The most important thing one must know about the tour of Les Miserables currently playing Britain is that it is NOT the famed West End/Broadway production from the 1980s. It has a completely new production team that have changed much of the musical, sometimes quite significantly. Gone are the famous turntable stage effects, the constant shades of gray and mass stylised use of the acting company; in are larger set pieces, projections and lots of pretty colours.
While this is fine, calling this the “25th Anniversary” tour is cheating. It’s like celebrating someone’s birthday by giving presents and cake to an entirely different person.
However, this production proves that those who thought that the original worked only because of director Trevor Nunn’s clever staging were mistaken. Les Miserables (or Les Mis, as it has been affectionately called by many) has entered into the public consciousness, and many of its songs are well known, even by those who have never seen a production of it. If anything, this tour is instead a celebration of producer Cameron Mackintosh’s 25 years of mass global success with the musical.
Based on the very influential (and very long) novel by Victor Hugo, Les Miserables follows the life of Jean Valjean, a man who breaks his parole after serving 19 years for the crime of stealing a loaf of bread. He attempts to live a good and honest life while using false identities but is constantly thwarted by Inspector Javert, a police officer obsessed with bring Valjean back to justice. Many other characters filter in and out, but the question of justice and redemption is always looked at, mostly by watching good people suffer cruelly.
Critics and fans have argued over this musical for some time. In truth, both are right in their views. Much of the story is hard to follow without supporting knowledge or background, and Hugo’s epic look at a period of French history is shoehorned into slight spurts of exposition that are easily missed. And yet, there are roughly a dozen songs that are simply fantastic, and when performed well they make for electric, even unforgettable, theatre, resulting in a musical that might be lacking as a whole but is brilliant in its parts.
The current tour certainly has many merits. The use of Hugo’s artwork is a nice touch and adds much needed colour and atmosphere, especially to ensemble scenes, and the re-interpretation of some key moments are quite effective, especially the song Empty Chairs at Empty Tables and the famed suicide of a key character. However, other parts have suffered, especially the staging of the important barricade that makes up a large chunk of the second half, and the absence of the turntable means that many of the iconic moments of the original cannot be replicated.
This version of Les Miserables is a worthy production. It is well directed, designed and has many good performances. Fans might be disappointed in not seeing the original but should relish this fresh interpretation, but naysayers will not find any more reason to change their minds. However, as it is one of musical theatre’s great juggernauts, lovers of musicals who haven’t yet had the pleasure might as well see what the fuss is about.
Originally written for The Skinny.
Playing at the Edinburgh Playhouse until May 15, 2010.