A LETTER FROM LONDON: Back to the Barricades of Les Misérables and Paying a Visit to Versailles

The monthly missive from Across the Pond pays a return visit Les Misérables and explores the new productions The Full Monty, Versailles and The AZ of Mrs P, along with a production of Do I Hear a Waltz?

Ramin Karimloo in Les Misérables
Ramin Karimloo in Les Misérables (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

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A hundred years ago, or thereabouts, I got a call from my then fiancé. At that time I was living in New York; he was in London. "Get on a plane, tonight, if possible. I've just seen the musical of the second half of the century and you've got to see it." I had sufficient respect for his knowledge and taste — then and subsequently — to actually do it. I came directly from Heathrow to meet him at the Barbican, where, improbably, the Royal Shakespeare Company was staging its first musical, directed by Trevor Nunn, its artistic director. We arrived slightly late and got into our seats just as the houselights were dimming and I was struggling to remove my coat. When the houselights came up for intermission, an hour or so later, I was still sitting with my coat half-on, half-off. I had been so mesmerized by the newness of the show, by its ambition, by its strength and its chutzpah, that I had forgotten to move for an hour.

This week, as I once again sat in the stalls waiting for the start of the same show, this time on Broadway, I thought of what it had felt like to know that one was part of an unique experience. Seeing it for the first time in October 1985, I knew that I was looking at a show that not only had "legs," but would undoubtedly last for decades, as long as the history of musicals was told and performed. The show is Les Misérables and we are now so accustomed to it that it is part of the vocabulary of our theatre lives, but then, in October 1985, it was unlike anything else I had ever seen. Everybody in the world who is even vaguely interested in musical theatre — 65 million of us in 42 countries and 22 languages — has seen Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schonberg and Herbert Kretzmer's masterpiece at least once. But when I first saw it, its success was by no means assured. Its producer, the fearless Cameron Mackintosh, believed in it, certainly, but initial reviews were, amazingly, not positive. Most London critics didn't care for this spiky, melancholic musical based on Victor Hugo's long, long novel. The show quickly acquired the derogatory nickname The Glums and it was thought to be too long, too downbeat, and, very important to the xenophobic Brits, too French.

Most London critics dismissed it, but not all. My late husband, Sheridan Morley, then theatre critic for the International Herald Tribune, a daily newspaper that catered principally to Americans in Europe, was knocked out by it at first viewing and kept going back for another look, hence the urgent call to me in New York. The Trib was then very influential, and Sheridan's rave review produced a crucial early run on the Barbican box office, enough to keep the show going until the word of mouth reached the Brits in such unmistakably positive terms that they came in increasing hoards until Mackintosh decided bravely to transfer it to the West End, where it has triumphed ever since, nearly 30 years and counting.

Broadway followed, and that initial production ran for so long, some 16 years, that the actors playing the student rebels in the 19th-century revolution began to look like their own fathers. Mackintosh has regularly updated the cast in London, but Broadway doesn't work the same way. So, sensibly, Mackintosh closed it while it was still packing them in for a long rethink. And now it's back.  Les Misérables has returned to Broadway, in a new, smaller, and, in many ways, more effective production than Nunn's original spectacular. This one originated in Toronto, Canada, directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell and starring as Jean Valjean is Ramin Karimloo, the Iranian-Canadian actor who has spent most of his career in Cameron Mackintosh shows. Backdrops for the new production are based on Victor Hugo's own paintings, incorporated into Matt Kinley's set designs. So it's the same, only different. Reconceived, remounted, rechoreographed, rethought, in many ways a completely new show.

But for this theatregoer, Les Miz is still the miracle of innovation that it was 30 years ago, and the pleasure of (re)discovery is undimmed.

