After enjoying the 25th anniversary production of The Phantom of the Opera a couple of months back, I was lured into wanting to watch the equivalent birthday celebrations of another long-running hit musical, Les Misérables. Unlike Phantom – which I’ve been a fan of since it opened – I’ve remained stubbornly resistant to the charms of Les Miz and never seen or listened to it, despite some obvious overlaps with Phantom (both set in 19th century Paris, adapted from works by French authors, both shows being produced by Cameron Macintosh, starting in London just a year and a day apart in 1985/6 and still running today.)
Those overlaps prove rather superficial and the two shows really are very different, starting with Claude-Michel Schönberg’s score and Herbert Kretzmer’s English translation of Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel’s lyrics. This is a far more raw and raucous musical, a world away from the precision-crafted polished melodies of Andrew Lloyd Webber, more akin to the sung-thru style of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd than to Phantom. Famously Les Miz was about the biggest hit show never to have spawned a hit single, but that changed when Susan Boyle sent jaws dropping to the floor with her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” on Britain’s Got Talent. That said, many of the key numbers in Les Miz felt familiar to me: either the show’s score is more widely covered than I’d realised, or it relies cleverly on well known authentic melodies and anthems of the place and period to give it a timeless feel that bestows a sense on these songs being old friends you simply hadn’t met before but take no more than a minute to become comfortable companions – which is a genuine high achievement.
Lionel Bart’s Oliver! is a particular self-confessed influence on the show, as is clear in the style of the ensemble songs for the destitute French underclass including “At the End of the Day”. It even has direct equivalents of Fagin (Thénardier) and the Artful Dodger (Gavroche). However, where Oliver! has an underlying sense of hope and gaiety to it, Les Miz is never far from the biting edge of abject poverty and angry despair that led to first night critics dubbing the whole venture “The Glums.” But just like the original Dickens books, Victor Hugo’s source novel is a huge, sprawling affair bursting with vibrant characters and storylines to the point where condensing it down into a three hour show is a feat in itself. Even so, much of the first act struggles with a stop-start episodic broken-up feel to it as we career through a range of situations, locations and characters who arrive in one scene and depart in the next. It’s all necessary backstory, but it’s still a relief when we get to 1830s Paris and a more conventional narrative asserts itself after what feels like a Cliffs Notes highlights package on fast-forward.
The linking thread is ex-convict Jean Valjean breaking parole and his flight from intractable policeman Inspector Javert, and the two men’s face-to-face confrontations are the dramatic highlights of the show. However Valjean is promptly missing from a lengthy section at the start which concentrates instead on the descent into depravity of factory girl Fantime, but her time in the spotlight is shortlived. There’s also the story of Valjean’s love for his adopted daughter, Cosette; how she falls in love with a young student called Marius; and Marius’ involvement with student revolutionaries leading to the 1832 Paris Uprising that dominates much of the end of Act 1 and most of Act 2. As a result some stories get squeezed rather too tightly in the crush – the Cosette/Marius romance is malnourished and doesn’t have anything like the emotional tug that a nominally secondary plot strand – Éponine’s doomed unrequited love for Marius going unnoticed – heartbreakingly manages alongside it. In the end the show tries valiantly to reconcile its two main themes of Valjean’s quest for personal redemption with the revolutionary call to arms to build a better world for all: it doesn’t entirely succeed but it’s a worthy attempt, and in its ambition and complexity it makes Phantom’s streamlined clean-and-simple plot seem rather threadbare by comparison.
This 25th anniversary production is similar in format to the one staged for Phantom a year later, but clearly Cameron Macintosh learned a lot about what did and didn’t work here. This Les Miz is a concert staging, meaning that while there’s some set dressing, props and costumes, the performers sing to a bank of microphones at the front of the stage and there’s consequently little scope for physical performances. For the most part this isn’t too much of a problem and the show is carried on the emotional intensity of the outstanding individual performances, but some key plot points (such as the fate of several characters) are lost without the proper staging. Not a problem for devoted fans of the musical who know it all backwards, though – or anyone with access to a plot synopsis online, in my case.
The performers are mainly drawn from Les Miz casts down the years, with some additional stars brought in for the occasion. No one will begrudge the renowned tenor Alfie Boe delivering a fine performance in the central role as Valjean, and US reality show finalist Samantha Barks is also rather excellent as young student Éponine. Perhaps the most obvious-seeming piece of “stunt casting” is the inclusion of Little Britain’s Matt Lucas as Thénardier, but he has a surprisingly good voice and is certainly accomplished at producing effective comedy grotesque characters on the stage, so it’s actually an excellent fit and works well: his first song “Master of the House” is a glorious show-stopper.
More troublesome is the casting of US teen heartthrob Nick Jonas as Marius. His voice is noticeably very thin and nasal compared with the accomplished stage performers around him, and he sounds just like what he is – a modern day pop star, which will be very jarring for Les Miz aficionados used to the booming tones of Michael Ball who created the role in the original London run. But this may be a deliberate creative choice by the production, to differentiate Marius from those around him, adding some variation to the vocal line-up and making him an appreciably younger and less confident character in keeping with the story. It’s noticeable that when Jonas comes to Marius’ ‘coming-of-age’ song “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” – perhaps my favourite song of the whole show – he is assuming a much stronger, deeper voice to show his growing maturity.
It doesn’t help Jonas that he plays many of his early scenes against Enjolras, the charismatic leader of the student revolutionaries, and played here with such a magnetic presence that the performer threatens to steal the show outright from under everyone’s noses despite limited stage time. That was even before I recognised the voice and realised that it was none other than Ramin Karimloo, so superb in the 25th anniversary Phantom and who is currently on stage in the West End production of Les Miz – now in the lead role. Another member of the student rebels is played by Hadley Fraser, Raoul in the Phantom 25th show and currently also on stage in the West End playing Javert to Karimloo’s Valjean. This strange, small, porous world between the two musicals is underlined by the appearance post-show of the lauded original Valjean Colm Wilkinson and one of his most popular successors in the role, John Owen-Jones – both of whom are also in the Phantom 25th post-show reprising their other shared role as the Phantom himself.
As for the Blu-ray, it is a fine presentation – colourful and detailed for the most part although some shots requiring long-distance extreme close-ups (because of the sheer size of the O2 Arena in which it was held, stadium-style) appear flattened and soft as a result of the technical limitations, and the lighting is sometimes not optimal for filming. The soundtrack is nicely loud and rousing, with a good stereo feel to it and all the singing and instruments crisp and clear. Sadly the only extra is a brief 5 minute trailer/puff piece for the 25th anniversary performance with flashes of the history and international success of the show.
This disc isn’t quite up there with its Phantom sibling and the concert staging means it’s not as good a surrogate as seeing the show itself, but it is certainly good enough to convert me from my stubborn former resistance to heeding the rousing call to arms of “Do You Hear the People Sing?”, and it made me a genuine fan of the production. It might be 26 years after first night, but better late than never – and who’s counting anyway? At least I’m on now board in plenty of time for the 50th anniversary celebrations!