This year sees the silver jubilee of one of the most successful musicals ever – 'Les Misérables'. It's almost beyond imagination to conceive of a musical lasting a staggering 25 years in one city (London) and touring and playing in dozens of other cities all over the world. But such is the phenomenal success of 'Les Misérables'. To celebrate its anniversary, a new touring production of the show has landed at its original home, The Barbican, and so we now have the unique situation of 2 versions of the show running at the same time in the same city. On top of that, in October, there will be 2 concerts at the O2 arena as fans are invited to join in the celebrations. 'Les Miz', as it's affectionately known even to its producer – Cameron Mackintosh - is not just a show, it's a full-blown, global industry.
Based on Victor Hugo's humongous novel of 1862, there's not much in the way of japes and jests in the storyline. Doom and gloom are the dominant factors which bubble through right from the start. But, as with many musicals, we do get a happy ending in the form of a wedding. And we all like a nice wedding, don't we? Well, don't we? Yes, it ends up in a huge dollop of sentimentality – hardly a surprise really, and perhaps another reason for its success.
This new version, directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell, sports Matt Kinley's powerful set design and glorious projections inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo. There are gigantic images of sewers, for example, which work quite brilliantly. And I particularly liked Paul Constable's subtle lighting which, when combined with the costumes, particularly in the country scene, gave the effect of viewing a painting in an art gallery. The orchestra, under the direction of Peter White, is about as good as you can get, and the formidable company singing is often emotional and inspiring. Added to that, the principals are all well-cast and on first-class form. John Owen-Jones as Jean Valjean and Earl Carpenter (Javert) both have the exceptional vocal qualities required for their parts, and Gareth Gates is the energetic and handsome student Marius who is saved at the barricade by Valjean and eventually marries Katie Hall's charming Cosette. All-in-all, it's a fine, well-directed cast that leaves nothing to grouch about.
I've seen 'Les Miz' several times – not because I'm an ardent fan, but because I am hauled along to it when friends and relatives fetch-up in London. But others are more dedicated fans. I know one person who has seen the show more than 30 times. He's not on his own. Though many people don't say exactly how often they have seen it, a quick internet search reveals a list of thousands who say they have seen it 'many times'.
When it first opened back in 1985, 'Les Miz' hardly received what one might describe as critical acclaim. And the operatic, sung-through format (where exposition is entirely sung, with no dialogue) could easily have prevented a mass audience appreciating the work. But word of mouth seems to have been the key factor in filling its first home before it transferred to the West End, where it's remained ever since.
Universal themes which span cultural contexts and language barriers, appear to have captured the imagination of the world's theatre-going audiences, as well as pulling in many people whose natural inclinations would not normally entice them to the theatre. The songs are melodic, many are rousing and some send that essential tingle down your spine. Added to this, the staging is on the grand side as the plot twists and turns its way from ship to countryside and even into sewers. It's pacey, energetic, and possibly a little hypnotic to boot. In spite of some strange turns in the plot, it does demand attention, and gets it.
Since 'Les Miz' opened, the world has changed. Personal computers were hardly known in 1985, and the internet was yet to be discovered by the population at large. But even the immediacy of the web doesn't seem to have put a single barricade in the path of the onward march of 'Les Miz'. Indeed the recent success of Susan Boyle's version of 'I Dreamed a Dream' has probably only added to the longevity of this show.
No matter what I – or any other critic or reviewer - says about this show, it looks set for many more years of success. In a sense, it now has a momentum of its own which means people visit just to see what the fuss is about, and to be part of the phenomenon and, indeed, history. And when you're dealing with a theatrical colossus spanning this kind of time-scale there will always be new audiences every decade or so to keep it raking in the customers. All I can really say is 'Happy Birthday, Les Miz!'
"The show comes with a new propulsive momentum."
Mark Shenton for The Stage
"A handsome and moving new staging."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard