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

 

Face Life With A Little Guts and Lots of Glitter: My Best of Times at La Cage aux Folles, Part 1 – Summer 2010

As it’s Valentine’s Day, love and romance are in the air, and I can find no better way to commemorate this holiday than to embark on a mini blog series about a (fairly) recent [musical] love of mine – the most recent Broadway revival of La Cage aux Folles, which ran at the Longacre Theatre in 2010 – 2011. My first introduction to this Jerry Herman score happened many years ago, in the midst of discovering Jerry Herman’s other scores (my introduction to the musicals of Jerry Herman came in the form of the film adaptation of Hello Dolly!). Having not been able to have seen the original Broadway production, I consistently listened to the original Broadway cast recording, hoping the show would be revived; as luck would have it, since then the musical had been revived not once, but twice in recent years.

La Cage marquee

The first Broadway revival ran from 2004 – 2005 at the Marquis Theatre, and the first production I had seen, which (I’m told) was as extravagant as the original production, in scale and scope (though it was pointed out that the set design and costumes were more contemporary than the original production). I saw that first revival twice, and while my overall memory of that production is a bit hazy, I do remember that Gary Beach was astounding as Albin, the headliner at the titular night club (under the stage name ZaZa), as was Daniel Davis as Georges, the night club owner and Albin’s life partner (by the time I saw the show a second time, the late Robert Goulet had replaced Davis as Georges, who was not as great I thought he would have been, though this was Goulet at the latter end of his long illustrious career, so I suppose my expectations were pretty high, having listened to his voice on the cast recording of Camelot). Sadly, there was no (official) cast recording made of that production (which is a shame).

Fast forward five years: when it was reported that the show was to be revived again in the spring of 2010, importing the scaled down London production and its star Douglas Hodge as Albin, with Kelsey Grammer making his Broadway musical debut as Georges. At first I was a bit perplexed as to why the show was being revived again, so soon after the previous revival, which wasn’t as successful a run as it should have been. It was after watching the show’s spectacular performance of “The Best of Times” at the Tony Awards (where the production won three Tonys) I saw that this production was quite different in tone than previous productions and that I needed to see this show.

[Disclaimer: Contrary to how it may appear, I don’t really go see that much theatre in any given calendar year. Nowadays, ticket prices have become increasingly expensive, even with TKTS offering up to 50% discounts – what the half price ticket amounts are these days used to be what the full price tickets were ten years ago. While I would love to see as much theatre as possible, I do my best to adhere to a few rules I set for myself, so that I don’t inadvertently bankrupt myself. Rarely do I ever pay full price for a single ticket if discount tickets can be obtained; exceptions to this “rule” are if: (a) a production is a limited run, (b) one of my favorite actors joins a production for a finite period, or (c) if the performance in question is a milestone event/special occasion – these are the times when paying full price is worth the value of the amount being charged. Having stated this, the bulk of my theater-going happens in autumn, when I usually obtain a multitude of complementary tickets via the TDF Raffle Table at the annual Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS (BC/EFA) Flea Market and Grand Auction – rarely do I see shows during the rest of the year, unless the aforementioned exceptions apply. As it will become evident in this blog (and the subsequent three blogs), my experience with La Cage breaks all these rules. I regret nothing.

Also, there will undoubtedly be some minor (and major) fan-girly moments throughout this mini blog series, mostly focused on Douglas Hodge, as well as for the rest of the cast, who are among the most talented and genial group of actors I’ve had the privilege to meet.]

So my first trip to the Longacre Theatre was on June 27, 2010, the Sunday matinee two weeks after the Tony Awards, and my first opportunity to see the show. I waited on the TKTS line to obtain my ticket, and headed to the theatre – one of the first things I see as I approach the Longacre (aside from the marquee) were the small disco balls on the theatre overhang and the pink light bulbs that lined the overhang, introducing the night club ambiance quite well. In keeping with the night club atmosphere was the employment of a door girl to greet theatergoers as they arrived, and to warm up the crowd before the show – there were two such door girls, Lili Whiteass and Fifi (swings Todd Lattimore and Christophe Caballero, respectively), both of whom took great pride in and had lots of fun with their warm up acts. Though I didn’t get to meet Lili until the autumn [my actual first encounter with her was at the BC/EFA Flea Market & Auction] and Fifi until the winter (as the times I had gone to see the show, both actors were in the show subbing for vacationing cast members, and therefore would not be out front pulling double duty), when I finally get a chance to see them in action (so to speak), both had their unique way of warming up the crowd: Lili would query the audience if there were anyone celebrating a birthday or an anniversary, and was always quick with a biting quip or loving insult; Fifi would do the same, then proceed to teach the audience a few choice (innuendo-laden) French phrases – these bits would precede the usual pre-show disclaimer about not using recording devices, and turning off cell phones.

This ambiance was further evident upon entering the theater itself, from the lobby’s pink carpet and pink-lit chandeliers to the large Andy Warhol inspired portraits of Douglas Hodge and Kelsey Grammer as their respective characters. The Longacre is perhaps one of the smaller theater houses, and was set up to look like a drag night club in San Tropez, complete with four cabaret tables, each table seating four people, situated right in front of the stage. The cabaret seats were at the top premium price, and having sat at those tables (several times), I can attest that it was well worth the price – throughout the show, the cast interact frequently with those seated at the cabaret tables, further enhancing the illusion that the theater space was indeed an extension of the club. The set design and much of the costume design was detailed and astounding, yet less glamorous than in previous productions, adding a bit of realism to the production; the choreography was amazing, especially from the sextet of Cagelles, who started off the show with the exuberant “We Are What We Are”, complete with tossing out beach balls into the audience – it was always fun to see how responsive (or not) any given audience is during this portion of the show: oftentimes those in the front center orchestra section would keep the beach balls in the air, sending it to either side of the audience section; sometimes the beach ball would sail back onstage, while the Cagelles continued with their choreography, wherein they would punch it right back out [though there were rare times when the beach ball would hit one of the Cagelles]. Eventually the beach balls would land either in the aisles or onstage where they would be collected by stealthy stage hands. [There were a few times when the beach balls would reach the mezzanine section or even briefly touch the theatre’s chandelier before making its descent.]

