PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Les Misérables — Here Hugo Again

News   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Les Misérables — Here Hugo Again While doormen badgered celebs and press to take their seats inside the Broadhurst Nov. 9, Lenny and Frunye Croote of Teaneck, NJ, stood on both sides of the theatre's entranceway — proud and erect, like the bishop's candlesticks — unnoticed and noticing everything, drinking in a sight for sore (if starry) eyes: the second Broadway coming of Les Misérables, Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg's musicalization of Victor Hugo's mighty novel.

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Opening night was the Crootes' fourth consecutive trek to Les Miz Land. Why? [I had to ask.] "We wanted to see its development," Lenny explained. "It's getting, like, right on."

They had dream-seating their previous trips — "really we were right up front," he said —but, first-night being first-night, the Crootes were sentenced to the nose-bleeding region of the balcony. Sensing he was speaking to a lonely troll, Lenny made the take-her-she's-mine beau-geste and asked if I had an extra ticket for Frunye. I declined, even though she had a limited-edition, made-in-Germany watch with the young Cosette logo she got on eBay.

The three and a half years Les Misérables was absent from the Broadway boards were not as rough on the Crootes as you might imagine. "No," she chirped. "We saw it in Waterbury, LA, Philadelphia, three times in New Jersey—and, if necessary, we'd have gone to England."

That trip, as it turns out, won't be necessary. [The now Sir] Cameron Mackintosh has re-produced his original hit—the third longest-running on Broadway (6,680 performances, or a couple of months beyond the 16-year mark, which is something when you consider Jean Valjean's flight from injustice and the obsessively righteous Javert was 17 years).

For luck, Mackintosh and director John Caird cranked it up again on the same turntable in the same rehearsal hall at 890 Broadway that they used for his original production. (Trevor Nunn still shares "Directed and Adapted" credit with Caird, but he never set foot out of England, where he is busily embroiled in directing a Porgy and Bess revival. It opened Nov. 9 as well, so technically he had shows premiering on two continents.)

From the signs of the barricade-storming at the Broadhurst and the shouts of its doormen, they have given the public—and the Crootes—what they wanted. The crunch and clatter of customers elbowing their way into the theatre or chatting it up in the aisle, oblivious to the ebb and flow of traffic, gave off a positive theatrical vibe. This was a happy homecoming.

Underplaying the event, The Publicity Office listed only three expected celebrities. Lucy Liu was seen exiting the theatre at the end of the evening only by a junior publicist, but the other two—Joan Rivers and Rosie O'Donnell—gravitated quite naturally toward the glitz and grinding cameras. Rosie was packing a hand camera, shooting video of the event for "The View" and quipping "I work cheap." Her "View"-mate, Elisabeth Hasselbeck, was practically giddy with anticipation: "I've only seen Les Miz with a traveling group at Techpac in Rhode Island when I was in junior high, and I have not stopped listening to the music since. When I told my mom I was coming here tonight, she was beside herself."

As if the normal commotion accompanying a Broadway opening was enough, there was some faux commotion going on too for an independent film borrowing the glam backdrop. "Farm Girl in New York" is currently before the cameras, directed by J. Robert Spencer, who, by night, is Nick Massi in Jersey Boys. "Basically, it's 'The Wedding Crashers'-Meets-'Waiting for Guffman,' and it's a hilarious comedy," he said. "I sorta have creative control. I met an investor who trusted me and loved the script. I wrote the script with Jeff Schecter, who plays Mike in A Chorus Line, and our friend, Josh Wade, and we're all starring in it. J. Elaine Marcos, who's in the ensemble of The Wedding Singer, and Allison Munn from 'Elizabethtown' are also in it. We're gonna hit the film festivals."

Andrew McCarthy, off in a week for some Montreal moviemaking (" The Spiderwick Chronicles"), posed politely when asked—several times!—for photographs with fans. It was his first time at the barricades, he confessed. Another first-timer—incredibly!—was the very first Marius, Michael Ball, in from London. "I was here anyway, having meetings with people, and I thought, ‘Well, I'm here. I can't miss this.' I did the original production, and I never saw it." Time has marched on for young Marius. Next he'll play Hajj in Kismet for the English National Opera, starting rehearsal in May, opening in June.

