Beyond the Barricade: Observations and Thoughts on the Opening Night Performance of Les Miserables – March 23, 2014

Les Miserables is my all time favorite musical that I’ve seen live on stage – the score boasts a multitude of sweeping soliloquies, soaring anthems and heartbreaking duets, all of which help emote a story of the indomitability of the human spirit. A newly re-imagined production has returned home to the Imperial Theatre (though technically speaking, its original home was at the Broadway Theatre, but the bulk of its initial run at the Imperial, where there is a commemorative plaque outside its threshold), the second (and hopefully final) revival of this timeless classic, which opened last night to thunderous applause. By sheer luck and determination, I was able to attend the opening night performance, and marked the first time I was able to do so.

Les Miserables 2014

There had been a Facebook contest for opening night tickets (which I did not win), and a few tickets available at the box office on the day of – by the time I had reached the Imperial Theatre a considerable line had formed, and only the first few were able to obtain tickets, at which point one of the box office personnel announced that the performance was sold out. There was even a sign posted stating that fact.

Opening night sold out  sign

Despite the announcement and the sign, I was determined to wait it out with the hopes of obtaining a ticket. Over the years, I’ve learned that “sold out” doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s truly sold out, especially when it’s announced verbally or visually – there’s always the possibility of last-minute cancellations, patrons showing up with a spare ticket (their theatergoing companion unable to attend for a variety of reasons) or more times than not, there’s sometimes an empty single seat, as most tickets are bought in pairs (or multiples thereof). It was the latter option I was hoping was the case for the Opening night performance, which often is “released” (i.e. available to purchase albeit at full price) at a half hour before show time. So I stuck around the Imperial (only taking an hour or so break to meet with a friend for lunch) watching as the opening night barricades and banners were being set up (also spotting a lone local news cameraman film exterior shots of the theatre). There were also barricades set up across the street where fans who didn’t have tickets could stand to witness and take photos of the Opening night red carpet (though technically speaking there was no actual red carpet rolled out), while the press were positioned closer to the theater. As show time drew closer, and a small crowd began to gather, I headed back into the box office area inquiring if there were any cancellation tickets available – for a while, the answer was negative, but I remained by the cancellation line area. About fifteen minutes before show time, one of the box office personnel mentioned that there might be a single ticket available, and they were going to confirm (with whomever they needed to) whether that single ticket could be sold. I wasn’t quite sure what that meant, but with this sliver of hope I remained where I was, missing out on viewing the various notable theatre actors walking the (invisible) red carpet.

 

The red carpet backdrop

The red carpet backdrop

Literally five minutes before show time (or at least the announced show time, as shows typically start about ten minutes after the stated time on the ticket), the green light was lit and I was able to obtain that single seat, albeit at full price. I was overwhelmed by the notion that I would actually be at a first (!) opening night performance of a show, and this event would be for my all time favorite musical was the icing on the (metaphorical) cake. Of course, that was only beginning of my lucky night, as patrons were heading into the theater I spotted Colm Wilkinson, who originated the role of Jean Valjean in London and in the original Broadway production in the lobby, also making his way inside. Emboldened by my luck at obtaining a ticket and flush with sheer euphoria, as well as knowing I’d probably never get another opportunity to meet him, I approached him and asked for a photo with him, to which he kindly agreed and for which I thanked him profusely. As I entered the theater and after an usher directed me where to find my seat, I made my way to the aisle down which my seat was located, only to spot producer Sir Cameron Mackintosh standing beside the soundboard. Already infused with the aforementioned (natural) euphoric high, and again aware that I’d probably never get another opportunity, I approached Sir Cameron, exchanged a few pleasantries and (again emboldened) asked for a photo with him, to which he happily complied, and for which I (again) thanked him.