The Andy WArhol inspired portraits of ZaZa and Georges

The Andy Warhol inspired portraits of ZaZa and Georges

 The entire cast was amazing from the Cagelles to the leads, each cast member having their moments to shine – it wasn’t long before I became swept up with the talent and sheer joy they exuded on stage at every performance. The initial sextet of Cagelles consisted of Nick Adams, Nicholas Cunningham, Sean Patrick Doyle, Yurel Echezarreta, Logan Keslar and Terry Lavell, each of whom gave their character their own unique personality and danced with such grace and style (and all looked fabulous as women). Robin de Jesus was outright hilarious as Jacob, the butler/maid who longed to be a Cagelle, sassy and quick with a quip for every situation. Fred Applegate and Veanne Cox were spot on as the villainous yet mostly harmless Dindons, playing their parts with austerity, a great contrast to the color characters around them (though they do get their chance have fun in the finale). In his musical debut, Kelsey Grammer was fantastic, with a great singing voice, showing a remarkable range from charming compère to concerned father, and was a counterpoint for Douglas Hodge’s high-strung and emotional Albin/ZaZa.

As I’ve stated in previous blogs, I’ve become quite enamored with the sheer awesomeness that is Douglas Hodge, but I will have to confess that prior to this production I did not know much about him, as the bulk of his stage career (as well his occasional forays into film and television) was primarily in his native England. I will also need to confess that I became acutely obsessed with him and his performance and sought to learn more about his career; having discovered that he was also a singer/songwriter, and had recorded two albums, Cowley Road Songs and Night Bus (both of which I promptly bought via iTunes), I recall being surprised to hear how different his voice was compared to the voice I had heard during the show. His interpretation on the role of Albin/ZaZa was truly inspired, using his knack for spot-on impressions and his comedic timing to bring to the forefront the insecurities Albin has about himself, so throughout the show, his speaking and singing voice is not his own, and it is only at the very end of the show, with the reprise of “Song on the Sand” when Albin tackles his self-doubt, when Doug’s own voice comes through, sweet and lyrical.

Cast List, Summer 2010

Cast List, Summer 2010

The stage door experience was amazing, as always, and it was really during my (nearly) year-long fixation with La Cage that I started to actively stage door after every performance, and also to start conversing with fellow fans waiting at the stage door, and with the actors themselves [I’m quite introverted and tend not to say much aside from thanking the actors for signing my playbill, and occasionally asking for photos with the cast]. It is also with La Cage where I became good friends with those waiting at the stage door (and later on, with most of the cast). The entire cast was cheerful as they signed playbills and posed for photos, chatting with those waiting, and was as vibrant and witty off stage as they were on stage.

At the stage door, Summer 2010 - clockwise from top left: Douglas Hodge, Kelsey Grammer, Veanne Cox & Fred Applegate
At the stage door, Summer 2010 – clockwise from top left: Douglas Hodge, Kelsey Grammer, Veanne Cox & Fred Applegate

My adventures with La Cage didn’t just consist of my constant repeat viewing of the show, I did make a point of going to just about every theater event where the cast would be appearing or performing. The first of these I was able to attend was Broadway in Bryant Park on August 12th, which (as mentioned in previous blogs) is a (free) lunchtime summer concert. As my wont, I made a point to be at Bryant Park at my usual time (hours before the event start time) to ensure my usual spot as close to the stage as possible, and I recall it was a cool but rainy day. The other shows that performed that afternoon were Mamma Mia!, West Side Story, American Idiot and Mary Poppins, so there was quite a crowd by the time the concert started. At that time of the Broadway in Bryant Park concert, the La Cage cast recording had not yet been released (the release date was September 28, 2010), so there was a small band onstage to provide musical accompaniment. Representing the La Cage cast was Sean Carmon, Todd Lattimore, Logan Keslar, Yurel Echezarreta, Nicholas Cunningham and Terry Lavell singing “We Are What We Are” (and gleefully tossing out the beach balls out into the audience, one of which hit me, a necessary hazard when sitting up front), and Dale Hensley and Chris Hoch (the understudies for Douglas Hodge and Kelsey Grammer, respectively) singing “With You On My Arm” and the entire cast singing “The Best of Times”.

La Cage at Bryant Park: From top to bottom - "We Are What We Are", "With You On My Arm" & "The Best of Times"

La Cage at Bryant Park: From top to bottom – “We Are What We Are”, “With You On My Arm” & “The Best of Times”

My acute fixation with La Cage continued throughout the summer, spending many a summer afternoon at the Longacre Theater (after all, there’s no better place to be on a hot summer afternoon than in a super air-conditioned theater), and with its uplifting score, fantastic cast and story of unconditional love above all else, the show quickly became a remedy for whenever I felt overwhelmed with the stress that comes from every day life. I would always feel better after seeing La Cage, though my cheeks and belly would be a bit sore from all the smiling and laughing that occurred during the show, and I do believe that this is the reason why I now have smile lines around my mouth (for once, lines I don’t really mind having).

Again, as stated at the start of this blog, this is only part one of a four-part mini-blog series, covering each season during which I saw the show. The next installment will cover the autumn months, and will include events such as appearances at the Broadway on Broadway concert, the BC/EFA Flea Market & Auction, the release of the cast recording, and the requisite CD signings, as well more of my adventures at the stage door.

To be continued…

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