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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To the Seat of Sweet Music’s Throne: Celebrating the 25th Anniversary of Phantom of the Opera – January 26, 2013

Let it be known that January is officially my favorite month in the entire year, despite the bitter cold wind and the occasional snowfall that often turns to slippery dangerous ice that comes with being in New York City. Of course aside from my own birthday being in January, there are also other notable theatrical dates, related to Phantom of the Opera, the longest running musical on Broadway, which celebrated its 25th anniversary on January 26, 2013 at the Majestic Theater.

Phantom 25 years

[Disclaimer: As noted in several previous blog posts, I am a great fan [phan] of Phantom of the Opera and I’m also a great fan of many of the cast members both past and present. The original London cast recording of Phantom was one of the first musical scores I listened to, and have seen the production more times that any other show, whether it be musical or play, and I have seen the show in three different cities, and two different countries. I can almost guarantee that there will be several fan girl moments in the paragraphs to follow, perhaps some mild ranting / nitpicking as well, as I do have strong opinions with regards to this show, many of which might (or might not) agree with the rest of the Phantom fandom, who are among the most loyal and opinionated (both in a good and bad way) fan base I’ve ever encountered, mostly online. I should state here that I’m much more an “old school” fan, though not so much a strict Leroux purist, I prefer to think of the Phantom as an older man, a quasi-father figure to Christine, and not the young, sexy Phantom that seems prevalent these days. While I love the stage production, I hated the film adaptation, though that had more to do with the casting of the film (and had the film been remotely cast like the Les Miserables film, I would have been much happier). I also greatly disliked the “sequel-but-it’s-not-really-a-sequel” Love Never Dies, though interestingly enough, the dislike stems more from the nonsensical plot, which reads more like really bad wishful thinking fan girl fan fiction. Had Love Never Dies been a parody, I would have dismissed it as such; alas it was not.

But I digress.

I’m more familiar with the Lloyd Webber adaptation of the Phantom story, and of course that is the subject of this blog. Anyway, this is quite a long-winded way of stating that there will be fan girl moments, rants / nitpicks and strong opinions with regards to this show, which, as mentioned in previous blogs, my second all time favorite musical that I have seen live on stage.]

As the opening night date for Phantom is public knowledge and that in 2013 it would be its 25th anniversary on Broadway, naturally there was great anticipation on what the festivities would entail and whether or not tickets would be available to the public. For months prior to the opening night, it was announced that there would not be tickets available for that performance; in mid December 2012 it had been announced that there would be only 100 pairs of tickets available, and a sweepstakes contest via the show’s Facebook page would determine the winners (with the stipulation that winners needed to be US residents). One of my friends was fortunate enough to be one of the sweepstakes winners, and was taking me with her, which assured me that I would be able to attend. On January 22nd however, the announcement came that a limited amount of rear mezzanine tickets would be on sale for the 25th anniversary performance, at which time most of my other friends who had not won the Sweepstakes rushed to get tickets. Of course, this also happened seven years ago when Phantom became the longest running show on Broadway; nevertheless, it was great that seats were available for the public.

Phantom Cast List

Phantom Cast List

As stated at the beginning of this blog, there are notable (well at least to me) dates associated with Phantom – its first preview was on January 9th (which is also my birthday), and of course, January 26th, opening night. Another notable date is January 19th, which is original Phantom Michael Crawford’s birthday, so my day of celebrating all things Phantom started with the annual MCIFA [Michael Crawford International Fan Association] Birthday Bash Luncheon, which is always a fun event to meet fellow Crawford fans, many of whom were also attending the 25th Anniversary performance.

As my friend Kay was one of the contest winners, we didn’t know where we would be seated until we picked up our tickets – we ended up in midsection of the rear mezzanine (right side), which I believe is the farthest from the stage I have ever sat at the Majestic Theater. Interestingly there were no other shows (aside from Rock of Ages across the street at the Helen Hayes Theater) running on West 44th Street, as Lucky Guy and Matilda the Musical were scheduled to start its productions at the Broadhurst and Shubert Theaters, respectively, in the Spring, and Barry Manilow, who scheduled do perform in concert at the St. James Theater was out sick, so crowds that gathered outside the Majestic, some in ball gowns and tuxedos, others in more casual formal wear, were all there to see Phantom. There was no press activity outside, as it was quite chilly, though as we were let into the theater at 6:30 PM, the press were already inside, doing what they do; by the time I got into the lobby, press photos were being taken of director Hal Prince, producer Sir Cameron Mackintosh, and Sarah Brightman, who was the original Christine. Prince and Brightman quickly left after the photo ops, but Sir Cameron stayed to talk to the press that remained, of course theatergoers hung out in the lobby to take photos (myself included) before heading to our respective seats.