Max Von Essen, a Marius cover at the end of the original Broadway run, made the scene, returning from 1) a Houston West Side Story and 2) a Washington D.C. Mame. On Sunday he picks up Prize One—for Outstanding Male Performance (Desperate Measures, a country-musicalization of Measure for Measure) at the National Music Theatre Festival gala. It Begins, Max. The event will also roast/salute producer Kevin McCollum.

The Man of a Thousand Faces among the New Faces of Broadway, the always difficult to recognize Matthew Morrison, was sporting a military-looking buzz-cut this particular evening—"for a future role," he said, "Ten Million Miles, a new Patty Griffin musical at the Atlantic Theater Company with Sutton Foster. We're going to put it out now and see if it works or not. Michael Mayer will direct. Rehearsals are going to start in April."

Applause publisher Michael Messina had in tow a new author, Margaret Vermette, who's is the process of becoming the Boswell for the evening's authors. "The Musical World of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg" is to be published by Applause around March 22, when their latest, The Pirate Queen, comes swinging into the Hilton Theatre. (Their other two worlds? Martin Guerre, which is still circling for a Broadway opening, and Miss Saigon, which landed at the Broadway Theatre and stayed there for nearly a decade.)

The twice-Tonyed Martin Pakledinaz, who drew praise from the Chicago critics for outfitting The Pirate Queen so lavishly, was in attendance, along with Playbill's man in London Sheridan Morley, High Fidelity lyricist Amanda Green, Avenue Q director Jason Moore (in the early stages of Shrek: The Musical), Sara Gettelfinger(recording with Universal) and Jeff Calhoun (the latest to choreograph on a Broadway turntable, via Grey Gardens).

There's a tavern in the town for such rabble-rousing first-nighters, so after the show they marched on Warner LeRoy's old hangout on the green up in Central Park for additional brew and good cheer. No torches were allowed, but the place glowed with firefly lighting.

Alexander Gemignani, a great hulk of a character actor fairly new to the Broadway performing scene, trimmed down sharply for his first outing as a leading man and sings a glorious Jean Valjean. His musical gifts are in his genes: His father is Paul Gemignani, one of the most respected musical theatre conductors of the day, and his mother is the actress and opera singer, Carolann Page, seen last September in the York Theatre Company's production of Asylum: The Strange Case of Mary Lincoln. "I said 'Don't get any ideas about putting your mother in an asylum,'" beamed the proud and happy mom.

"I saw Les Misérables when I was like 10 or 12 with my dad," recalled Gemignani, "and I bought the original cast album, and I burnt a hole in it, playing it over and over and over. It's an operatic score, sung through, but it also has a real flair for contemporary pop music. It's a big journey, but it's an honor to get to be able to do it. You gotta go for it."

Another actor making the big leap forward from background to foreground is Norm Lewis as Valjean's demonically dogged nemesis, Javert. "People think of him as a villain, but he's really not," contended the actor playing him. "He's a guy with a major purpose in his life. He believes in right or wrong. No gray area. It's all black or all white."

As the comically venal Thenardier, Gary Beach would say bring on the black—quite a color contrast from his usual frou-frou (like his Tony-winning cross-dressing Hitler in The Producers or his Tony-nominated dragstrip madonna in La Cage aux Folles).

"That's what I like about this role," admitted Beach. "When Cameron called me about doing it, he said, 'I think it's time maybe you put your frocks back in the closet and let New York see you as Thenardier.' It sounded like a good idea. I'll never forget at the first preview I came walking out, and the audience recognized me and started applauding. I thought it was because they were happy to see me in men's clothes. I dunno. Ask Lee Roy [Reams, who has taken over Beach's begowned duties in The Producers]."

Actually, Beach played Thenardier before—18 years ago—in a Los Angeles production and met his life partner, Jeff Barnett, who was a swing in that show. And Jenny Galloway, whom Mackintosh brought over from England with the permission of Actors' Equity Association ("pursuant to an exchange program between American Equity and UK Equity," as Playbill duly notes), had prior Madame Thenardier experience 14 years ago.

"But," said Beach, "we sorta don't do any of the old stuff. We just make up our new stuff and make it fun for us. I think we're a very different Madame and Monsieur Thenardier than any others I've ever heard about. We're a French Bonnie and Clyde—in it together."

