Review: Les Misérables (with a Z)

I wrote this a couple of weeks ago on a plane en route to ClickerExpo, but I forgot to finish and post it live. Here we go!

Les Miserables playbill

I had the opportunity to see the new tour of Les Misérables this week, and I’m still trying to decide how I feel about it.

I came awkwardly to my Broadway nerddom. When young Laura told my piano teacher I wanted the learn the “Phantom of the Opera music,” I meant Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, and I was honestly boggled when she gave me the title track to Lloyd Webber’s show, which I’d never heard of. Then that stage passed, and I came of theater age during the heady early ’90s. This of course meant Les Misérables was a key influence.

Not just for me—the show was a watershed for the entire musical industry, and much like you can identify cinematic action scenes as pre- or post-Matrix, you can look at a musical and know if it was written before or after Les Mis. Every act one finale bringing together all the themes and characters for a big polyphonic finish owes something to “One Day More.” Whether you love the show or whether you’re a hipster far too cool for a popular musical, you have to admit it’s an iconic piece of entertainment culture.

So it was weird to see that it had been updated. Not overtly—the playbill doesn’t actually say, “This isn’t your mother’s Les Misérables”—but it’s definitely implied. For one, there’s a Z. Yep, it’s “Les Miz” now, on the merchandise and trucks and more, and I find that a little insulting. “Hey, this show’s been around long enough that all the literate people have seen it, so let’s use a Z to reach the rest.”

For another, while the classic etching of Cosette from the original 1862 publication is still on the Playbill, it’s no longer the face of the show. The merch has a new look, as does the title scrim. It feels like the production is trying to walk a line between recognizable and reinvented, and that kind of set the tone for the rest of the show.

It’s really not fair that Victor Hugo was so talented in two fields of art.

I do have to say, though, that using a Victor Hugo painting for the opening scrim was a good idea. Hugo was a painter, a good one, and his works are super moody and a fun, dramatic choice. (I’m embarrassed to tell you that I sat in front of it for a while before recognizing it, however; I only realized what I was looking at when the lights went down. Look, I’m aware of 19th century art, but it’s not my strong point.)

Here’s where we get into the changes in the production itself, and some were different but good, and some were just different to no evident point. A few, I just can’t get behind, or I actively dislike.

(Warning, if it’s not obvious, there will be spoilers ahead. But the novel came out over 150 years ago, and the stage show more than 30 years ago, so the statute of limitations is somewhat strained. Still, here’s a warning.)

The Great

The aesthetic was nailed. The color palettes of scenery and costumes were perfectly matched, creating a convincing whole, the lighting was on point, and at several points the action stilled so that the stage resembled a Romantic painting, a modern tableau vivante. Eponine’s death at the barricade could have hung on a wall opposite The Raft of the Medusa or something similar.

The famous rotating stage is gone from this new production (more on that later), I suspect for budget reasons. The show makes up for that in some scenes, most notably in the sewers, which make good use of projection and fog so that the actors seem to come out of the projected images. It’s a more convincing montage than many on stage.

Yet the flat staging also gives a few tugs at our suspension of disbelief, as instead of putting characters on opposite sides of the rotating stage, they pass within an arm’s length of one another but don’t see one another. It’ll mostly work, because we do have a suspension of disbelief on the stage and because we know the story, but it could have been a bit cleaner.

Still, overall, the aesthetic was on point. Well done.

The Oddly Different

The audio was a bit off, at least the night I attended, with the strings pretty hot and some of the vocals muted. That improved in the second act, so it seems someone noticed and acted. But it meant that I had a harder time catching the lyric changes.

Yes, some lyrics have been changed. Why? Gavroche’s introduction is completely different; San Michel is never even mentioned, and I can’t figure out what needed to be updated in those lines. (My best facetious guess is that modern San Michel has an HOA which resented the 19th century aspersions.)

Eponine and Marius verbally spar over Marius’s books in the lyrics, while onstage they pass back and forth…a folded paper. What an odd choice, when books are such a simple prop.

One Day More

There were several staging differences, and most weren’t bad, just unexpected and not necessarily an improvement. One major shift was in the famous “One Day More” act one finale, in which the iconic choreography—seriously, there’s an entire demographic of people to whom you need say only “do the Les Mis step” to elicit the right movement—was changed. Why? It wasn’t that the new choreography was bad; it was just very close, but not the same. As if they wanted to change it to be different, but knew the original had worked for a reason.

Probably no one seeing the show for the first time would have thought anything of it, but for a veteran, it just felt like a change for the sake of change, without any real motivation. Other than, as I’ve said, “this isn’t your father’s Les Mis.”

