Seeing Les Misérables feels a bit like going around Westminster Abbey: the famous poster with dark-eyed Cosette gazing out through the red and blue smoke of the June Rebellion is a London landmark. It is directed by Trevor Nunn and John Caird and was originally performed by the RSC – if there are criticisms it is hard to lob them at the longest-running musical in the West End.
There's certainly no holding back in terms of drama, and protagonist Jean Valjean – who breaks his parole after nineteen years in prison and invents a new identity, pursued by his old prison guard, Javert – is impassioned from the outset. Whether you like your musicals overwrought and epic right from the start doesn't really come into it at this stage: evidently if they are going to survive over twenty-five years of ice-cream guzzling tourists they need to be made of strong stuff. Les Mis is a colossal success story and its heartfeltness is part of its enduring appeal.
That said, when the light relief does come it is very funny. As the villainous landlord Thénardier, Cameron Blakely is a fantastic comic actor – not that there is any straight acting at all in Les Mis, which is sung through. A highlight is his song, Master of the House – with its leisurely rhymes and bawdy chorus of drinkers: “Master of the house, keeper of the zoo/ Ready to relieve 'em of a sou or two”. Lyrics are by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel, and Herbert Kretzmer's English adaptation of the original French show is impressive. On the day I went, Nicky Swift was doing a great job covering as the thieving Madame Thénardier, who doesn't think too highly of her husband (though the two are clearly made for each other): “Master of the house? Isn't worth me spit!/ `Comforter, philosopher' and lifelong sh*t!” These two characters bring with them a welcome touch of lightness and irreverence amid the gloom of the Valjean/Javert saga.
In fact Les Mis is full of interesting characters – Inspector Javert, for instance, who believes people incapable of change and pursues Valjean out of an obsessive respect for the law. The web of underground characters and the entangled lives of the haves and the have-nots are ingredients of the nineteenth century novel that translate well to the stage, and avoid over-simplification: When he is first on the run, Valjean turns on the bishop who has offered him charity and steals from him instead. Rather than condemn him when the police find out, the bishop lies to save Valjean, giving him the second chance that he needs to change once and for all and become a good citizen. These are complex characters and emotions for a musical, and it is a credit to writers Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil – and also to the English adaptors – that amongst all of the glitz of the set, big techniquey voices and the merchandise-filled West End foyer, Victor Hugo's original story is as engrossing as ever.
When I saw it, understudy Chris Holland gave an absolutely brilliant performance as Jean Valjean: natural and solid and everything the part asks for. It is usually played by Argentinian singer Gerónimo Rauch, who was a big deal when he arrived on the scene earlier this year. The show has recently undergone a bit of an overhaul, with some new faces joining the familiar ones, so now might be a good time to go and see it – certainly when I went it felt far from stale, even at the unromantic hour of the midweek matinee.
Name of Show: Les Misérables
Book: Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil, and Trevor Nunn and John Caird (adaptation). Based on the novel by Victor Hugo.
Composer/Music: Claude-Michel Schönberg
Lyrics: Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel, with an English-language libretto by Herbert Kretzmer
Premiered: 17 September 1980 (Palais des Sports, Paris)
This Production Opened: 3 April 2004
Tweet: Against the backdrop of the French Revolution, an escaped prisoner resolves to do good, but his past contunues to follow him.
Synopsis: It is 1815 in Toulon, France and escaped prisoner Jean Valjean is being pursued by his old prison guard turned inspector, Javert. Time passes, and he invents a new identity, resolves to do good, and becomes a prosperous factory-owner. When he rescues the impoverished and dying Fantine from a brawl, he becomes entangled in her life, and after her death takes in her child, who grows up with him. Against the backdrop of the 1832 Paris Uprising, the human stories of unrequited love and loyalty - of the older generation and the new - are played out: fortunes have changed over the years, but amid the fighting and bloodshed, Javert still pursues his prisoner.
- "The Confrontation" between Javert and Valjean.
- "I Dreamed a Dream" and "Bring Him Home" - both now classic musical staples.
- Enjolras waving the red flag above the balustrade.
Why See It: Apart from anything else, Les Mis has become a famous West End landmark, so it is worth going to see what all the hype is about. The music is great - full of good tunes - and the performances are slick, with strong singers all round. The storyline is compelling, if a bit tricky to follow at times, and the characters are memorable and conjured up with real spirit - impressive given they first appeared on the London stage over 25 years ago.
Caveat: You've probably heard all of the big tunes over the years, and Les Mis is certainly not the most upbeat of musicals. If you are a tourist and not sure your English is up to it, you might want to opt for something a little less dark and a little more spectacular, with a simpler plot. There were times when I found the storyline a little tricky to follow.
- It is currently the longest-running musical on West End followed by The Phantom of the Opera.
- Most productions are advertised with the head and shoulders of a girl - an image of Cosette from the 1862 edition of Les Miserables by Emile Bayard.
- Alan Boubil had the idea of adapting Les Miserables into a musical while watching Oliver!
It takes something very special to become the longest running musical of all time. Approaching its 30th year in London’s West End, Les Misérables is perhaps the most significant musical that has ever been produced. Ever since the first production in 1985, and largely thanks to a collection of breathtaking songs, audiences have taken Les Misérables firmly to heart. What has followed is nothing short of a phenomenon. Spawning countless international productions in twenty-one different languages, this remarkable production has now been seen by more than 60 million people worldwide. Recently adapted into the most successful musical film of all time, Les Misérables is universally loved. Set against the backdrop of 19th-century France, Les Misérables tells an enthralling story of broken dreams and unrequited love, passion, sacrifice and redemption – a timeless testament to the survival of the human spirit. Ex-convict Jean Valjean is hunted for decades by the ruthless policeman Javert after he breaks parole. When Valjean agrees to care for factory worker Fantine's young daughter, Cosette, their lives change forever. Cameron Mackintosh's legendary production of Boublil and Schönberg's Les Misérables has to be seen in its original form to truly experience. Featuring the songs "I Dreamed a Dream", "Bring Him Home", "One Day More" and "On My Own" it really is - the show of shows.
Queen's Theatre51 Shaftesbury Avenue
London Greater London United Kingdom W1D 6BA
Duration: 3 hours
The 2011 Company of Les Misérables © Michael Le Poer Trench
Liam Tamne as Enjolras in Les Misérables © Michael Le Poer Trench
Master of the House © Michael Le Poer Trench