The actors playing Valjean, Javert and the two Thenardiers are the only ones who are not multi-cast. Everybody else is playing the populous of Paris. Justin Bohon, who won a 2002 Theatre World Award and Astaire Award for Broadway's last Oklahoma! (he put a Will Rogers rope-spin on Will Parker), said he averages a new character every scene he is in—roughly 15, and he doesn't even get to use any rope in his factory-worker scene.

Aaron Lazar is a judge in a trial scene before he turns into Big Man on the Barricades, Enjolras, and, as an actor, he has learned to use the quick chaos it takes him to get there. "The nature of the costume change," he said, "is just enough time to get the clothes off, get the makeup done, screw around with the hair a little bit and then put the jacket on and go — so there is no actory prep time, so to speak, for that first Paris scene. I have a little bit more time right after that scene before the cafe scene. It's one of those things that you thank God for previews because you realize that if you don't go out there with the adrenaline and juice that you need for that scene, it's flat and you're behind. That's what this whole show's about. The show moves so fast. Every moment you have to step on stage and be right in that moment, or you're behind and then that moment is gone."

But he has learned—the hard way—to be careful where he steps. "I fell off those barricades last week, man. I got a bruise the size of my entire left leg. That was a wake-up call, especially coming back from that day after the day off. Your feet are a little shaky, and the barricade is tricky. You gotta really be on your toes. It's a dangerous set, and you got 30 people out there with guns and smoke. But that's just another element. It's a playground."

Not surprisingly, his favorite moment is issuing the musical's robust and stirring call to arms, "Do You Hear the People Sing?"—an anthem with relevance and resonance "especially now in the times we live in. I was so excited to sink my teeth into this character, from the moment I got cast, because of how passionate I am about politics.

"What I wanted to do from the get-go was not be one of those G.I. Joe Enjolrases. You got this massive barricade set and you got the music and you got the guns and you got the smoke and you got the lights. I want to find this guy's soul, and it's a work in progress."

Enjolras and Eponine were the two Tony-winning roles in the original 1987 Production—for Michael Maguire and Frances Ruffelle (where are they now? real question). Both characters were short-lived, actually die on stage and have killer songs.

Eponine's paean to her one-sided secret love for Marius, "On My Own," was delivered on opening night sublimely with commendable emotional restraint by Celia Keenan-Bolger.

Another who dies on stage, and sings well doing it, was Daphne Rubin-Vega, whose Fantine is the first principal to fall and report to perpetual replay as an extra (she applies a pretty mean tourniquet at the barricades, for instance). "I have a great time playing a terrifically tragic person," the original Mimi of Rent said, feigning reflection, kidding on the square. "Y'know, I'm really getting good at it. I've got to stop dying on stage now. It's time to stop. It's time to do something new."

She did feel an affinity for her character's plight. "There are more people who are like Fantine than we like to admit—people who take it on the chin and keep moving. She's almost iconoclastic as a symbol of how society can watch a beautiful thing degenerate."

Boublil and Schonberg set aside their Pirate Queen labors for this battery-charging blast from the past. "The audience looks at the show like a friend they haven't seen in years, and they're happy to see him again," said Schonberg. "It's amazing to see that reaction."

"What's amazing for me is the cast," offered Boublil. "A lot of those kids were not born when we wrote the show. It's the first time in 20 years I've been impressed by a Javert."

Schonberg's move: "I have been impressed by the Eponine that we have, and I must say that the journey that Alexander Gemignani has made as Jean Valjean since the first preview to what we've seen tonight is impressive. He's really imperial—and very young."

Except for brand new orchestrations, there are no major changes in the score—save for "Drink With Me," a plaintive number among the soon-to-die revolutionaries. Almost a throwaway before, it is lushly elaborated on now. "It's more like the novel," said Boublil. "In the novel, Victor Hugo was describing the drunken Grantaire (Lestat's Drew Sarich) as he played the guitar. John Caird suggested we use some more images from the novel and we asked the orchestrators to include a guitar that would be played on stage. We can still keep innovating and looking for new ideas because we still have the luxury to do it."

And is it true that Les Misérables is only in for a limited run of six months? Both men smiled knowingly. "That's what they say," Schonberg replied, and even through his thick French-accented English you could hear a distant—if distinct—dot dot dot.

The cast of <i>Les Mis</i>
The cast of Les Mis Photo by Aubrey Reuben