When you're a musical dramatist trying to make a living, you go where the work takes you (if you can do it with passion and sincerity that is), so I was happy to debut with an English version of La Boheme for the Public Theatre in 1984—and years later never considered Jonathan Larson's Boheme update, Rent, a rival—different animal altogether; and my (and Rob Barron's) young audience version of The Phantom of the Opera would never have existed without the ALW juggernaut motivating Theatreworks/USA's desire to capitalize on what may be the most successful public domain title in history (and everyone does Phantom with a different story; the Gaston Leroux novel is such a structural mess that you can't be faithful, and have to make up the narrative new each time); so I've always been grateful for Sir Andrew's opus. My outlook on multiple versions of public domain stories is: room for everybody. If there's no willful interference, if the work is original unto the artists, bearing their own unique imprimatur and honest-faith efforts, may it all just be good.
And I do feel much the same about the blockbuster Les Miserables—as I must: after all, TW/USA, hoping lightning would strike twice, had Rob and me do a TYA version of that story too, what we created is a piece I love madly; and we likewise would never have gotten to write it in the American style if Boulblil and Schoenberg (and their under-credited English lyricist Herbert Kretzmer) hadn't pretty much codified the Euro musical vocabulary to worldwide acclaim with theirs.
Yet I must confess, my avuncular tolerance abandoned me somewhat while I sat through the current revival.
Thing is, I'd forgotten most of theirs. I saw the original Broadway production not quite a year into its run (1987); a year or so later listened twice to a Les Miz album for the first time (1988's international cast, 3-CD unabridged "complete symphonic" version had just been released) and, as Franklin Shepard says, "sort of enjoyed it."
And had no contact with the material ever again.
Save for a few melodies and a vague mental snapshot of the turntable during the revolution scenes (no pun intended), it faded from my memory almost completely.
Thus it was easy for me to stay out of its shadow when Rob and I had our 60 minute pass at Victor Hugo's massive tome almost a decade later, between 1997 and 1999. It's only now, with the Broadhurst Theatre engagement, that I've renewed my acquaintance. And strangely, most of it hit me as if new. And a little shocking.
And until the point where the storytelling arcs of the Boulblil-Schoenberg-Kretzmer and Barron-Spencer versions so diverge as to make comparisons moot, there I was, doing what I had never before done in similar circumstances: weighing one version against the other. Futile and silly: a TYA entry is to a global phenomenon (perhaps the global phenomenon) as an ant is to an elephant, but it wasn't about popularity or commercial success, just storytelling and characterization, it happened reflexively and I couldn't fight the impulse.
WHAT the comparisons were is not important. (If you follow this link, and decide to take the offer, I'll leave those to you.)
But for the purposes of this review (or whatever it's turning into, for it is clearly a legitimate review no more), I had to ask myself afterwards WHY I was making them at all—I sure hadn't planned to. I sensed there was something deeper going on than just me clocking the differences.
And I realized that I was responding to the way the particular school of writing "felt" in 2006. The declamatory, on-the-nose, announced-exposition, sung-through, truncated-narrative, superstated-ballad, near-opera Euro school of writing.
It's generally acknowledged that these style-points have become less effective over the years in shows that have employed them since Les Miz and Miss Saigon; the techniques proved limited of scope and depth, less than durable, anything but versatile, and ripe for endless parody. More shows have failed using them than succeeded. Emulating them is folly; trying to reproduce them misses the point of the very specific context in which they were nurtured.
But Les Miz was one of the first, arguably the first, to go at it with the innocence of discovery, the boldness of experimentation, the excitement of a journey into undiscovered country. (To be sure, ALW and Tim Rice had more than paved the way with JC Superstar and Evita, but those contained agit-prop interjections and moralizing, the authors' view as much a character as those played by the actors. Les Miz, though, was unapologetically sincere and sentimental.) When that language first appeared, it was fresh, it was news, it was a musical theatre vocabulary no one trained classically could have envisioned (its sheer and particular kind of bombast flew against the American gestalt) and its brazenness was as much a part of the event as its distinctiveness. Take to it or not, it was like nothing else. And came along at a time when musical theatre in America was caught between generations, old imprimaturs were giving way to others still in the fetal stages, all this heralded by experiments with form and subject matter, and some disappointing brand-name failures; which left audiences hungering for the directness, simplicity and basic human emotion that had temporarily retreated. And of course in its native Europe, the declamatory style was the first profound evidence, apart from the ALW novelty canon, that artists other than Americans might lay meaningful claim to their own musical theatre territory. In a Euro musical, the story was big, the passions were big, the gestures were big, the performances were big, even the bigness was big. The allure would not wear off until the style became a cynically applied—and regarded—template. As it would have to, because when you start off that big and that unsubtly, there's not a lot of room to grow and explore further. The very strength is also the limitation.
Thus those pioneer shows from the early days of the Euro, the ones defining its characteristics, are the only ones that lasted and lasted, running decades or more, their purity powerful enough to shield them from the Euro musical's decline. I thought that, with the "classic" titles, that would never change.
Lo and behold, though...at the newly remounted Les Miz, I found myself watching it change. At least I think I was. At least to this degree:
The declamation, the too-bald exposition, the lack of subtext or any significant wit, felt unweildly, even bloated. The rushed-through, Cliff's notes-compact narrative that blasts Valjean through the first 30 minutes of the show, seemed to sacrifice a beating heart for bloodless efficiency. Like a social more in a once-contemporary play of manners that hasn't aged well and no longer jibes with the tenor of the times. I found myself watching a Les Miz that seemed exposed, naked, weak and worst of all...tired.
This is partly due to a production that appears (even if it isn't) hastily assembled; that in much of its casting and some of its staging, seems like a thoroughly respectable but undistinguished road company tour featuring its nth generation of replacements hitting the marks exactly as the stage manager's well-pencilled script dictates. (There are some exceptions. Alexander Gemignani's Valjean is divine, and Aaron Lazar's Enjolras is already a thing of legend [or anyway high octane buzz]. But Gary Beach's Thernardier is a study in misplaced camp; Norm Lewis's Javert is only reliable, solid and well-sung, never truly compelling; and Daphne Rubin-Vega's voice has become so damaged over the years as to make her Fantine a test of endurance to listen to.)
But the tiredness may also be due to the fact that, since Les Miz, the American musical has staged a comeback. Not only a comeback, but one replete with its own savvier juggernauts, among them The Producers, Wicked and the revivals of Cabaret and Chicago. Almost as if we consciously took up the challenge. Almost as if to put Les Miz and the Euro musical in perspective and proportion.
Granted, LM is presented with all the approved, signature tableaux, punching the buttons it needs to punch most of the time, pulling the strings it has long known how to pull, and by and large taking the audience along for the ride. The show hasn't lost its power to please (though I must add, the night I was there, the house was dominated by longtime admirers who were present to sanction the ritual—whether it would fare as powerfully with newbies is unknown. I have to assume the enthusiasm would still be there, but I wonder if it wouldn't be more muted.)
It just doesn't seem necessary anymore. It doesn't seem to be the ground-breaker it once was. Rather it seems like...well, like a ritual.
Not a failure.
Not a disgrace.
Not a parody of its former self.
Not even unwelcome.
Just not anymore the thing.
Then again, remember that while so many others took Les Miz to heart, I first lost familiarity with, and then had reason to keep my distance from, "the world's most popular musical," as the adds say. What's more, I'm the guy making comparisons to his own, more modest effort (however immodestly), and as their Valjean sings, who am I?
You may wish to look elsewhere for a clean view...