Les Miserables opened at the Broadway Theatre in 1987, and only moved to the Imperial Theatre to make way for the incoming Miss Saigon, which began performances in 1991. But, what do you know, the sets were too large to fit in the smaller Imperial, so the sets from the national touring production of the show had to be used instead.
Given that the show has played far more of its life at the Imperial than the Broadway, what does this event have to do with the performance of Les Miserables I attended on August 24? The downsizing of the show in that way is perhaps more than slightly emblematic of what has happened to the show itself in the many years since it opened on Broadway, and more still since it originally premiered in London in 1985.
At this point in the show's run (at least in New York, as I'm hardly qualified to judge the production in London), we can't expect the calibre--if only in name--of the performers that inhabited the show originally. And in any truly good, accomplished, fully-realized musical, we shouldn't have to. No production should ever be so tied to the skills of its original cast that no one can ever perform it in any other way. That's dooming the show to a quick death.
That's not to say that Les Miserables is exactly this way. What happened with Les Miserables is that the original performers in the show's original companies all made significant marks on the material. Colm Wilkinson's Jean Valjean or Frances Ruffelle's Eponine in London and New York, Philip Quast's Javert or Anthony Warlow's Enjolras, both from Sydney, Judy Kuhn's Cosette on Broadway, Michael Ball's original London Marius, and so on. In some way, each of these people truly defined their roles and made significant impressions on audiences. But that alone does not guarantee that the show can't survive with lesser casting.
The problems, though, were fully in evidence at the Imperial when I saw the show again. Les Miserables has always been a show of ludicrous excesses. From the truly self-important story that explains itself with a synopsis in the Playbill to the soaring music, the student revolutionaries who all must appear the ultimate victims in the conflict, the neverending struggle between Valjean and Javert, Eponine's unrequited love for Marius... In Les Miserables, everything is ten times bigger than it needs to be. But that's what makes the show the show. Without that, there's an important element missing, and you realize--through the smaller performances--that the show itself has cracks and seams galore.
The show currently playing at the Imperial seems to have a quaint, innocent quality unbefitting the Les Miserables material and the almost epic history of the work itself. The sets creak when they're moving, the once impressive barricade and barrage of turntable movement just looks silly with the advances in stage technology made since the show premiered, and the decline of the British pop opera has given the whole thing a disjointed feel, as though it's a living relic of a time long gone. Well, in a way, it is.
Oh, regardless, the show still has merit--some of the music is truly remarkable and blood-pounding, and the cast is unquestionably talented. But they lack that spark, that little something extra that made Les Miserables more than just another show in the first place. Ivan Rutherford sings Valjean well--far better than Colm Wilkinson ever did, judging by the sheer number of recordings available--but, without Wilkinson's bombast, Valjean seems to vanish onstage. I saw an understudy for Javert--David McDonald--and he did a perfectly admirable job. Just not big enough, not special enough, not... Javert enough (but, after Philip Quast's jaw-dropping display in the Tenth Anniversary Concert, can anyone ever be as much a Javert again?). I also saw an understudy (Neal Mayer) for Thenardier who was mainly walking through it--was "Master of the House" always this boring, or has that changed since the original companies and recordings as well? Kristin Huxhold, also an understudy, was Cosette--again fine, but unremarkable. Christopher Mark Peterson's Enjolras lacked life. I was surprised by Ellen Hornberger's adorable, moving, and very well-sung Young Cosette, but Stephen Scarpulla's Gavroche--while funny--was too forced and not heavy enough--a streetwise youth he never appeared to be.
Where Les Miserables is now is, I fear, where it will remain for the rest of its time on Broadway. As good as the show's performers are--and they are all far more than proficient technically--they simply aren't up to the higher requirements of the roles, requirements no one could truly list on an audition notice. The days, for example, of the irresponsible belts of Patti LuPone and Randy Graff are long gone, replaced by the warm, rich sound of Jacquelyn Piro, a gifted performer in the right role (who blew me away on the big tour about three years ago), but who here is about as right for Fantine as Kiri Te Kenawa would be. Of the performers in the current company, the only one sufficiently big, sufficiently "out there" for the experience is Betsy Joslyn, formerly of Sweeney Todd, A Doll's Life, Beauty and the Beast, and a number of other shows. Her Madame Thenardier is earthy and hilarious, as all Madame Thenardiers must be, but she had a bigness and a presence that caught your eye and wouldn't let you go. If only all the performers had that.
By the way, in case you're wondering about the infamous cuts made the show to trim the running time down to less than three hours... Yes, they hurt the show. Clarity of narrative has never been one of the strengths of Les Miserables, but the changes serve more to shave away the silence, contemplation, and--for want of a better term--"acting time" that Les Miserables always needed just to stay afloat onstage as opposed to on record. Shortening lines here and there, eliminating some blocking, or cutting verses or parts of verses succeed only in making the show shorter.
Ultimately, what happens is the drama is trimmed, the drama is cut, the drama is forgotten. Has anyone ever gone to see Les Miserables for its drama? Who knows? I certainly can't say--I doubt I ever have (this was only my second time seeing the show). Les Miserables was never really about drama--it was about people, about being a phenomenon, and about being big and splashy. When those things are gone--as they are in the Broadway production, at least currently--the drama is all that remains. In the case of this show, that's really not the best thing. I hope Les Miserables can regain what it's lost, but I'm not hopeful. The British pop opera era is over, most likely for the best, along with all the trappings that--while it was here--made it so special. Les Miserables was of that time, and feels sorely out of place--and out of sorts--on the Broadway of 2001.
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