Do you hear the people sing?: Les Misérables

Les Misérables, as a phenomenon, needs no introduction. Victor Hugo’s novel was first published in 1862, and was hugely successful – critically and popularly – changing the reading public. In the guise of Boublil and Schönberg’s musical it, too, became a popular and critical success following its English-language premiere in London in 1985, and similarly changed the musical-theatre landscape. One of the longest running musicals in history, it first came to Australia in 1987 at Sydney’s Theatre Royal, before touring the country over the following five years. Reconceived and restaged in London in 2010 to celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary, ‘Les Mis’ has been given a new lease of life and is again touring the world, and is now playing in Melbourne’s Her Majesty’s Theatre prior to its Perth and Sydney seasons in 2015.
“[It] is still playing to full houses and regularly breaking box office records after almost [thirty] years,” producer and impresario Cameron Mackintosh writes in the program. “New audiences are discovering the extraordinary impact of this exhilarating and emotional tour de force while existing Les Mis fans come back again and again for more.” As an international brand, it is impregnable, untouchable. As a piece of musical theatre however, it is not without its flaws. And therein lies the problem with this production, the experience, and the whole Misérables thing.
This twenty-fifth anniversary production – free of the revolve and black box-bound design of the original production, and instead imbued with a perplexing sparseness and complexity through its use of projections – is a slick, well-oiled machine. It knows how to push all the right buttons in order to manipulate your emotions musically and through its staging; however, to resist its emotional pull and not let yourself get sucked into it all is to deny the story its raw power. It is a story of Jean Valjean, a man who – imprisoned on a trumped up charge – is given his ticket of leave, evades the law, is hunted by the officer Javert, and builds a life for himself as an honourable and respectable man. It is a relatively simple story, one of love, compassion and redemption, found in stories, characters and in slices of life everywhere. It is a story of raw human emotion, about fighting for a better world, a world where mankind is treated fairly and without discrimination; one we’re still fighting for.
Matt Kinley’s set here is a great hulking mass of wood, framing the stage, providing and concealing entrances through the sides of the auditorium, as well as encroaching upon the playing space as required. Through dramatic projections – drawn from archival photographs from the time, digital paintings and Victor Hugo’s own artworks – the space is given depth and it works splendidly. While the opening moments with the water splashes projected onto a scrim are forgettable, Kinley’s design here fills the space with colour and light and works to offset the initial gloom and misery which pervades the show, enlivens it with warmth, character and compassion. His projections are animated too, slightly, almost imperceptibly. The only drawback here is the sewers sequence towards the end; the movement here is too much too soon; too sudden, too noticeable. Meanwhile, Javert’s suicide is an effective use of projections and simple pieces of set to create a harrowing image, doing away with the need for the actor to fly in the traditional mode. Light also plays a key part in Kinley’s design, from cool blues on the barricades, to the stark whites filtering through the windows in the factory and ABC Café, the golden burnished light in the opening labourer scenes, and the rosy, almost enveloping god-like glow at the end; you’re inclined to believe them when they sing “[to] love another person / is to see the face of God.”
While the cast are all proficient singers and decent enough actors, you still get the feeling that they are hitting their marks, seemingly on auto-pilot, just going through the beats; there is no real emotional connection to the role or the material (or words). The only one who really does affect you, as with most productions, is Patrice Tipoki as Fantine – a struggling single mother, her plight is what inspires Valjean to become a better man and what gives the story its shape. Her death in the first half-hour is truly felt as it is a strong dose of tangible emotion. The choreography is largely rigid, and nothing feels truly honest or heartfelt, as though it comes from experience.
Constantly the cast are battling with Claude-Michel Schönberg’s score, presented here in its twenty-fifth anniversary orchestrations by Christopher Jahnke, Stephen Metcalfe and Stephen Brooker. Similar to those created for the recent film adaptation of the musical, there is an unrelenting drive, a constant rhythm driving the scenes which works well to give the show an urgency, an edge, which the original production perhaps lacked. But where it gives some scenes a vitality, it is at times too much, too overpowering, too emotionally present and/or prescriptive. I miss at times the Yamaha DX7 keyboards and their slightly dated sound, the little ostinati and motifs (particularly in ‘Stars’), the way the original orchestrations did not detract from the words or the actions, but rather complemented them; the focus was on the emotional story; where there was a conversation – a dialogue – present between the music and lyrics, now there is only bombast and power, and I’m not so certain that’s a good thing.
I think a lot of this production’s shortcomings can be explained by two factors: the film, and what the show is, or rather what it has become. A lot of the twenty-fifth anniversary production’s look, feel, sound and style is mirrored in – or perhaps it was born out of – the film adaptation. Rhythms and musical metres are not as strictly adhered to as they perhaps once were; there is a looseness and a freeness to the playing and singing which, while it might make it seem more ‘real’, actually goes against the idea of the musical as a genre, a genre bound inextricably to, and in service of, the music. The scale of the show is bigger, wider, more expansive; more filmic. Stage-pictures are created with a cinematic brush, and they at times swallow the very human drama that is being told, being performed in front of it.
As a show, a juggernaut, a lumbering gargantuan behemoth, it is what it is, and no amount of words against it is going to change to public perception of it. It is a show that sells itself – the titular abbreviation to ‘Les Mis’ is surely proof enough – nor does it need a star name to pull in an audience as other shows might. It is a show that could run for one-hundred years if it was allowed to; considering it celebrates its thirtieth birthday next year, I wouldn’t be surprised if it did. Audiences go into Les Misérables knowing exactly how they are going to feel when they walk out; the nightly ovations are testament enough, as are the patrons who return regularly (or, god forbid, weekly, nightly.)
Some years ago, we performed Les Misérables at school. While it was, understandably, the school's edition of the show, it was still Les Misérables, the story was the same story that has swept the world for one-hundred-and-fifty-odd years, and I am still immensely proud of having been a part of it. Sitting in the grandeur of Her Majesty’s Theatre, I couldn’t help but feel as though our school production had more heart, more ‘dream’ – we were a group of a hundred students, dreaming the same dream together, and we pulled it off, no matter how great the odds or the barricades were that were stacked against us.
While “[there] is no doubt that Les Misérables will be storming the barricades for many years to come,” and that my words will do nothing to impede its popular success, I don’t think I’ll be returning for a second helping, no matter how glad I am that I’ve (finally) seen it performed professionally.

Theatre playlist: 66. One Day More [Live], Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg

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