’s musical peaks.
“To go out there and see all these people who know and love this show—and give them this show—it’s an experience unlike any other.”
Horne, who also played in the pit orchestra for Star Players, is now the music director for Gallery Players and is ready to take a new group through the Les Mis experience, making sure the cast has the vocal stamina to last through the lengthy musical.
“Everyone is having a ball, getting into that spirit of revolution,” Horne said. “It’s one of those things. How often is this opportunity going to come by?”
For a show that always seems to have “One Day More,” the opportunities, especially in Columbus, certainly seem promising.