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

 

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Even The Darkest Night Will End and The Sun Will Rise – Memories of Les Miserables

With the long-awaited, star-laden film adaptation due to be released on Christmas Day (about which I will expound my opinions as soon as I am able to see it), Les Miserables has returned to the US in a grand manner. While the stage production is still running in London (where it is the longest running musical), and there are countless touring productions all around the world, there is no Broadway production currently running, which is probably the only negative thing about Les Miserables at this moment. Thankfully, there have been several concert performances, namely the 10th and 25th Anniversary concerts that have been filmed that I can watch over and over in lieu of seeing a live production.

Les Miserables was one of the first musicals of which I became aware when I was growing up, and has become my all time favorite musical that I have ever seen live onstage. I first became aware of the score in grade school when the glee club (yes, I was in the glee club / chorus from the third grade through eighth grade) sang a medley of songs from the show, which had also prompted me to read the Victor Hugo novel, albeit the abridged version – tackling the 1,200+ page unabridged version was a daunting task for a nine-year-old to undertake. Les Miserables was also among the first stage musicals I ever saw (though I can’t recall who had been that initial Broadway cast – it was not the original cast), and is one of three musicals I have seen in the double digits [the other two being Phantom of the Opera and La Cage aux Folles].

Les Miserables marquee 2006

Les Miserables marquee at the Broadhurst Theatre, October 24, 2006 – January 6, 2008

I recall being crestfallen when the original production has announced it closing in 2003, and while I had been unable to obtain a ticket to the final performance, I was able to obtain one of the last tickets while waiting on the cancellation line to the next-to-last performance, which had been the first (though not the last) time I spent $100 for a single ticket – ticket prices back then were not as exorbitant as they are now. I also recall the utter joy I felt when I had read that to commemorate the show becoming the longest running show on the West End, the show would be revived in late 2006; that production was supposed to be a six month run, and ended up running over year and a half. This blog will therefore focus more on the revival production, as it is fresher in my recent memory, though there is one lasting memory I have from seeing the original production. Two months before its closing, Terrence Mann, who had brilliantly originated the role of Inspector Javert, returned to reprise his role, and I was finally able to see him on stage, ending years of my missing him perform live on stage [in the shows I had seen in which he was in the cast until that time – Cats, Beauty and the Beast, and The Scarlet Pimpernel – he had either been on vacation or had recently left the production]. Needless to say, he was astounding in the role, and remains one of my favorite actors to play that role.

The 2006 – 2008 Broadway revival production had non-traditional casting, meaning that race and ethnicity did not factor in casting the characters (who, of course are French). I loved the revival cast, which included Alexander Gemignani, Norm Lewis, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Aaron Lazar, Jenny Galloway, Gary Beach and Carly Rose Sonenclar (to name but a few) with one glaring exception – for whatever reason, Daphne Rubin-Vega, best known as being the original Mimi in Rent had been cast as Fantine. While she may have been fantastic as Mimi (full disclosure – I had not seen her in Rent, and I have the original cast recording to go by), she was terrible as Fantine, to the point where at the performance I had attended, the audience actually cheered when [spoiler alert!] Fantine died. That’s just not right. Thankfully, the succeeding actors to play the role – Lea Salonga and Judy Kuhn – were remarkably better, and interestingly enough had notably played two other significant roles in the past. Lea Salonga had played Eponine during the original run and Judy Kuhn had originated the role of Cosette, and both had reprised these roles in the 10th Anniversary concert. Other notable replacements during the revival run were John Owen-Jones as Valjean, and Max von Essen as Enjolras, both of whom were brilliant in their respective roles.

Whereas I was not able to attend the final performance of the original production, I was able to attend the final performance of the revival production on January 6, 2008, sitting the (right) box seat, which is an interesting perspective of the show. Seeing the show and listening to the score was, and is, one of the most moving experiences I have ever had in the theatre. Without fail, almost regardless of the cast, I’m weeping by the end of the show – just hearing the opening notes of “Bring Him Home” induces tears; it’s not all doom and gloom, though – there are moments of levity, most of which came from the opportunistic Thenardiers, in “Master of the House”, “The Thenardier Waltz of Treachery” and “Beggar at the Feast”, Gary Beach and Jenny Galloway were perfect in balancing their comic timing with underling menace to not let the audience forget that they too are the villains of the piece. Other moments of levity (whether intended or not) were provided by Adam Jacobs as Marius and Drew Sarich as Grantaire; Adam Jacobs had played Marius as awkward beau, with his hesitant opening delivery of “A Heart Full of Love”, which always induced giggles from the audience, and Drew Sarich’s brilliant portrayal of the drunken Grantaire during “Red and Black”.

IMG_0108

Final curtain call, Broadway revival: January 6, 2008

The stage door experience after that final performance was frenzied as always, though it does amuse me that more times than not, it’s always a chilly night whenever I stage door, and thankfully while it had been cold, it did not snow.  The cast had emerged to an enthusiastic crowd of fans and signed playbills and posed for photos, per usual. I truly believe that it is utterly impossible for anyone who has ever seen the show or listened to any of the cast recordings (and there are a lot of them out there, in multiple languages) to not be moved to tears by the music and the story that tells of the triumph of the human spirit in harsh and unforgiving circumstances.

Me with some of the cast - clockwise from top left (John Owen-Jones, Max von Essen, Jenny Galloway and Gary Beach)

Clockwise from top left: John Owen-Jones, Max von Essen, Jenny Galloway and Gary Beach

Nearly five years has passed since the revival production (and almost ten years since the original production) closed on Broadway – I can only hope with all the laurels the film adaptation is generating that a permanent revival will return. There have been rumors that the current US Touring production might find its way to New York City.

Brief update:  It has been announced that Les Miserables will return to Broadway sometime in 2014, though no specific date or venue has yet been confirmed.

Commemorative plaque right outside the Imperial Theatre

Commemorative plaque right outside the Imperial Theatre