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
The Three B's - Beautiful, Brilliant, Breathtaking
Member Name: Nolly
Date: 15/05/01, updated on 16/09/01 (492 review reads)
Advantages: Superb acting, Superb songs, Superb Story
I know what I like and I more than certainly know what I abhor in terms of stage representation. But that is not to say that I am a cultural snob, and I would happily look down my nose at anyone who says that I am in preparation for a friendly, if heated, discussion of the question at hand.
I have seen quite a few musicals over the years. I was fortunate to live in a town where a lot of shows toured before starting a run in the West End. Among the musicals I have absolutely detested are 'South Pacific' (aaagh), 'The Sound of Music (eek), 'Starlight Express' (quick, pass the Prozac), 'The King and I' (which I thought was a musical about Priscilla Presley!), and 'Martin Guerre', a musical which I paid a lot of money to see in London and found myself continuously looking at my watch during the performance. So what do I like? Well, I enjoyed 'Scrooge', 'Oliver!', 'The Box of Delights' (a musical I appeared in at the Devonshire Park Theatre, Eastbourne, and which was written by two friends of mine), but my favourite musical of all time must surely be 'Les Misérables'. I am such a fan of this production that I feel I am worthy enough to refer to it by its nickname, 'Les Mis', and I have seen it performed in 3 countries, in 2 different languages, and I have 4 copies of the soundtrack in 3 different languages and have 2 videos about it! In my view, however, the definitive production is that which can be seen at the Placace Theatre in London's West End.
At this point please take pity on my wife, as she has to put up with my interminable raving about the show, and imagine the loud cry of rapture she emitted when I told her that I
was going to write and opinion about it for 'Dooyoo'.
Well, perhaps I had better start properly by giving you a little bit of information as to how such an important musical was conceived...
The musical was conceived by two Frenchmen, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, as a musical for a one-off season at the 'Palais des Sports' in Paris in 1980. The show had 100 performances and was seen by nearly a quarter of a million people.
In 1982, the British producer Cameron Mackintosh approached the two Frenchmen with regard to producing an English-speaking version of the show. This was agreed, and it was also agreed that more material should be added. There were to be more songs, and the English lyrics were provided mainly by Herbert Kretzmer, although some of the work of the original lyricist, James Fenton, was retained.
The musical was staged originally under the auspices of the Royal Shakespeare Company at The Barbican in London, and the first performance was on October 5th 1985. The audience liked it, but the critics didn't. Some critics thought it a travesty that such an important work as Victor Hugo's novel should be turned into a musical, while other considered it to be a miserable evening out. The transfer of the show to the West End was in real jeopardy, but the audiences kept coming and the standing ovations continued.
The show has been running at the Palace Theatre since 1986 and still plays to packed houses. The production has also been staged in numerous countries and languages, including the USA, Australia, Japan, Israel, Germany, Austria, Iceland, Canada, Poland, Hungary and Norway. I have seen it in Germany, Austria and the UK (both at the 'Palace' and on tour in Southampton), and I am captivated by it every single time.
The one thing that should be made aware to people who are unaware of 'Les Mis', is that it is more akin to opera than musical theatr
e. There is no dialogue. The whole story is conveyed by means of sung lyrics and stirring, nay, magnificently stirring melodies.
It will prove a difficult task to give a complete outline of the story, but here goes at a brisk outline. Jean Valjean is released from prison after serving a 19-year sentence for theft. He is pursued, as he has broken his parole, by the police inspector Javert. Valjean adopts a new identity and becomes a successful factory owner. One of his employees, Fantine, is sacked and becomes a prostitute in order to support her daughter Cosette, who lives with the Thénardiers, a pair of unscrupulous innkeepers. Fantine dies and Valjean vows to look after Cosette. Many years later, Valjean and Cosette move to Paris, where they come across Thénardier again, for he is now a criminal. The teenage Cosette meets and falls in love with Marius, a wealthy student who is a political radical. Marius is loved from afar by Eponine, Thénardier's daughter.
Still with me? Good!
Eventually, through all manner of events, Valjean joins Marius and his companions on a revolutionaries' barricade, as he would rather die than lose his adopted daughter. He and Marius are the only ones who survive the insurrection. They are confronted once again by Javert, who cannot believe that Valjean earlier set him free, and who lets Valjean pass unhindered. Racked by a sense of failure, Javert throws himself into the River Seine. Valjean later explains who he really is to Marius and says he must leave. After the wedding, and after Thénardier reveals to Marius that it was Valjean who saved him on the night of the rebellion, Marius and Cosette go to Valjean, who dies knowing that his sins have been totally forgiven.
That is a very bare outline of the story. The musical fleshes it all out to much greater effect, and I am unable to do justice to it merely using a humble word-processor. So what about the rest of it?
Prologue: Here we learn of life in prison and the terms under which Valjean is released on parole, how he breaks his parole and how he is given a chance to start a fresh life.
