After spending most of its season firmly within the traditional American musical theatre repertory, the Muny has taken a decided turn toward the British Isles and the oft-bewailed mega-musical with its last two productions. Last week the Muny presented Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, and this week Les Misérables is making its first-ever appearance on the Muny stage.
Although the modest Joseph may not seem to belong in the same category as Les Mis, because it can be staged either simply (as in most school productions) or with great spectacle (as at the Muny last week), in musical style and dramatic approach it presages the Lloyd Webber mega-productions such as Starlight Express and Phantom of the Opera, which for a time seemed destined to turn Broadway into a permanent Lloyd Webber festival. That is, except for the shows written by Claude-Michel Schöenberg and Alain Boublil, whose Les Mis and Miss Saigon share many musical characteristics and dramatic characteristics with Lloyd Webber's shows, and which strove to match his crashing chandeliers and roller skating trains with revolutionaries upon barricades and helicopters taking off from the stage.
The British connection to Les Misérables may not be immediately apparent, since it was originally written by two Frenchmen and had its premiere in Paris in 1982. However, the English-language version, which has been playing around the world since 1985, is a translation and partial rewriting by Herbert Kretzmer and James Fenton, produced at the behest of British producer Cameron Mackintosh. And Mackintosh is the real mastermind behind the British Invasion, Broadway version: among his many productions are the three longest-running shows on Broadway: Phantom of the Opera (8133 performances and still running), Cats (7485) and Les Misérables(6680). Like him or hate him, Mackintosh figured out what a large segment of the ticket-buying public wants, and his productions supply it in abundance.
Les Mis displays the best and the worst elements of the mega-musical, and to be completely fair, it shares many of its virtues and defects with its source material, Victor Hugo's sprawling, 1200-page novel. There's so much of everything in the show that any reasonable performance has something on offer to please almost every taste, including tragic love stories expressed in heartrending ballads, clashes of good and evil punctuated by stirring political anthems, and philosophies of life stated so plainly a five-year-old could understand them. The best moments are as stirring as anything you are likely to experience on the musical stage: I'm thinking in particular of the massed scenes which close each act and of solos such as "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables," hauntingly sung in this production by Kevin Kern. However, you have to sit through quite a lot of ordinary music and needless plot complications to get to those moments: if an hour were trimmed from this nearly three-hour show, I doubt it would be missed.
Surprisingly, the least effective aspects of the Muny production are the technical elements. The huge Muny stage presents unique challenges, of course, and even the 89 performers promised by Executive Director Paul Blake can't quite fill it up. More problematic are the demands placed by the particular structure of Les Mis. It is made up of many short scenes, which were staged alternately on the full stage and before the curtain, in the latter case carrying on the action while allowing the scenery to be changed at the same time. This is an old tradition in theatre but is most effective when the scenery being changed is worth the hassle. Instead, what you get in the Muny production is mostly varying configurations of three nondescript buildings displayed in various combinations and angles, none of which are particularly striking or effective.
Several of the most effective scenes are set on the bare stage, and the entire production might have benefitted from a visual concept less anchored in naturalism which left more to the audience's imagination. Even the famous revolving set of the barricades doesn't show us that much more than what we could see to begin with: great technical effects should offer great payoffs, not more of the same. A related problem is that the ends of scenes often seemed rushed, as if the performers and stagehands are scrambling to get to the next setup; this is particularly marked in the student revolutionary meeting led by Manu Narayan as Enjolras. No complaint about Mr. Narayan's performance, but his companions seem as if they can't wait to finish declaring the revolution so they can dash off stage before the orchestra starts collecting overtime pay.
One key to the success of Les Mis is the inclusion of a number of clearly defined roles, allowing individual actors to stand out among the multitudes on stage. Among the more memorable performances at the Muny are Ivan Rutherford as Valjean, who shows remarkable control of his falsetto range, and Jimmy McEvoy who threatens to steal the second half of the show as the child revolutionary Gavroche. Jeff McCarthy is a striking Javert and his death scene is the single most effective piece of technical theatre in the entire production. Unfortunately, amplification was a problem throughout the evening at the performance I attended, so the quieter moments of solos sometimes became inaudible while voices in the crowd scenes were often painfully loud.
Most of the opening-night crowd clearly enjoyed the show, for which they endured almost three hours of a particularly hot and humid St. Louis summer evening. And somebody has been buying all those tickets in New York, London and elsewhere, so Les Misérables is obviously connecting with large numbers of people. However, there is also a vocal segment of the theatre audience which absolutely detests this show and its perceived brethren, such as Cats and Miss Saigon. Without taking up the question of who is in the majority (who knows?), or who is right (who cares?), it's worth considering what it is about these shows which so arouses the ire of many ardent theatre devotees.
The Mackintosh formula for the reproducible megahit, of which Les Mis is a shining example (according to its web site, it has been seen by over 51 million people worldwide), includes the following elements:
None of these factors are unique to the Mackintosh shows, but the perfection of the formula is (at least until Disney and Frank Wildhorn took the hint and started producing even more formulaic material for the musical stage), and I suspect that's what's really bothering the people who are bothered.
Many people value the theatre in part because they see it as the antithesis of the modern, mass-produced world: while movies and television programs are recorded and mechanically reproduced, a theatrical performance must be recreated anew each night and thus every performance offers a unique experience. It must also be created anew by each company, and many theatre devotees will happily spend hours discussing how Olivier's Hamlet differed from Kenneth Branagh's, or the relative merits of interpretive choices made by directors in different productions of Show Boat.
Such theatre fans often value the unique and individual qualities of particular actors as well, and the great stage personalities of the past have been treasured for their idiosyncrasies as well as their talents. No one could possibly mistake Ethel Merman, Carol Channing or Danny Kaye for anyone else, and they could not be replaced on stage by just anyone, either. By contrast, Javert and Valjean are both well-defined characters which require technically sound performers, but neither demands that an individual actor place his unique stamp on the role.
Of course, from the producer's point of view, stars and the shows which demand them can be nothing but trouble. Real stars are expensive, can be temperamental and demanding, and are in short supply. If a show's success depends on the appearance of a particular star personality, or even the presence of any star personality, it does not lend itself to either long runs or the cloning necessary to keep numerous road companies running simultaneously. In this sense, Les Mis is the perfect musical for the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (with apologies to Walter Benjamin) in which we now live. Technical effects don't come cheap, but at least they are on the market: you can buy the helicopter effect for Miss Saigon but you can't clone another Jonathan Pryce. If his absence is missed (as it sorely was when he left Miss Saigon) this conflicts with a show's ability to run forever and everywhere simultaneously.
It's not just the producers, however: there is a large body of theatre-goers who enjoy the mega-musicals and are willing and able to buy tickets to them. Musical tastes are always changing, and perhaps a new audience has emerged who prefers the conventions of the mega-musicals to those of more traditional shows. Or perhaps they see no conflict between the two, so that Oklahoma! and Les Mis offer two different kinds of pleasure, and enjoying one does not require foregoing the other. Be that as it may, Les www.lesmis.com is here to stay, and we in St. Louis are fortunate to have the opportunity to attend a rare outdoor staging of this often-produced show.
Les Misérables will be playing at the Muny in Saint Louis through August 15. Ticket information is available from the Muny ticket office in Forest Park, and from MetroTix at 314-534-1111, metrotix.com or any MetroTix location.
Music: Claude-Michael Schonberg