Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Les Misérables - The Dream Cast in Concert

The team of Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil have created many works together, but their most famous has to be Les Misérables. It is perhaps the most celebrated French musical and has spawned numerous productions worldwide. It is based on the original 1862 novel by Victor Hugo, which tells the story of a wide cast of characters in 19th century France during a period of revolution. This 10th anniversary rendition is a concert version of the musical, bringing together some of the best actors of productions around the world to reprise their role for this one-time only show. With the likes of Colm Wilkinson, Philip Quast, Michael Ball, Lea Salonga, and many more getting together to make up this dream cast, this is one of the more memorable versions if not quite definitive.

Les Misérables made its debut in Paris in 1981 but failed to capture an audience. It wasn't until British producer Cameron Mackintosh began work on an English language version that the musical truly took off. Premiering in London in 1985, it was met with mixed reviews but was a huge hit in the box office. Featuring new material and a rough translation of the original French lyrics, the show took off quickly and spawned Broadway productions around the world. The story follows many characters as they struggle to survive and start up a revolution after one of the few leaders and torch carriers for the poor passes. There are some many strong personalities that each have a different tale to tell. The freed prisoner Jean Valjean and policeman Inspector Javert are in constant battle after Valjean breaks his parole and gets caught up in the revolution. The forced prostitute Fantine struggles to keep her daughter Cosette alive as she deals with problems thrown at her. The tragic love story with Marius and Éponine is touching and Enjolras leads the charge of revolution. While it has been over twenty years since the English language version debuted, it still remains a classic to this day with global productions still playing.

Colm Wilkinson (Jean Valjean, left) and Philip Quast (Javert) put on very strong performances.

This 10th anniversary concert was certainly one of the most fun Les Misérables has ever been. Featuring a slightly more modern score than the original musical and more of a concert with orchestra and costumes than a full production, it doesn't take anything away from the experience and shows all the highlights with the biggest songs and the entire story. Jean Valjean's prologue and story introduction immediately make an impression and shows the poor conditions of France and his inner struggle after living through its justice system and trying to make amends. Factory worker-turned-prostitute Fantine has a sad story to tell, as she struggles to make enough money to keep her daughter Cosette healthy as she lives with innkeepers, the Thénardiers. But things really take off in "Look Down", as time passes and the poor start to take a stand against the grim conditions and the little scraps they're being given by the government. "ABC Cafe/Red and Black" is one of the more powerful songs in the concert, as Enjolras inspires the other revolutionaries and Marius falls in love amidst the beginnings of war. If there is one song that acts as the theme, it has to be "Do You Hear the People Sing?". It truly encompasses the passion the characters are feeling as they take up arms for revolution.

Lea Salonga and Michael Ball (Éponine and Marius, left) help tell a tragic love story that complements the main struggle well.

The love triangle between Cosette, revolutionary Marius, and childhoood friend Éponine acts as one of the larger focal points in the story as war begins. "A Heart Full of Love" is full of emotion as all three pour their feelings out in song. But "One Day More" is another powerful song that nicely spotlights all the major characters and the stories they have to tell before battle really begins. As they make their stand at the barricade, the revolutionaries start to contemplate their life and the possibility of dying in "Drink With Me". While the story develops, you really feel for the characters and what they're trying to do. As the concert climaxes and finishes through the epilogue, it keeps that gritty realism of the outcomes of war and keeps that little light of optimism shining to the end. There are many great and memorable songs throughout, but perhaps one of the biggest moments was when seventeen Valjeans from productions around the world take the stage to each sing a few bars of "Do You Hear the People Sing?" in their native language to close out the concert. It was a nice touch that made this 10th anniversary a little more special.

Whether you are familiar with Les Misérables or not, this amazing anniversary concert is a truly epic rendition. It may not be the complete recordings or feature the best actors in each role, but it shows the musical full of love and passion for the source material and the celebration of its longstanding history. There are still productions premiering throughout the world including a recent Broadway revival that even featured Lea Salonga taking on the role of Fantine instead for part of its run. No matter how you see or hear it,
Les Misérables is a classic in any form.

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