The Cameron Mackintosh production of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michele Schonberg's Les Miserables, with English lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer and based on the novel by Victor Hugo, and directed by Trevor Nunn and John Caird, opened on Broadway on March 13, 1987.
Now in its sixteenth year on Broadway, Les Miserables is something of a relic, one of the only two British pop operas still running (the other being The Phantom of the Opera). Almost anachronistic by today's standards, the show bears all the hallmarks of its esteemed tradition - an enormous cast, an immense physical production, and an almost over-inflated sense of pomposity and self-importance that, for whatever reason, worked magic once up a time. Sadly, much of that magic is currently missing from the Imperial Theatre, where the once-landmark musical by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg (with assistance from Herbert Kretzmer) is showing its age and showing its seams.
What was once an intense musical and overwhelming emotional experience for so many millions of people, seems to be faltering under its own weight, unable to support itself against the lofty expectations of the audience and, frankly, the requirements of the material. Les Miserables cannot be played low-key. It can't work without an abundance of energy and dynamic performers at its center, selling the over-the-top music and emotions for all they're worth and then some. Les Miserables played tentatively or with subtlety to spare really isn't Les Miserables.
The performer most emblematic of that problem in the current cast is the Fantine, Jacquelyn Piro. While a talented singer and actress who can be good in the right role, her Fantine is so restrained and ladylike, her descent into madness - which forms a major part of the first act, and sets up the story to follow - is more or less ridiculous. Her Fantine after she loses her job and is forced into prostitution is the same as her Fantine before, as well as the Fantine on her death bed. She has a warm voice, but it's too small for her big solo, "I Dreamed a Dream," her upper notes pulled back and acted over. If the days of the irresponsibly yet thrillingly belted Fantines (Patti LuPone, Randy Graff, etc.) are gone, could no better be done?
J. Mark McVey is slightly better as the current Jean Valjean, with a similar take on his role: quiet, unassuming, and more or less charisma free. His strongest scenes occur near the end of the play when Valjean, aged and ailing, must worry about the legacy he'll pass on. Those moments, if perhaps imperfectly sung, are acted well, the smaller, intimate style being more appropriate.
Most of the rest of the supporting players are perfectly adequate for their roles - Stephen Brian Patterson is a decent Marius, though perhaps a bit too old and wise for the student revolutionary he's supposed to be. The Enjolras, leader of the uprising, is David Gagnon, who has all the notes but none of the presence to push them emotionally beyond the first few rows of the orchestra. The Cosette, Stephanie Waters, is friendly and mostly endearing in a difficult role, but more than a little unsure vocally. Nick Wyman and Kathy Santen, as the money-grubbing Thenardiers, prove even a once rousing number like "Master of the House" can become pedestrian in the wrong hands.
Only Philip Hernandez as the inspector Javert and Diana Kaarina as Eponine suggest a hint of their roles' possibilities. Hernandez is imposing and forceful, his two major solos scoring big successes where they are needed. They can't make up for what is lacking elsewhere, but they're welcome energetic reprieves in an evening where now too few are to be found. Kaarina is lightly funny and touching, putting her unique voice to use in the one performance in the show where pulling back makes the character stronger, not weaker.
But, even afflicted with casting problems like these, are many performers likely to do much better? At this stage in the show's life cycle, it's unlikely (though, perhaps, not impossible) to find stars who'll breathe the life into the show that, right now, it so desperately needs. When the Fantine is reserved, the Valjean highly contemplative, the Thenardiers boring, and the kids so cute your teeth hurt, you're just not getting to the core of the show. You're barely scratching the surface.
And, worst of all, the audience picks up on it. For better or worse, Les Miserables has become an unmistakable part of our theatregoing consciousness, making audience expectations almost impossibly high. The score - particularly each of the act finales - remains highly varied and accomplished, John Napier's sets are no less effective now than they ever were, David Hersey's lighting and Andreane Neofitou's costumes are the same, and Trevor Nunn and John Caird's direction has changed little, if at all, but what worked in 1987 won't necessarily work in 2002. The show is very much of its time, and that time is over. And the audience knows it.
But it doesn't prevent them from leaping to their feet after the show's almost insanely inspiring finale, and some people in the audience I attended the show with were genuinely moved to tears. Les Miserables can still touch and affect, and even make history - the current Shanghai production is proof of that. And, of course, people still want (or need) to love the show. But it's not the same show that once set the world aflame. Until it is again, the legendary status of Les Miserables will remain little more than a memory.