 

Me and Colm Wilkinson (left) and Sir Cameron Mackintosh, taken just before the start of the show

Me and Colm Wilkinson (left) and Sir Cameron Mackintosh, taken just before the start of the show

I made my way to my seat (L104 in the orchestra), surprised and elated that my seat was right in the middle of the orchestra center section, though my view was a tiny bit obstructed by a taller gentleman sitting in front of me. As the reminder chimes sounded to signal the start of the show and as patrons began to head to their seats, I found out the quasi-cryptic reason why the box office personnel needed to confirm whether or not my single ticket could be sold: turns out that Colm Wilkinson was to be sitting two seats away from the seat I obtained, which left me flummoxed (with my inner fangirl was screaming with joy). Also, to add to the fangirl glee, turns out that Neil Patrick Harris and his husband were seated in the row in front of mine, diagonally to the left from where I was seated (I tentatively asked for a photo with him during intermission).

 

Me and fellow theatergoer Neil Patrick Harris, who was sitting in the row in front of me, taken during intermission

Me and fellow theatergoer Neil Patrick Harris, who was sitting in the row in front of me, taken during intermission

Onwards to the show itself – this revival production was revamped from the original staging, with the most notable change of not having the turntable on which the barricade had previously rotated; also this production incorporated elements from the film adaptation, including the opening sequence of the convicts dragging in a sunken ship (instead of the chain gang breaking boulders). The backdrop featured a 3D screen where tunnels and background buildings were projected, which gave the production a more realistic look. The set design was dark and dank, adding more to the realism, spilling into the sides of the stage – the barricade itself was a two-part set piece, brought on and off stage smoothly from opposite sides of the stage. The revised staging of the pivotal scene for which the rotating barricade was necessary was poignant incorporating elements of the corresponding scene in the film adaptation.

The cast was astounding in their respective roles, and each major character entrance was greeted with a smattering of applause. Ramin Karimloo was a formidable Jean Valjean, with notable flickers of controlled anger throughout, most likely as a result of being (unjustly) imprisoned for a minor offence, balanced with an inner calm planted by a single (random) act of kindness which gradually replaces the anger. His rendition of “Bring Him Home” left me (and many others around me) in tears, and at the very end of the song and just before the (thunderous) applause, I distinctly heard Colm Wilkinson express his approval of Karmiloo’s performance. Will Swenson was equally an amazing Javert, with just the right amount of (seemingly) righteous contempt for those who oppose his unwavering reverence to the Law, mixed with a healthy dose of rage, especially during his confrontations with Valjean. Cassie Levy gave a poignant performance as the doomed Fantine, Samantha Hill was lovely as Cosette, and matched well with the endearing Andy Mientus; Nikki M. James gave a heartfelt performance as Eponine, and Kyle Scatliffe was a commanding Enjorlas. Per usual, Cliff Saunders and Keala Settle nearly stole the show as the Thenardiers, easily oscillating from being the comic relief to treacherous villains.

After the curtain call, which was greeted by a rousing standing ovation, there were no post-show speeches or anything (as this is my first time attending an opening night performance, I don’t know if there ever is any kind of special thing done after the show). The stage door experience was brief, as it was unseasonably cold, and most of the cast were busy with press event things inside, but several of the ensemble members came out to greet the few who braved the biting wind to have their playbills and posters signed, and to pose for photos. I didn’t stay too long at the stage door this time (as I figured it would take the principal cast members time to get out of costumes and finish the press duties) and I’d have other opportunities to meet the cast (preferably when the weather was more agreeable).

Nevertheless, attending an opening night performance is now one more thing I can check off my theatrical “to do” list, and once again experiencing the sheer awesomeness that is Les Miserables was magical, as it always has been. I truly hope this production remains on Broadway for many years to come – so that more and more theatergoers in America (and in places other than in London where it remains the longest running musical in West End history) can experience this phenomenal show. I am so glad Les Miserables is back where it belongs.

Les Miserables Opening night signed playbill

 

Getting Through the Journey of the Music of the Night: Thoughts and Opinions on the works of Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber

March 22nd is a significant date for any musical theatre fan and for musical theatre as a whole – the birth date of two of the most influential and prolific musical composers from the latter part of the 20th Century: Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber, born eighteen years and an ocean apart from one another. These two composers and their respective oeuvre have had a considerable impact on the kind of musicals that have been and are being created, for better or for worse (depending upon other people’s opinions), as well as introduced me to the world of musical theatre. I’ve also had a quasi-close encounter with both composers too (well I’ve been in the same room with both – at two separate occasions –  at one point in my life, if that counts).