Some plays offer such a meaty leading role to the actor that you can sit through an entire evening without noticing that there are big holes in the play. John Osborne of Look Back in Anger fame wrote an entire series of these plays — Inadmissable Evidence, Ross, Luther — and it wasn't until you saw these plays in revival after his death that you realised they weren't so much good plays as wonderful roles for a great actor to get his teeth into. At Hampstead Theatre, London is getting its first look at David Lindsay-Abaire's Good People. This middling play opened on Broadway in 2011 starring a brilliant Frances McDormand as Margaret, a broke single mother with a disabled daughter. At the start of the play Margaret has been fired from her job in a blue-collar neighbourhood of South Boston and decides to try to get some money — or at least a job — from her old boyfriend, a doctor who has escaped from the old neighbourhood. In the Hampstead production, Margaret is played by the equally brilliant Imelda Staunton who can do no wrong. Her "Southie" accent never slips and she inhabits her role so perfectly, just as McDormand did on Broadway, that only afterwards can one focus on a plot full of holes.

Frances Ruffelle and Michael Matus in The AZ of Mrs P.

I enjoyed The Full Monty at the Noel Coward very much. Returned to its original North-East England from the Pittsburgh of its American movie life, this is not a musical any more, just a play about working men who, for their own reasons, need a job after their steel factory closes. This cast is fine and, once you get used to there being no songs, highly entertaining. Unlike the David Lindsay-Abaire play, everything rings true to life and, through the jokes, you can feel the tears. The big beast of this month is a new play by Peter Gill, a very experienced and knowledgable playwright who also directs. Versailles is Shavian in approach, but it treats of different material: How to rebuild Europe after the catastrophe that was WWI. While the play is dense and scholarly, what works best is the sense of loss. The war has destroyed nearly an entire generation of young men, leaving those who remain wounded in body and mind, and leaving their generation of young women without hope of ever being a wife, which up until now has been their only profession. The women, not having been exposed to the horror of the trenches, recover faster, looking into their single-state future as an opportunity. The men have to face a much more problematic future. Gill's Versailles, which is about the treaty which carved up Europe, is far-reaching and serious. What it teaches us is that the consequences of what we do or the politicians do in a hurry in 1918 or even today, will be with us forever after.

There is a sweet and quirky original musical at the little Southwark Playhouse which is so English that I can't imagine crossing the Atlantic. The AZ of Mrs P is the true story of a strange family who invent what has become an indispensible tool for Londoners and tourists alike, an alphabetical book of streetmaps known to all and sundry as the "AtoZ." Until the Internet rather stole its thunder, there was a copy in every household, one in every car, one in every coat pocket. There probably still is. And it was all done by one woman wandering around the streets and writing down their names. Any foreigner who tries to find a Street or a Garden or a Place or a Mews or a Road will sooner or later have to buy an "AtoZ." The musical is odd and funny with some lovely performances, especially from Frances Ruffelle as the compiler's mad mother, and The AZ of Mrs P is a little gem among the jewels of London's fringe theatres.

Lastly, a story. As many people know, Oscar Hammerstein II was mentor to Stephen Sondheim, not just when he was a boy but until he died. When Oscar was dying, he asked Sondheim, as a favour to him, if he would work with his partner, Richard Rodgers, as his lyricist because, he explained, Dick would be lost without him. Rodgers and Sondheim disliked one another but, after Oscar's death, they decided to give it a go. The result was Do I Hear a Waltz? and, despite their mutual animosity, when they produced is one of the best scores ever written for the musical theatre. This is a fabulous score, the bittersweet story of a middle-aged American school teacher who fulfils the dream of a lifetime, to go to Venice. She falls in love with a married souvenir seller and, of course, it can't last.

So far as I know, once the score was written, they never spoke to one another again. I wish I could report that the production of Do I Hear A Waltz? at the new-ish Park Theatre was a gem, because it should be. The sets look as though they are falling down, the acting is almost non-existent (although some of the singing is good) and this glorious score sometimes gets lost in the muddle of its direction. I'm waiting for a really good production of Do I Hear A Waltz? to hit the West End or Broadway or the Fringe, and I do hope I won't have to wait too long.

(Ruth Leon is a London and New York City arts writer and critic whose work has been seen in Playbill magazine and other publications.) Check out Playbill.com's London listings. Seek out more of Playbill.com's international coverage, including London correspondent Mark Shenton's daily news reporting from the U.K.