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Les Miz Madness

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 [...]
Laura Dachenbach

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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.

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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.

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Arts & Culture

Arts Fest Preview: Kate Morgan, 2D mixed media artist

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Kate Morgan began developing her ghostly, layered two-dimensional portraits after going back to school at the Columbus College of Art & Design in 2005. She already had some background in visual arts through her work in fashion and commercial photography, so the transition to drawing and painting was organic.

Morgan’s textured collages are inspired by folklore, mythology and a variety of artistic periods — especially Byzantine art. The 2011 Columbus Arts Festival Emerging Artist alum and 2019 exhibiting artist welcomes a wide array of complex themes into her pieces — including symbolic, cultural, historical and spiritual themes — while utilizing layers of vintage paper and original drawings to create visual depth and a sense of mystery.

Her pieces are purposely vague, leaning toward more minimalistic ideas to allow for wider interpretation by audiences. Largely her art depicts the female form, with as many layers and stories to tell as that of every human being. This is done with an eclectic assortment of materials — including sheet music, German Biblical pages, newspaper and maps — to add detail in both a topical and textural sense.

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And yet, Morgan still continues to look for a challenge. From venturing away from her familiar blue hues to exploring different mediums like ceramics, her work knows no creative limits.

Morgan has exhibited at the Columbus Arts Festival nearly every year since 2011. She has gone on to win two jurors’ choice awards in the 2D category at the Columbus Arts Festival, as well as sell and have work juried at other major festivals across the country. In Columbus, her work can be seen as part of the Columbus Makes Art and Donatos Pizza collaborative mural “Every Piece Is Important” at the John Glenn Columbus International Airport.

Morgan has a BFA from CCAD and currently works out of her Franklinton studio in Columbus. Experience this stunning work first hand when you visit her at booth M572 on the Main Street Bridge during the Columbus Arts Festival from June 7-9 at the downtown riverfront.

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Be Square: Changes coming to arts community at 400 W Rich

Mike Thomas

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If you haven’t visited the thriving arts community at 400 West Rich street in awhile, you might be surprised to see how much things have changed. Now, the minds behind the city’s hub for the arts are changing things up to better reflect the area’s evolution.

400 Square is the new collective moniker for the array of concepts that currently occupy the buildings on the 400 block of Rich street in Franklinton. The rebrand seeks to unify the community of artistic innovators who call the area developed by Urban Smart Growth their creative home.

Promo art for 400 Square by Anthony Damico

Spaces encompassed in the rebrand include Strongwater, The Vanderelli Room, and Chromedge Studios, and of course, the studios at 400 W. Rich. While the name may be changing, the group remains committed to providing and sustaining a thriving hub for creatives through education, resources, and entertainment opportunities in the area.

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With the launch of 400 Square, Urban Smart Growth Director of Operations Seth Stout has led his team to develop new offerings for each of the growing spaces. Food and Beverage Director Lauren Conrath and Events Director Molly Blundred have taken the lead with changes to the Strongwater brand, while Community Director Stephanie McGlone and Art Director AJ Vanderelli are facilitating programming for all ages and abilities on the artist side.

Through all of the changes on the way, the staff at 400 Square are committed to bringing the public the same high quality of workshops, events, exhibitions, and more that have always been part of their unique creative community.

Stay tuned for more info—the new 400 Square officially rolls out during the weekend of Columbus Arts Fest 2019, June 7-9.

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Arts Fest Preview: Cousin Simple to wow crowd with energy, passion

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As a young up-and-coming band, Cousin Simple is excited to play at this year’s Columbus Art’s Festival. In their two years as a band, they have already done a lot of really cool things, such as making a single with L.A. multi-platinum music producer David Kershenbaum, playing at Vans Warped Tour at Blossom Music Center, and selling out shows at the A&R Bar, the Basement and The Big Room Bar. But there is much more they want to accomplish including recording more music, making a music video and playing more shows in and out of Columbus.

The band members are all Columbus born and raised. Four members currently attend The Ohio State University, while their drummer Joel is finishing up his junior year at New Albany high School. Cousin Simple brings an energy and passion to the stage and gives everything they have to their performances, regardless of the crowd size. They just released a new single in February called Honeybee, available on iTunes and Spotify and have a single set to release May 10 titled “Star Destroyers.”

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Columbus is a great city for musicians. Whether you’re in the indie, rock, or hip hop scene, there are other musicians and music industry people willing to help you out. Columbus also takes a great sense of pride in its “local gems.” People love to see musicians who are doing well in their hometown and are willing to support them in many ways.

There are so many organizations that have taken this to heart and are helping bands get great opportunities. CD102.5, WCBE 90.5, PromoWest Productions and the Columbus Music Commission have helped Cousin Simple get airtime, shows and support. When it comes to music cities, Columbus may not be the first place that comes to mind, but there are so many bands and musicians doing exciting things it’s making the future bright for them and the Columbus music scene.

But Cousin Simple recognizes that none of this would be possible without the support of their family, friends and FANS that come to each and every show. They are humbled and motivated by their audiences who energize them to make every performance an experience their fans won’t forget. 

Cousin Simple will perform on the Big Local Music Stage on Rich Street on Friday night, June 7 at 7:45 p.m.

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