Last week, a new touring production of Les Misérables graced the stage at the Hippodrome Theatre.
Considered one of the world’s favorite musicals, Les Miz celebrated 25 years in London’s West End theater district and started its new touring production last May in Paris, the setting of the musical itself.
However, the musical has now gone on tour around the United States, and Baltimore audiences have been able to see the new production of this worldwide phenomenon they would not have otherwise had the chance to see.
Les Miz first opened in Paris in 1980. It was so popular that the English translation and adaptation then opened in London in 1985.
While not well received in France by theater critics, the British version was immensely popular and is now the longest running show in West End history.
It opened for the first time on Broadway in 1987 and closed in 2003, making it the third longest running musical in Broadway history.
Through numerous other American and international tours and permanent productions, Les Miz became one of the most widely performed musicals in history. Because of its popularity, it only seems natural to pay tribute to it for its 25th birthday.
The new production was conceived as a newer, fresher version of the world’s most beloved musical.
The most drastic change is the length — the production managed to squeeze all the plot from Victor Hugo’s monumental novel into roughly three hours, whereas the older production took considerably longer.
The staging was entirely new as well: they removed the infamous revolving stage and designed new scenery inspired by Hugo’s paintings.
Javert’s suicide and several other scenes relied much more heavily on technological advances and electronics.
Though they revamped many other aspects of the celebrated musical, the music did not change significantly. Never straying from the original score, the production still sold out almost immediately after tickets went on sale.
This newest version of Les Miz has some glaring flaws. While the Hugo paintings as scenery was an interesting idea, the actual application bordered on the absurd at times.
At one point, the actors pretended to march while the background moved behind them, but not fluidly enough to give the illusion of real motion.
At other times, this type of staging worked well — while Jean Valjean was dragging Marius through the sewers, the extra motion of the backgrounds made the immediacy of the events that much more present.
The lack of the revolving stage eliminated possibly the most commonly mocked element of the old production. However, it also took away some of the integrity of the show.
The revolving stage symbolized the cyclic nature of Hugo’s story, and mimicked the cycle of the score, both in the notes themselves and in the repetition of several of the tunes.
The repetition of a song establishes a parallel between plot events.
For example, the same melody and similar lyrics anchor Jean Valjean’s symbolic rebirth at the end of the prologue and Javert’s suicide. Without the revolving stage however, the production was less coherent, as the loss of one aspect weakens this cyclical theme.
Gavroche’s death and Marius’s solo number “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” were particularly poor. Gavroche’s death is not just a pivotal moment in the musical, but also an unforgettable moment in French literary history.
Hugo elevates this Parisian street urchin to the level of a fable. Painting a vivid image of a young, fearless child playing hide-and-seek with death in front of the mythical barricade, Hugo uses poetry to cement this image in the reader’s mind.
The older production of the musical gave a chilling representation of this scene and beautifully rendered this literary moment on stage.
Now, without the revolving stage, Gavroche’s last moments are not visible.
Instead, the audience hears him sing his tune (that he has never sung before — originally, the appearance of this song was cut to save time) until a gunshot kills him.
While this staging is practical — obviously, with a child playing Gavroche, it is safer to perform this scene with him hidden from view — it isn’t as poignant.
“Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” is the other glaring flaw of this production. Not only are the tables and chairs missing, but the staging borders on the overly sentimental.
Instead of sitting alone at the café where so much of the planning took place, Marius stands among all his friends, back from the dead in order to blow out candles, and then leaves before coming back again for the finale.
While the director might have thought this scene would tug at the audience’s heartstrings, it is clearly an easy way out. The dead characters’ presences on stage twice after the massacre at the barricade greatly diminishes their effect.
Les Miz can fill a theater with name alone. However, a new production should do justice both to Victor Hugo’s original novel and to the original stage production, and not just stand on the shoulders of its predecessors.
This new production seems meant for theater-goers with shorter attention spans who are dying to see special effects performed on stage, a decision which seems to insult the intelligence of its audience.
While the show is still impressive holistically, the new production doesn’t live up to its potential. The fear is that new audiences might not understand why it was so popular in the first place.