In 1985 the first English production of Boublil and Schonberg’s musical Les Misérables opened in London. That original production has moved theatres a couple of times, but it’s still running, and it’s been produced all over the world. It’s estimated that 65 million people have seen a production. I guess that at least 64,924,601 loved it to tears and for those who are seeing it for the for first time here in Melbourne will soon know why this astonishing piece of music theatre will soon have been running for 30 years.
Based on the much loved French 1832 novel by Victor Hugo, Les Mis is ultimately the story of Jean Valjean, who was imprisoned for 19 years for stealing bread to feed his niece, but breaks his parole and is pursued by obsessive guard Javert until they both end up in 1832 Paris where the doomed June Rebellion is beginning and God and fate catches up with everyone. Hugo was in Paris during this rebellion and his story has become so well-known that the line between it’s fiction and fact is often blurred.
This new production was created for the musical’s 25th anniversary and is the same as the one currently running on Broadway. And I can’t imagine the New York one being any better than ours.
The new design incorporates projections that are based on visual arts works by Hugo himself. They give a depth to the stage and, at their best, brings us into the graveyard and sewer, but Javert’s backstroke to destiny tries too hard to create illusion.
The new Australian cast are relatively unknown but incomparable and unlikely to be forgotten. Vocally, from Valjean to ensemble, they are begging for a cast recording (of course there can be another one!) and each bring something surprising and new to the so-well-known songs.
Simon Gleeson gives Valjean a delicacy that makes the role his own (and he’ll be a star like all the Valjeans before him), Hayden Tee lets Javert’s humanity continually fight his sense of justice, Trevor Ashley and Lara Mulchay are clowning delights as the Thernardiers, Kerrie Anne Greenland (in her professional debut) makes us wonder why Marius doesn’t want Eponine, and there’s no one whose name won’t forever be connected with their role in this production.
My only quibble is that, as a whole, the production and cast seem almost too aware of its pedigree (it’s Les Misérables after all) and build towards moments and hit songs rather than letting them develop naturally. At the same time there’s a tendency, from ensemble upwards, to overplay emotion, which leaves it feeling more melodramatic than it could be. There’s little in the story or music that’s subtle in its emotional gut punch and the extra emphasis distracts and brings attention to itself rather than bringing us closer to the story.
Regardless, Les Misérables is beyond critique and the only way to know if it’s worth all the fuss is to experience it for yourself.