'At the End of the Day': The factory workers sing about working life, and here we learn about Fantine's secret, that she in fact has a daughter.
'I Dreamed a Dream': One of the many 'Showstoppers'. A beautiful song from Fantine about the life she had, and the hope to which she still aspires.
'Lovely Ladies': The whores enlist Fantine and force her to sell her locket, her hair and then her body to make ends meet.
'Who am I?': Valjean has the chance to see an innocent man who looks like him sent to prison in his stead. However he cannot, such is his sense of justice.
'Master of the House': a wonderful, rousing drinking song that introduces the rascally Thénardier and his wife.
'Look Down': a chorus number that introduces the down and outs of Paris, and shows Marius and his friend Enjolras bemoaning the poverty of the people.
'Stars': a brilliantly powerful song that is a representation of Javert's 'Old Testament' attitude- that there can be no redemption at
all for anybody, no matter how much repentance and remorse they show.
'Café Song': Marius and the other student revolutionaries talk about rebellious aspirations, while Marius can only talk about the girl he has just met, Cosette.
'Do You Hear the People Sing?': A stirring chorus song about how everybody wants a better life.
'A Heart Full of Love': Marius and Cosette proclaim their love for one another.
'One Day More': A beautiful, and very rousing song that features the whole company. It is the end of act One and serves as a taster for what will happen after the Interval.
'On my Own': A beautiful song sung by
Eponine about her unrequited love for Marius.
'A little fall of Rain': A beautiful duet sung on the barricade by Marius and Eponine, as she lies dying in his arms. It is only then that he realises the true depth of her feelings for him.
'Bring Him Home': On the night before the final attack, Valjean prays asking for forgiveness and that Marius be spared from the forthcoming bloodshed. It marks the contrast between Valjean's attitude and that of Javert displayed in 'Stars'.
'Dog Eat Dog': Thénardier describes his scavenging attitude, where no one is safe.
'Who is this Man?': Javert cannot stand the fact that he has been spared by his enemy. He has spared him in return. He contemplates his life and throws himself into the water.
'Empty Chairs at Empty Tables': Marius is recovering, and wishes that he could have died along with his accomplices on the barricade. He feels ashamed that he is happy, has survived and has something to look forward to, a life with Cosette.
'Beggars at the Feast': Thénardier and his wife make a mischief of themselves at the wedding banquet.
'Finale': As Valjean lies dying, he is visited by the spirits of Fantine, Eponine and those who died at the barricade. He dies as his daughter and her husband stand by him.
'Do you Hear the People Sing?': A rousing reprise of the song that rounds off this amazing and powerful musical.
The Palace Production
The show is truly magnificent in its staging. The lighting is superb and captures all the variations in atmosphere and mood. A lot of the devices used were innovative when the musical was created in its London form. We have lighting to represent gunfire, sewers, and the most impressive of all in my view is when Javert commits suicide. Exquisite use of lighting enables us to suspend our sense of reality and believe that he is hurling hi
mself into the whirling torrents of the River Seine.
The revolving stage is an amazing device for seamless scene changes. It gives us the impression of movement, and enables more than one scene to be on stage at any one time. It is also uses effectively for Javert's suicide as, when he is thrashing about in the river with the lighting all around him, the revolve of the stage carries him away to his death. This is so moving and effective that it grabs me every time I see it.
The scenery used is amazing. the Palace production does not use it too much or too little. Everything moves in and out seamlessly. The barricade is a truly breathtaking piece of stage wizardry
that blows me away every time I see it appear. We have two large moving pieces of stage scenery that appear to be made up of old tables, beds and the like. They move towards each other and lift up and appear to break their backs before they interlock and create the masterpiece that is the barricade. This piece of stage movement is an intrinsic part of the show and its sheer magnitude and presence brings forth applause from the audience.
The acting is superb. I have seen 6 different variations of all the main characters, and all of them have been magnificent. The ensemble do a wonderful job. A huge cast of extras are important, but do not try to steal the show, and everyone looks as if they are still doing a first night at the Palace. I mean that in a positive sense. Everyone seems fresh and excited by the musical, even though it has been playing there for 16 years.
The theatre is cosy. It is large yet intimate. The only niggles I would have are that if you sit at the bottom it is possible to have a pillar obscuring your view, and that the 'Gods' are so high that you can see the back of the stage and some of the lighting effects in the battle sequences are wasted. However they are minor niggles. If you pay for a costlier ticket, you will get a great view.
Even though this is one of the most popular nights out in London, and tickets can be as rare as rocking-horse droppings, the prices are not too costly, and tickets range from about £8 in the 'Gods' to £25.
I would urge anyone who hasn't seen this at least once to go. Even if you are not a die-hard musical fan, you will be pleasantly
surprised. Just remember the Kleenex!
Be prepared for a long show, though, as it is around three hours long!
After you have seen it:
The Complete Symphonic Recording, 1st Night Records, 1988, MIZCD1
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