May 21, 2023
Buell Theatre, Denver, 2023
The national touring production of the musical "Les Miserables," based on the classic
Victor Hugo novel, concluded its two-week Denver run Sunday at the Buell Theatre.
Last week, I
saw it again.
After perusing our hit-and-miss Playbill and program collection
from shows we've seen, my best guess is it was my 10th time at "Les Miz." The rough tally: Five times in Denver.
Twice in New York. Once each in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Portland.
That's over a span of 35 years after seeing it for
the first time in New York at the Broadway Theatre in 1988, the year after it opened. "Les Miz" then ran 3 hours
and 12 minutes. Eventually, in late 2000, a total of 14 minues of cuts got it under the 3-hour threshhold, lowering labor labor costs and helping lengthen its New York run. I don't
remember noticing the cuts' impact later. Running just under three hours now on the road, it still works.
So I've seen "Les
Miz" roughly once every three years. I don't consider that obsessive. It's an automatic buy each time it passes through
Denver. My impression as I looked around and listened at the Buell Theatre last week was that most adults in the audience
had seen it before. Yes, maybe several times. Or even 10. Or more.
Broadway Theatre, New York, 1988
The original Broadway production of "Les Miz" ran from March 1987
to May 2003, and the show has been revived twice -- from 2006 to 2008, and 2014 to 2016. All along, it has been a road staple, with
several separate companies. A new national tour opened in 2017 and was on the road for two and a half years before the Covid
pandemic closed the curtains. Strikingly, Nick Cartell played Jean Valjean that entire time. That tour came through Denver
in August 2018, and it was the most recent time I'd seen "Les Miz" before this week. Cartell was terrific and memorable
as Valjean then, and after the Covid shutdown and doing other work, he stepped back into the role of Valjean. The latest incarnation
of the national tour opened last October.
this goes back to 1988, it's hard to compare, but I'll say I haven't seen anyone do a better job than Cartell in the iconic
role. His voice is perfect for the part. On
this tour, Preston Truman Boyd also is strong as Javert. The current road company seems younger and more diverse than previous
I do regret that I never saw the accomplished opening night leads -- among them,
Colm Wilkinson as Valjean; Terrence Mann as Javert; Randy Graff as Fantine; Judy Kuhn, who soon left to star in "Chess,"
a flop that nonetheless remains another of my favorites, as Cosette; and Tony winner Michael Maguire as Enjolras.
Timothy Shew was Valjean the first time I saw "Les Miz."
Decades later, while becoming the road stalwart for one of the most well-known
parts in musical theatre, Cartell has sung "Bring Him Home" more than 1,000 times during a physically demanding
three-hour show ... and, with the full house emotionally drawn in and enraptured, deservedly draws thunderous ovations every
time. (Yes, I'm assuming that, but can't imagine it to not be the case.)
Nick Cartell's web site
Nick Cartell singing "Bring Him Home" from "Les Miserables" at Studio 54
@LesMizUS / Broadway World
Buell Theatre, Denver, May 2013
Which brings me to this: When the "Les Miz' tour played Denver in May 2013,
we attended a Thursday matinee. I was struck that the cast was performing with the verve of opening night, even with an
evening performance to go after a two-and-a-half-hour break following the matinee. I've always been impressed by the eight-show-a
week regimen, with only one day off. I touched on all that in a brief communication with Peter Lockyer, who then was Valjean.
Lockyer was a "Les Miz" veteran who had played Marius in the late 1990s.
I said how grateful that the company gave it an "A"
effort at a Thursday matinee. In his reply, Lockyer quoted a theatre dressing room sign that noted (I might be paraphrasing): "Someone out there is seeing their first
show." That's similar to Joe DiMaggio's response when asked why he ran hard on routine ground balls. Later, I also brought
up the same automatic-pilot issue when I wrote about Coloradan Andy Kelso, who had several long runs as Charlie in "Kinky
Boots" before returning a final time to close the show. His terrific answer is in this column.
