Newest Review: ... round and round all evening. I did enjoy it and was glad I saw it, but think I was expecting more. Les Miserables is currently on at t... more
Les Miserables - technically speaking, a brilliant musical
Member Name: silverbird44
Advantages: Beautiful scoring, incredible songs
Disadvantages: The story is a little too large for the stage that has to hold it
Les Miserables is a musical scored by Claude-Michel Schonberg and first performed in 1985. Based on a novel by Victor Hugo, it tracks the story of a multitude of characters through France in the early 1800s, through their every day lives up to a day when there is a revolution against the Parisian Authorities. The story is multi faceted, covering such varied characters as a political exile and his daughter, a bent innkeeper, a revolutionary student and a fiercely religious policeman.
Perhaps the reason that the streets of the West End are littered with failed musicals is that each production has so many factors to consider: music, lyrics, staging, characters, choreography, plot, all the difficulties of play, opera and ballet combined into a single gargantuan creation. At the same time, any director is forced to tread the unsteady tightrope that lies between sentimentality (see, or try not to see, Aspects of Love) and genuine emotion, with hundreds of sceptical musical theatre vultures just waiting to rip up his production. When a musical triumphs over all these problems, then there is no greater treat. But although I would love to say that Les Miserables ticks all the boxes, I'm afraid that for me it wasn't quite there.
Firstly to that most crucial aspect of any musical, the songs. Here there is no possibility of complaint. A combination of clever lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer and a grandly sweeping score by Schonberg results in a collection of infinitely memorable songs, most that are also agreeably easy to sing along to. The most well known songs are generally the solos - such familiar gems as I Dreamed a Dream, Bring Him Home and On My Own - and the humorous numbers (Master of the House) but for me the best of the musical are the ensemble numbers, Do You Hear The People Sing and One Day More. Both of these are arranged and orchestrated with real panache, pulling together all the characters in the wide ranging story and raising a smile from even the dourest of audience members.
The songs pass muster, then, and when I last saw the musical so did the staging and the choreography. However, as both these factors have such a level of plasticity, it seems unfair to make a comment on them when they probably change on a regular basis. The other considerations are the plot and the characters.
This, for me, is where the problem lies. The musical is full of good characters, often unusually complex and self doubting for a West End Musical. The character of Jean Valjean, who is the main protagonist and followed from start to finish, stands out as particularly strong, but a lot of the outer characters are also exemplary - Eponine, a poor girl caught in a hopeless love for a taken man: Javert, whose life is ruled by his religion: the many students for whom the only choices in life are to force change or to die. These characters are technically very well utilised by the grand, sprawling plot, which follows Jean Valjean in his escape from jail, his reunion with his lost daughter and the part that they and their chance acquaintances play in the Paris uprising. Having read this details before going to see the musical, I was expecting both plot and characters to work far better than simpler conceits such as Phantom of the Opera. But, even though I followed the plot enjoyably enough, it felt as though there was something lacking.
And that I cannot describe Les Miserables as the perfect musical. It's like when someone you don't know cooks on of your Mum's recipes: all the ingredients, but without the heart. You can have all the complex characters, fancy sets, fantastic songs and vivid costumes in the world, but this musical will never pack the emotional punch to the stomach that you get from Blood Brothers or West Side Story.
I would still definitely encourage you to go and see Les Miserables, especially if you find the same joy that I do in good songs and good orchestration. But my advice to the first time visitor would be this: don't take young children with no experience of musicals, as they may not follow the plot and might become one of the musical theatre cynics mentioned above; don't go expecting a simple plot and easy characters; and, the thing that I wish I had done before going, read a little of the history of France in the early 18th century. Although I am still yet to read the book (hiding my head in shame!), my guess is that some of the intricacies of Victor Hugo's story translated poorly when painted with the thicker brush of stage dialogue, and that to really engage with the story on a personal level, you need a better grasp of history than I have.
So to summarise Les Miserables: beautiful songs, beautiful stage work, clever plotting, good characters. But it just didn't hit me in the heart.
Summary: Definitely go and see this musical, but try and learn its history first!