Sir Cameron Mackintosh speaking with the press before the show

Sir Cameron Mackintosh speaking with the press before the show

Unlike the Gala Night, my seat was much further back in the mezzanine, so there was little time to search the orchestra section for former cast members or other notable people. At the outset, a short video was shown, detailing the history of the Broadway production, with entertainment news clips from 25 years ago, interwoven with short interview clips from the cast and creative team reflecting on the show’s longevity, all of which was greeted by waves of applause and ovation. Afterwards there was about ten minutes or so of inactivity as the video screen was removed, the stage needed to be set for the start of the show and the orchestra tuned up. Once the show began, the applause began anew, with cheers at the overture and the initial raising of the chandelier, as well as stage entrances for all the principals. As the titular character, Hugh Panaro gave one of the best performances I had ever seen him give; his “Music of the Night” was truly sublime. Sierra Boggess (who was also the Christine at London’s 25th Anniversary performance) was just as astounding, and there is richness in the quality of her voice I had not really heard in previous actress who have played Christine. The rest of the cast were equally amazing, as they are every night.

Intermission comes along, and as like it was for the Gala, there was free champagne to be had, but Kay and I decide to head down to the orchestra section to attempt to spot any actors or notable faces, though we were hoping to see if we can meet Sarah Brightman. While we were not able to find Sarah Brightman, we managed to find our way to the front orchestra, where Sandra Joseph and Ron Bohmer were chatting with those around them; we able to get a quick photo with them, taken by Genevieve, who often takes photos for Broadwayworld.com (and is a member of the MCIFA).  Afterwards, Kay and I made our way back up to the rear mezzanine, picking up a (plastic) glass of free champagne (which was pretty good) before the end of intermission. The photo below (or rather one very similar to it) has been included among the after-party photo spread on Broadwayworld.com

Intermission photo: Kay and I with Sandra Joseph and Ron Bohmer

Intermission photo: Kay and I with Sandra Joseph and Ron Bohmer

The second act was greeted with great ovation, with the reveal of the Masquerade set, as well as after Sierra Boggess’ flawless rendition of “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again”. One interesting lyric change I noticed was the Phantom’s line during “Wandering Child” section where the line has been  changed  from “far from my far-reaching gaze” to “far from my fathering gaze”, which took me by surprise  – my gut reaction was literally “wait, what?”, which I uttered out loud (quietly, of course). While I understand the reasoning behind the lyric change (or rather the word change, as the rest of the lyric remains the same), it seems an odd one (and one that was done at the London 25th Anniversary performance, and I believe is used in the UK tour production).  The lyric has been fine as it was for the past 25 years, why change it now? Anyway, it’s fine either way, really, but I suppose I’m more accustomed to the original lyric. Another thing I find truly  interesting is that regardless of wherever you are seated in the Majestic Theater (and I’ve pretty much sat in just about every section in the theater) when the flames ignite for those brief moments after the “Wandering Child” section, you can always feel the heat from those flames. There was much sniffling around me as the finale unfolded; standing ovation cheers greeted the cast during the curtain call.

The post-show festivities began with the cast parting to welcome Hal Prince and Sir Cameron Mackintosh to the stage, both of whom spoke eloquently about the show’s longevity and thanked all the various people both who were at the theater and those who could not be there, most notably Andrew Lloyd Webber, who was not in attendance due to medical reasons, and the late Maria Björnson, costume designer, all the while sharing wonderful anecdotes. Hal Prince then conveyed a written message from Michael Crawford, who was unable to attend for reasons unspecified. Afterwards, a short (humorous) video with Sarah Brightman and Andrew Lloyd Webber was shown, which was followed by Sir Cameron Mackintosh introducing Sarah Brightman, who was greeted by a thunderous ovation, and who have a short speech. This was followed by Hal Prince relating the astounding facts and figures associated with the Broadway production, but not before calling out the backstage crew to come onstage to receive the acclamation they richly earned and deserve, as well as praising the orchestra and front of house staff.

