Re-Reading Les Misérables

Thoughts and commentary on Victor Hugo’s masterpiece.

Review: Les Misérables 25th Anniversary Stage Production

Last summer I saw the 25th Anniversary production of Les Misérables on stage. I started reviewing it, but never finished. Now that I’ve seen the movie, I figured it was time to rescue this from the draft folder before writing my thoughts on the film.

For the 25th anniversary of the show, the staging has been completely redone (in part to get rid of the rotating stage). The songs have been adjusted again, and long-standing direction, costume design and characterization has been allowed to change.

Overall I like the new staging. It’s not a stripped-down production at all - in fact, most of the sets are more elaborate than the original, which basically relied on the rotating floor, lighting, two jumbles of boxes, and a bridge. Fortunately they didn’t go overboard: they let the songs carry the show, which leads to an interesting mix of elaborate sets for ensemble numbers and empty stages for the solos.

The one place where losing the rotating stage becomes a problem is the barricade in Act II. In particular, the scene when Gavroche climbs over the barricade to collect ammunition. It doesn’t work nearly as well if you can’t see him. They’ve tried to recover some the impact by focusing on Grantaire, who has a surrogate father/big brother relationship with him. Unfortunately, it’s established entirely in the background of other scenes, when the focus is on other characters, so it’s easy to miss.

My favorite piece of new staging is in “Turning” and “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.” “Turning” has been re-set as a candlelight vigil for the fallen students. The women leave behind the candles at the end of the song, when Marius starts to sing, and at the point where he imagines his friends’ ghosts, each of them walks forward and picks up one of the candles.

It’s a bit grittier than it used to be. Jean Valjean starts out not just embittered by his years in prison, but actually violent. His experience with the Bishop isn’t just a revival of hope, but a change in character. (This is actually more in line with the book.)

I’m less happy about the musical changes. In some cases they’re just different, and only jarring because I know the old version so well. In other cases it feels too fast, or really does feel like something’s missing. A cut verse in “Come to Me” stands out because they broke the rhyme scheme: instead of cutting a whole verse, they cut the second half of one and the first half of the next. “Little People” is gone. “Castle on a Cloud” is cut in half – considering that the show’s iconic image is little Cosette with that broom, you’d think they’d make a point of keeping it intact!

The bigger problem is that they’ve cut a lot of the downtime. The show just pulls you straight from one big song to the next without giving you any real time to recover.

One change I did like was the the way the music dissolved into chaos near the end of Javert’s soliloquy. And while the actor we saw didn’t stand out to me much during act one, from the point where Valjean spares his life onward, he nailed the portrayal of someone whose basic beliefs have been shaken, and is coming apart at the seams. He’s already unraveling at the beginning of the song, and by the end he’s completely broken down. He has nowhere to go but over the edge.

I’d like to see this version of the show again sometime, though I’m not sure when I’ll have the chance. Musically, my favorite version of Les Mis is still the one that opened on Broadway way back when, as fixed in the Complete Symphonic Recording. Visually, this one works very well, except for the loss of the rotating barricade. But every time they revise the production, they cut more and more of the music.