Asked to name France’s greatest poet, André Gide famously answered, “Hugo — alas!” His ambivalence might have been a reaction to the great man’s sideline in sentimental novels, especially the 1862 Les Misérables: 1,900 pages of digression interrupted by occasional outcroppings of farfetched plot. With its overly neat central conflict between the saintly ex-criminal Jean Valjean (morally right but legally wrong) and the obsessed Inspector Javert (the other way around), the tale is surely lacking in the subtlety department. That it was nevertheless an enormous international success — one of the 19th century’s biggest bestsellers — must have been galling to Gide.
And he never even saw Les Miz.
I’m no fan of the show, which began life as a French concept album in 1978 and has made a couple of billion dollars since. But looking back I can see that some of my antipathy is contextual. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s 1985 English stage version, arriving on Broadway in 1987, was part of an influx of overblown British mega-musicals, many of them produced by Cameron Mackintosh, that all but destroyed the native species. Preceded by Evita, Cats, and Starlight Express, and followed by Phantom and Miss Saigon, among others, Les Miz helped normalize the affectations — the massive doomy stagings, the errant chandeliers, helicopters, and large mystical tires, the sadistic vocal writing in nearly sung-through scores — that have continued to weigh down the form ever since.
The new Broadway mounting of Les Miz, which began as a UK tour in 2009 and has been seen around North America since 2010, atones for some of that. The directors Laurence Connor and James Powell do not exactly repudiate the original vision of Trevor Nunn and John Caird (who shared a Tony in 1987) but they do simplify it enormously. The famous turntable is gone, and you hardly miss it; its effect is simulated more modestly with spinning wooden flats and kinetic video projections (by Matt Kinley) that are beautifully integrated into the set. Kinley’s is a more suggestive and apt design overall, scaled to the personal drama instead of the never-very-convincing revolutionary spectacle, and incorporating elements of Hugo’s own paintings in a color scheme of sepia, smoke, and mud. Likewise, the new orchestrations by Christopher Jahnke reduce the instrumentalists in the pit from 25 to 17 — not an expedience I would generally encourage, but one that corrects period atrocities from the original and makes Claude-Michel Schönberg’s music sound more ethereal in the delicate passages and less turbid in the bombast. Less Les is more.
But to say this production is not as bombastic as the original is to rate it at perhaps an eight instead of a ten on the Hugo scale. (The 2012 movie cannot even be measured with current technology.) At the same time, the simplified staging works against the show by further exposing the thinness of the writing. This is not so much the case in the central conflict, whose symmetrical ironies — Javert descends to hell via the Seine; Valjean to heaven via song — are nicely served by the musical’s structure and confident pace, at least until that story is resolved with fifteen minutes left to go. And the two leads here are fortunately cast with singing actors who easily pass as the acting singers the material demands. This is no surprise with Ramin Karimloo, a next-generation mega-musical expert, who is passionate and precise as Valjean and delivers the most exquisite “Bring Him Home” I’ve ever heard. A less-expected delight is Will Swenson. Though his Broadway credits (including Hair and Priscilla Queen of the Desert) did not suggest the stature and discipline needed for an effective Javert, he offers a highly mannered but convincing interpretation, biting decisively into every musical phrase like a Doberman.
But in cramming the rest of the story into three hours, the authors have cherry-picked Hugo’s plot so mercilessly that only its highlights remain. The result is both thin and flat, with nearly everything pitched at the same overwrought level. The songs, meant to compensate by providing depth and texture, rarely do so, however pretty they may be; Schönberg’s wheelhouse is very small. Musically speaking, any of the featured arias could be sung by any other character. (Many are based on the same motifs anyway.) Even that infectious earworm “Master of the House” is more galumphing than saucy; the better it’s performed — here quite well by Cliff Saunders and Keala Settle as the grotesque Thérnardiers — the heavier it seems. As comic relief it is neither.
The other supporting characters are underdeveloped and, in this production, underperformed, the actors struggling to inhabit bare outlines with no apparent help from the directors. Enjolras, the leader of the revolutionary students, has almost nothing to do but declaim his big number (“The People’s Song”) and repeatedly thrust his musket in the air. Worse, the three main female characters (Fantine, Éponine, Cosette) have all been cast with performers who are vocally and therefore dramatically unsuited to their roles. But then, women do not in general fare well in Les Miz. For a story about the roots of revolution in the mistreatment of the wretched, the show is surprisingly content to exploit the tiresome trope of the jolly whore for a bit of wit or a rare internal rhyme. (“Lovely ladies / Waiting in the dark / Ready for a thick one / Or a quick one in the park.”) Who needs liberty when you’ve got clients?
I could go on, but it’s as hopeless a battle as the student revolutionaries’ last stand to chip away at the great love people seem to feel for the show. The night I attended, the Imperial audience applauded the entrance of even its musical themes. Sentimentality is rarely a losing bet. (Though, really, for its shameless exploitation of urchins and waifs — two get crucified with perpendicular shafts of light in this production — Les Miz should win a Dickens Prize, or at least a visit from Child Protective Services.) And it seems unjust somehow to complain about pandering in a musical whose dramatic thrust is an argument for prison reform. Does the apotheosis of an old cat make a fitter theatrical subject? The race for primacy among toy trains? A case of diva-worship gone horribly awry? I’ll take Les Miz. Among the British mega-musicals, it is surely the greatest — alas!
Les Misérables is at the Imperial Theatre.