Follies & Phantom of the Opera - two of my favorite shows by Sondheim & Lloyd Webber

Follies & Phantom of the Opera – two of my favorite shows by Sondheim & Lloyd Webber

More of that later…

While many have their own, sometimes strikingly opposed opinions about these two composers, my outlook on their body of work is more amicable (at least that’s my impression from the various online message boards, articles I’ve read over the years). As stated in my introductory blog post (I think), one can concurrently like Sondheim and Lloyd Webber and their respective musicals, and one is not necessary “better” than the other (though in the last few years, I’ve had… issues with one of Lloyd Webber’s works, but I don’t have to like everything he’s written…). Some have considered Sondheim’s musicals to be art, and Lloyd Webber’s to be mere entertainment, but I hold the opinion that both composers’ works are works of art and entertainment – and neither is “better” than the other.

I was aware of Lloyd Webber’s musicals first, as my school had done a production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and knew of Cats and Phantom of the Opera, which at the time of my discovery of Lloyd Webber’s works, had recently opened to rave reviews. My introduction to the works of Sondheim came via PBS and their airing of the celebration at Carnegie Hall, to the point when I decided to sing “Send in the Clowns” as my solo song during the 8th grade spring concert when I was a part of the chorus after hearing Glenn Close sing the song on that telecast. Years later, I had read that many recording artists found that song to be difficult to sing – I was not aware of any of that when I made the decision to perform that song (I have a video recording of that spring concert and my interpretation of that song, but alas it exists on VHS and I have yet to have the capability to transfer said recording to DVD).

Another source of exploration of the musicals of Sondheim and Lloyd Webber were the cast recordings I had obtained via my public library and later purchased for my own (growing) collection – it was later on I researched both composers and learned more about their background and more about the shows themselves. As to actually seeing the shows live on stage, I have seen more Lloyd Webber productions than Sondheim, mostly due to the fact that at the time I started to go see shows on Broadway, there were more Lloyd Webber productions running on Broadway than Sondheim – the scales (as it were) have tipped in the other direction as more Sondheim musicals were being revived and less Lloyd Webber works were being produced (though I do make it a point to see Phantom at least once a year).

The first (professional) Lloyd Webber musical I saw was a revival of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and the first Sondheim musical I saw was a revival of Into The Woods, both of which were fantastic. Since then, I have seen a number of shows from both composers, and have (as alluded to earlier) have actually been in the same general area with both gentlemen. My first quasi-encounter with Lloyd Webber was at the Phantom Gala when the show became the longest running show on Broadway (coincidentally on my birthday) – he was in the audience (I had spotted him and his family seated in the orchestra section) as were many Phantom alumni actors, and had given a short speech after the curtain call, so that kinda, sorta qualifies as an encounter. As Lloyd Webber primarily resides and works in the UK, it seems he rarely comes stateside for any momentous events (of course, he’s had health issues of late, which prevents his travelling outside the UK, which is understandable – though given his recent works have not quite made it to Broadway, that might also be a contributing factor). My brief encounters with Sondheim have been less formal and more substantial as I’ve attended (and have blogged about) the CD signings at Barnes and Noble for the fairly recent revival and staging of Follies and Merrily We Roll Along, respectively, where he graciously signed CDs and chatted with those who waited in line at the CD signing events.

At the center, Andrew Lloyd Webber, his wife, dressed in orange-gold in front,  and his two eldest children behind him. I can't tell who is standing next to ALW.

At the center, Andrew Lloyd Webber, his wife, dressed in orange-gold in front, and his two eldest children behind him. I can’t tell who is standing next to ALW.

 

Stephen Sondheim at the Barnes & Noble CD signing for Merrily We Roll Along, July 10, 2012.

Stephen Sondheim at the Barnes & Noble CD signing for Merrily We Roll Along, July 10, 2012.

In conclusion (maybe) my thoughts on both composers are of equal affection and admiration, both have had a lasting impression on the art of theatre and the arena of entertainment, and both have created a catalog of rich, diverse and highly melodic tunes, and have crafted musicals that have entertained and educated, and thrilled generations of theatergoers.

I wish both Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber a most happy birthday, and would like to thank them both for the magnificent work they have created over the years.