The Mistakes

And then a few changes were made that I can guess the motivation for, but I don’t think they landed the way they were intended.

“…But What Can You Do?”

There was another lyrical change in “Beggars at the Feast” at the end. As you may recall, the Thenardiers, the cockroaches of France who will survive and thrive in all disasters, crash the wedding. There he sings some crude observations about the guests. The line, “This one’s a queer, but what can you do?” has now become “This one’s a queer, think I’ll try it too,” as he embraces a guest.

Okay, I see how some might want to update that line in some contexts, to avoid the accusation of homophobia, but let’s first keep in mind that no one, absolutely no one, is supposed to regard Thenardier as a role model. This is a man we’ve already seen lie, thieve, attempt to kill, repeatedly threaten his daughter with physical violence, and brutally murder a blind man’s pet, and that’s far from the only off-color remark he makes in the show. An insult in his mouth is not the same as an insult in Jean Valjean’s. You could even argue the show was less offensive to the queer community before Thenardier became a member of it.

But the bigger issue to me is that the line in question still rhymes with “Jew,” and by changing one lyric and not the other, the production suggests that homophobia is too bad for even such a villain and we couldn’t allow that, but his anti-Semitism is just fine. That sat ill with me.

The Barricade

Another weak point was the staging of a key emotional moment. As I’ve mentioned, the rotating stage was gone. I know it was expensive, so I get it, but the barricade scene benefited from its innovative staging of seeing both sides of the battle. The gut-punching visual reveal of Enjolras and Gavroche sprawled in death has less effect when we don’t see it. (They did bring Enjolras out on a cart, and that was well done for what it was, but it just wasn’t the same.)

The change in staging meant they needed to build in more set transition time, to remove the new barricade set. This means that Marius does not return to the café to sing “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables,” and that’s a real shame. Instead of the haunting visual bookend of seeing the same scene (and a great café set in this version), but now missing so many, we have our hero singing in a street. That song by itself was probably responsible for a 3% increase in tissue sales when the original show came out, but now the lyrics about empty chairs just don’t land quite the same without any, you know, empty chairs.

Little People Fight

There was one more song change which I regretted seeing, and I think this kind of thing happens when the editors are so close to the original material that they forget that when they take something out, a fresh audience doesn’t remember the missing content like they do. At the barricade, before the battle, Javert is captured as a spy. Gavroche, who recognizes him and blows his cover, sings a song about being small but effective:

Good evening, dear Inspector. Lovely evening, my dear
I know this man, my friends, his name’s Inspector Javert
So don’t believe a word he says ‘cos none of it’s true
This only goes to show what little people can do
And little people know when little people fight
We may look easy pickings but we’ve got some bite
So never kick a dog because he’s just a pup
We’ll fight like twenty armies and we won’t give up
So you’d better run for cover when the pup grows up!

I’ll agree the song has always been a tiny stumbling block, because it shifts the focus from Javert and the student rebels in the scene. Javert is caught, there’s a moment to watch Gavroche gloat, and then we go back to disposing of Javert (who’s not having it: “Death to each and every traitor/I renounce your people’s court”). But it’s a short diversion, and more importantly, that song sets up for a key scene later.

When Gavroche darts out to collect ammunition from the fallen, in the original production, he reprises that song. The new production kept that, only now it’s the first time the audience hears it. We don’t get the whole thing, and because it’s the first time it’s heard, the fresh audience does not know the lyrics–so it’s a few lines out of context, and when Gavroche is shot and abruptly cut off, the audience does not know the irony of his death during a song about being an effective force while young, and they do not feel the negative space of the missing lyrics about growing up.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a touching image when Gavroche dies onstage. Killing a kid in battle is almost always emotional. But I think the original punched harder.

To Sum Up

Look, it’s going to be hard to do Les Misérables totally wrong, and I did enjoy my evening. I just wonder about some of the changes, why they were made and whether they improved the iconic show.

I recognize that I probably think about some of this differently, coming from both an old-school theater nerd position (I mean, I am wearing my Fringe shirt as I type this) and then also as a professional storyteller, constantly editing for the best effect. I attended with others who had not seen the show before, and though we did have to do a bit of explaining afterward, they did enjoy it. So if you get the chance, see it for yourself.

One day more!

Victor Hugo, Town At Dusk
This Hugo piece, “Town At Dusk,” is the painting used for the scrim.
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One Comment

  1. Michelle Hartline

    I was fortunate to see the “regular/original” production. Why fix what wasn’t broken? That show was a masterpiece. The changes you mentioned are absurd. Thank you for the detailed post!

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