And then there was one.
The prognosticators who began proclaiming the end of the megamusical era back in 2000 when the New York production of Cats clawed its last are smiling to themselves this week. Since Cats scampered out of town (just in time to avoid being holed up in something called the Cadillac Winter Garden), theatregoers have witnessed the toppling of London's Starlight Express (Jan. 12, 2002) Broadway's Miss Saigon (Jan. 28, 2002) and the West End's production of Cats (May 11, 2002).
On Oct. 2, producer Cameron Mackintosh—who produced all of the above— rather calmly announced the closure of another division of his empire: the Broadway version of Alain Boublil and composer Claude-Michel Schonberg's worldwide phenomenon Les Miserables. When it closes on March 15, 2003 (extensions are always possible, of course), only one British pop opera will be left standing: The Phantom of the Opera, which is beginning to resemble a nostalgia piece, like an aging mounting of The Desert Song sitting alongside the latest by Rodgers and Hammerstein.
In the couple years since Cats closed, Broadway has seen a return to favor of the traditional American musical comedy, complete with peppy songs, book scenes, laughs and everything. The successful arrivals of The Full Monty (2000), The Producers (2001), Thoroughly Modern Millie (2002) and Hairspray (2002) seem to constitute the beginning of a new Broadway epoch, a shift in audience preference from the dark, moody and self-conscious to the light, funny and self-referential.
American artists and producers can comfort themselves with the notion that the U.S.—the country that invented musical comedy—will continue to dominate the field for the foreseeable future; no European composers are stepping forward to fill the very large shoes of Boublil and Schonberg, and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Still, however triumphant the new Yankee shows may now seem—The Producers in particular—it's hard to imagine that any one of them will attain the monumental status of Les Miserables. People enjoy The Producers, but two generations of fans were obsessed with Les Miserables. This was a show so popular, it possessed a universally known nickname: Les Miz. It was produced in any country with a landing strip and some folding chairs. And the musical's familiar logo, a melancholy waif in tattered clothes, is recognized by millions, a glyph which communicates the idea of Great Big Pre-Approved Stage Entertainment. Les Miz was also arguably the best of the big four British imports (not my argument, but somebody's—I didn't like any of them). It's music was more memorable and less derivative than Cats and Phantom, and its form of spectacle less dependant on a major piece of mobile scenery (though that infamous turntable did keep you alert).
The show's final performance will not doubt be an occasion for tributes and remembrances. For now, however, Broadway's not feeling sentimental. Les Miz's home, the Imperial Theatre, was snatched up immediately. Next in will be The Boy From Oz, a splashy new Australian show about Peter Allen, starring Hugh Jackman.
Until then, Les Miz has launched "The Au Revoir and Thank You Price Scale," bringing back its original 1987 top ticket price of $47.50 for some shows and special weekend prices of $60. Which still sounds pretty expensive.