Phantom Cast and Crew with Hal Prince at the forefront

Phantom Cast and Crew with Hal Prince at the forefront

After all the speeches and such, then came the musical encore, which interestingly enough almost mirrored the one done for the London 25th Anniversary performance, though this time it was Sierra Boggess singing “Phantom of the Opera” with John Owen Jones, Hugh Panaro, Ramin Karimloo and Peter Jöback as the quartet of Phantoms, all of whom were greeted with thunderous cheers, followed by the quartet singing “Music of the Night”. There has been much puzzlement on why the three other Phantoms that were chosen were not ones who had performed the role on Broadway, and who were, in fact the same three who sang at the London 25th Anniversary performance, though it was announced (just like in London) Peter Jöback would be playing the titular role on Broadway for a limited time in the spring. I’m not sure why none of the former Broadway Phantoms were asked to participate or whether they had been asked and had declined for whatever reason; it’s not my place to speculate the why and wherefores, but it would have been a bit more appropriate had the other three been ones who had played the role on Broadway [though it was a pleasure to hear John Owen Jones sing on a Broadway stage again – I’d love to see him a Broadway Phantom, having seen him over a decade ago in London]. Another lovely highlight during the musical encore was the entire cast (and the audience around me) sing a verse of “Music of the Night”, and Hugh Panaro singing the line “You alone have made our song take flight” directly to Hal Prince, which was a fitting and touching tribute. More cheering ensures, as the music swells, the chandelier starts to descend but stops after a few feet and gold and silver streamers explode around the chandelier.

Sierra Boggess & The Phantom Quartet: (from left to right) - John Owen Jones, Hugh Panaro, Ramin Karimloo & Peter Jöback

Sierra Boggess & The Phantom Quartet: (from left to right) – John Owen Jones, Hugh Panaro, Ramin Karimloo & Peter Jöback

Again, having not secure any invitations to the after party, which was at the New York City Public Library at Bryant Park, we stuck around the theater, as the people who ran the Facebook fan page wanted all the sweepstakes winners to assemble in the center rear mezzanine section for a group photo, which was posted on the Facebook fan page. After which, Kay and I wandered around the theater looking for spare playbills (there were none to be found) and also to pull off some of the streamers from the chandelier (which by then made its descent towards the stage). By this time, we’re (politely) asked to leave the theater, as it’s already past 11 PM [I managed to grab two glasses of champagne on the way out], and Kay and I drank another toast to an amazing evening. Second glass of champagne consumed, we’re heading away from the theater, when I spot Davis Gaines, leaving in the opposite direction with a friend.

[Minor disclaimer: Davis Gaines was the first actor I saw play the Phantom live on stage, and he was absolutely astounding; he is quite possibly my all time favorite Phantom whose name is not Michael Crawford, because no one is like Michael Crawford in my book (and probably most everyone’s book), and he’s such an all around nice guy off stage as well. After all, you never forget your first Phantom].

So my truly fan-girly moment of the entire evening was quite shamelessly following behind (oh all right, chasing after) Davis Gaines to say hi and to ask for a photo (and a hug); his friend took the photo of us with the Majestic marquee in the background. I then wished him a happy belated birthday (circling back to my aforementioned love for the month of January, Davis Gaines’ birthday is January 21st), to which he was pleasantly surprised (and earned me another hug). We bade him good night, and headed the way were going beforehand [Kay to the hotel at which she was staying, me back home via the subway].

Kay and I with Davis Gaines outside the Majestic Theater

Kay and I with Davis Gaines outside the Majestic Theater

It truly goes without say that January 26, 2013 will go down as one of the most memorable, spectacular and magical evenings I’ve ever had the pleasure of being in a Broadway theater. There is no doubt in my mind why Phantom has run for so long, and continuously will so for years to come – the score is magnificent, the story is timeless, and the memory of experiencing such an amazing production is one that will live on (and to use a phrase associated with another long running Lloyd Webber musical) Now and Forever.

25th Anniversary Playbill

25th Anniversary Playbill