Were Victor Hugo still alive today, one can only hope he’d be proud.
What: “Les Miserables”When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Feb. 24 with 2 p.m. matinees Feb. 23 and 24Where: North Charleston Performing Arts Center, 5001 Coliseum DrivePrice: $50-$80For more info: www.northcharlestoncoliseumpac.com
Beginning with the release of the French-language musical play in 1980, more than 130 years after Hugo penned his epic novel, “Les Miserables,” its adaptations continue to garner awards akin to the attention that the book received upon its release in 1862.
By interweaving stories of justice and redemption with tales of unquenchable, yearning love and the historical drama of revolutionary Paris, Hugo fashioned an opus that peers like Upton Sinclair lauded as one of the greatest novels in history.
Translations from its original French to English reduced the novel to a still-staggering 1,500 pages, yet it’s remained popular and relevant over the course of the following century.
In 1976, an updated translation in modern British English helped foster resurgence in the book’s popularity.
French composer Claude-Michel Schonberg soon paired with two lyricists to adapt the novel into song.
“Les Miserables” the musical debuted in Paris in 1980. But it wasn’t until three years later that British producer Cameron Mackintosh, fresh off the debut of “Cats” on Broadway, heard a copy of the French songs written for “Les Miserables.”
In 1985, the Royal Shakespeare Company debuted the English-language musical in London’s West End.
Just as some fans of any book are likely to decry the artistic liberties taken by Hollywood in bringing the story to screen, “Les Miserables” had its share of detractors in the early years. Ticket sales, however, overwhelmed any naysayers, with a Broadway show opening in New York in 1987. That same year, the play won eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Original Score.
“Les Miserables” would remain on Broadway until 2003 before enjoying a two-year resurgence in 2006. The English production has run continuously since 1985, celebrating 10,000 shows in 2010. That same year, a multiyear national tour commenced in the United States.
The show reaching North Charleston Tuesday is staying for six nights. And with no Broadway production running, the Lowcountry will be the only place in the country to see an official, full-scale production of “Les Miserables.”
Adding to the excitement is the Feb. 24 Academy Awards, where producer Mackintosh’s film is a strong contender for Best Picture.
‘Do You Hear the People Sing?’
Director James Powell began his life with “Les Miserables” as an actor, playing one of the musical’s revolutionary students who builds barricades in the streets of Paris. He kept that role until 1996, when he was offered the position of resident director at London’s Palace Theatre. He’s been directing various productions of “Les Miserables” for the past 16 years, including the current touring ensemble.
“It’s almost as long as the amount of auditions I had to get into the show,” laughs Powell, who tried out 17 times before landing his acting role. “Les Miserables has been a massive part of my life.”
Fresh out of drama school, Powell witnessed the original English cast perform the musical in London in 1985. “I was absolutely knocked out,” he recollects. “I thought, ‘My God, look at this. It’s a musical for actors.’ It just bowled me over and I fell in love with it, and I’ve been in love with it ever since.”
Powell’s realization about the interplay of singers and actors in “Les Miserables” has perhaps found its pinnacle in Mackintosh’s recent adaptation for the screen, featuring actors Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway and Amanda Seyfried, to name a few of the high-profile actors involved. The film includes very few spoken lines; in fact, the actors sang live throughout filming.
With renowned stage veteran Mackintosh taking a key role in shaping the film, unlike earlier screen productions of Hugo’s book that used spoken word rather than song (including a 1998 film starring Liam Neeson and a 2000 French miniseries with Gerard Depardieu), the epic set and feel of the 2012 release may lead some people to question whether attending the live stage show still holds its value.
“That’s not a question about ‘Les Miserables’ the movie versus ‘Les Miserables’ the stage production; it’s actually about the difference between film and theater,” Powell explains. “I love the whole experience of going to the movies, and I also love live theater, for very different reasons. When you’re there and you’re hearing it and seeing it live, it’s just thrilling. You’re taken on a journey.”
Powell hopes that the ongoing stage productions and the film will “serve each other.” Even after a huge celebration of the play’s 25th anniversary at the O2 arena in London, the Hollywood film has likely pushed “Les Miserables” to its greatest global awareness to date.
“The film and the live show are happy bedfellows,” Powell said. “My hope is that if people go to the movie, they’ll be inspired to see the stage show, and vice versa.”
‘At the End of the Day’
With touring productions of Broadway musicals, there can be a perception that the cast performing in markets such as Charleston may be a “B-list” group, as opposed to the top actors and singers in New York.
Without an ongoing Broadway production, however, Powell emphasizes that the touring ensemble provides the same experience an attendee would receive at any official production of “Les Miserables” in the world.
“The bar is set very high,” proclaims Powell. “Cameron (Mackintosh) is a difficult man to please, and he wants an audience to come out thinking, ‘That was value for money,’ and I don’t think he’ll ever compromise on that. We’d all be proud to see this touring version of the show in the West End (London) or on Broadway.”
The musical stretches over three hours, with an intermission, and includes dozens of actors, including the key roles of Jean Valjean, Inspector Javert, Fantine and Cosette.
For those who are unfamiliar with or need a refresher on the story, here’s a summary:
After serving 19 years as a prisoner for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family, Valjean is released. He immediately steals silver from a priest who takes him in off the street, but is unexpectedly shown mercy, a life-changing experience that leads him to change his ways, assume a new identity and eventually become a wealthy factory-owner and civic leader.
At every step, however, Valjean is tracked by Javert, a detective intent on uncovering Valjean’s true identity and returning him to justice. Valjean, in turn, again becomes a fugitive, dedicating his life to raising and caring for Cosette, an orphaned daughter of a former worker at his factory. Throughout the story, the characters are faced with questions of retribution and morality, complicated by a society in the flux of revolution and the balance of love with life’s other demands.
It’s a story that’s deep on many levels, rife with meaning behind every layer and plot detail and developing human relationships. Much of its enduring legacy stems from a lasting relevance that’s as poignant today as 150 years ago, fluctuating in the musical depiction from epic to totally intimate in a moment’s notice.
“When we cast a stage production, we can have the greatest voices in the world, but unless they’re really inhabiting the story as performers, they won’t get cast,” Powell said. “The spine of this is the great acting and storytelling that bolsters the plot. These are creative people filling these roles, and each new actor’s interpretation is different, so it guarantees that it’s always original and interesting and unique.”
Powell adds that the camaraderie among the cast has a “family feel” of supportiveness that’s unique to “Les Miserables.”
“Other shows I’ve been involved with don’t get that same bond,” he elaborates. “I think that has to do with the subject matter. It’s about people and the human condition, and I think that actors become aware of that, and even if it’s in a subconscious way, it filters through.”
Of all the plays in the world to spend nearly two decades perfecting, Powell says that “Les Miserables” may be the only one that could never grow stale.
“It’s the same but different each time I visit it, and it’s always loaded with surprises,” Powell said. “It’s perpetual in the way that it lets us create something new each time. ‘Les Miserables’ is just riddled with opportunities for that to happen. I would hate to think that it could ever just get stale in a format or a pattern. That would just be hell, and it’s certainly not that.”