Curran Theatre, San Francico, 1989
Of all the times I've seen "Les Miz," the performance in San Franciso was
the most memorable because of the circumstances.
I was covering the 1989 World Series -- billed as the Battle of the Bay matching the
A's and Giants -- when the Loma Prieta earthquake struck as Game 3 was about to start at Candlestick Park. After chronicling
the events of that night and then the aftermath in San Francisco over the next few days (my account is here), I went back to Portland for a few days, but returned to San Francisco for Game 3. The break between Game 2 in Oakland and
Game 3 in San Francisco ended up to be 10 days. The night before the series resumed, I went to "Les Miz" at the
Curran Theatre, near Union Square. Rich Hebert was Valjean in that company. The atmosphere was heartening and invigorating
as the Bay Area struggled to return to normalcy. That was theatre's impact that night.
So what of the show itself? How does it manage to so successfully affect an audience? I suspect if you're reading this,
you probaby have seen "Les Miz" -- the show, not the ambitious but so-so movie adaptation -- and have your own personal
answers. It just works, and I've always been fascinated how Herbert Kretzmer's English lyrics meshed with the French-language concept album by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil. To quote a lyric
from late in the show: Not a word is spoken. It's all sung.
The show has undergone modification over the years beyond the cuts, I assume much
of it for touring feasibility. The promotional implication now is it's new and improved. For road productions, that's especially
a common tactic when trying to make a show that was only moderately successful with critics and at the box office in New York
sound worthy of a second chance with road audiences, whether as part of season ticket packages or as a separately purchased
"added attraction." "Les Miz" promoters indulge in that a bit, without needing to do it. It's probably
more to coax those who already have seen the show to return to a "fresh" production. The change from early versions
that stands out is the elimination of the much-cited stage turntables.
This isn't all that unusual, but it's especially pronounced in this instance. I'm a fan of the
show, not of its source material. Part of that is because I wouldn't fake it, not even for a beloved English teacher. The
Hugo novel is at best a tough read. Actually, at worst, it's unreadable. Cliffnotes were invented for it. It's one of those
books acquired, assigned or purchased with good intentions that give way to frustration and boredom. It ends up in the bookcase
... for show. It might even be strategically placed behind cable news
pundits/contributors during live shots from homes. We "know" it's a great work of literature ... because we've been indoctrinated to consider it a great work
of literature. I tried to make it through the unabridged novel. I gave up on it.
Beyond the writing
itself, there's the plot, which at least begat "The Fugitive" in more believable context.
Inspector Javert makes it his
major life mission to hunt down and recapture a man (Valjean, Prisoner #24601) who served 19 years on a chain gang for stealing
a loaf of bread to feed his family, was released on parole, then violated it and fled? To buy that, you have to love the experience
enough to suspend disbelief.
Javert is relentless, merciless and indefatigable as the tale takes us from Digne to Montreuil-Sur-Mer; to Montfermeil; and ultimately to Paris and an ultimately tragically unsuccessful
student revolution. You have to accept that as fable or parable, a common requirement in theatre, of course. There's much
more to it, including Valjean's promise to Fontine, the ill-fated Eponine's heroism, Cosette and Marius' love story, and the
comic relief of the wicked innkeeper Thernadier and his wife.
The major characters have big numbers of their own, and
the cast members in this company are more than up to that. By the end, during the finale, the emotional investment of the
audience is complete and -- I swear -- hair stands on end. Even if you've seen it 10 times before, could hum along with the
songs and know what's coming.
Although "Les Miz" hasn't been on Broadway for seven years,
it's a warhorse on the road.
Here's the current national tour cast.
Here's where this company's post-Denver schedule, starting with Seattle
Coming to a city near you?
Nick Cartell (Jean Valjean). @nickcartell
(Les Miserables tour web site)
Preston Truman Boyd (Inspector Javert).
(Les Miserables tour web site)