French novelist Victor Hugo was on vacation when his 1862 novel “Les Miserables” was published. Curious to know the public's reaction to his tale about the French revolution of 1832, he sent a telegram to his publisher asking “?” Taking his cue from Hugo, the publisher replied with a simple “!” to indicate the book's success.
This year marks the 150th anniversary of “Les Miserables.” And while its lofty position as a 19th century literary classic has never been in question, its popularity as a musical theater piece has far overshadowed Hugo's original narrative.
The songwriting team of Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil created a musical stage version of Hugo's sprawling novel in 1980. Their take on the intertwining stories of convicted criminal Jean Valjean and ruthless police detective Javert captivated French audiences.
The musical's Parisian success prompted British producer Cameron Mackintosh to approach Boublil and Schonberg about creating an English-language version of “Les Miserables.”
Newly outfitted with Herbert Kretzmer's English lyrics, “Les Miserables” opened in London in 1985.
A Broadway production followed in 1987 and earned eight Tony Awards. Since then, “Les Miserables” has been produced in 43 countries and has been translated into 21 languages, making it one of the most popular musicals of all time.
“Les Miserables” was the last production to play the Civic Center Music Hall before its three-year renovation began in 1998. A new touring production based on the 25th anniversary version that played England in 2010 makes its way to the Civic Center for eight performances this week.
The show is sponsored locally by Celebrity Attractions.
As Mackintosh was preparing to mount the 25th anniversary production, he wanted to tweak the show to give it a fresh look. Gone is the familiar turntable used to create seamless changes of scene. And Chris Jahnke's new orchestrations have given the musical a slightly different sound.
“In a sense, this show has been changing from the moment it was born,” Boublil said in a printed release. “While the original album contained pretty much everything you hear now, not every song was in the same place. And the truth is, you never just write a musical. You always rewrite it.”
Actor Peter Lockyer says he's come full circle with “Les Miserables.” He was a replacement Marius during a portion of the Broadway production's 16-year run. In this Cameron Mackintosh/Networks tour, Lockyer has graduated to the role of Jean Valjean. No wonder he considers the musical a part of his own life story.
“I think ‘Les Mis' is one of the best musicals ever written and I feel so honored to come back to it,” Lockyer said recently. “I loved the original production which was sort of majestic and had that romantic Jane Austen kind of pace.
“This version is a little grittier and moves faster. It takes sort of a different angle on things. Because of that, certain aspects of show play a little differently. I think that proves that a new production can be just as successful as an older one.”
For revivals and touring productions of long-running musicals, producers like to employ any technological advances that could be incorporated. This version features projections that complement the narrative playing out on stage. Many are drawings by Hugo, who suppressed his artistic leanings for fear they might overshadow his literary work.
“This production has been completely redesigned,” Lockyer said. “The projections alone make it cinematic. It's just another tool the set designer can use for his vision of how the show will look. It's kind of a morphing of cinema and theater genres.” Much of the success of “Les Miserables” depends on the chemistry between Valjean and Javert. Lockyer said he and Andrew Varela (the actor who plays Javert) have been friends since they appeared in the Broadway production together.
“We had a blast with each other onstage,” Lockyer recalled. “I think because of that relationship, we trust each other's professionalism. We have a freedom within the structure of our scenes together.
“I feel like we can do anything with each other. Our director encouraged us to find little things to play with. It doesn't take a big change to make a scene feel new. It's a way for us to keep the show alive for every performance.”
“Les Miserables” purists need not worry about the show's familiar narrative. It's one aspect of the musical that hasn't been tampered with. The Boublil/Schonberg score, one of the musical theater's finest, is also intact.
“When I first came to see this new production I was a little nervous because I loved the original version so much and even felt like I had some ownership over it,” Lockyer explained. “But I've had such a blast with this production. I found myself laughing at moments that took me by surprise.
“I've talked to people who have come to the stage door who said they were also a little skeptical at first. But after seeing this production, they love the changes that have been made. By taking a step back, we realize we are creating new memories.”