By Kenneth Jones
29 Jan 2011
Cameron Mackintosh, the British producer who discovered the Paris musical Les Misérables, by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, and developed it into a smash English-language sensation in London, on Broadway and around the world (ultimately, in many languages), wanted to reinvent the show for its 25th anniversary. He put Laurence Connor and James Powell — two new directors with a passion for, and history with, the show — on it, and they worked with new collaborators to freshen the orchestrations, create new scenic design (inspired by paintings by source author Victor Hugo) and bring a grittier and more naturalistic acting style to the pop opera, known for its oversize emotions. They also did away with the signature staging element of the original production (directed by Trevor Nunn and John Caird) — a turntable that allowed for cinematic shifting of scenes and characters. The 25th anniversary staging was a hit on tour in the U.K. and played a limited fall 2010 engagement at London's Barbican, the show's English birthplace. (The original Nunn-Caird production remains on the West End, by the way.) This new Les Miz was launched by an American cast on a North American tour in early January in Philadelphia, following a fall 2010 test run at Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey. We spoke to Mackintosh — whose work also includes Oliver!, The Phantom of the Opera and Mary Poppins, among many other productions — by phone about Les Miz, his primary theatrical passion.
Some colleagues of mine saw the Paper Mill Playhouse production and particularly loved the new visual world of the show. They said it felt incredibly fresh.
Cameron Mackintosh: Well, that was the intention. Miraculously, the London production is still doing amazing [business]. In fact, it's now got the biggest advance it's ever had in its history, in its 26th year, which is amazing. But I felt, for 25 years, I simply did not want to keep on producing the same show, the same production. In any normal [show's] life, lots of other people would have done different productions [by now] and the original would long be finished. But this — and Phantom — are such miraculous shows that they seem to go on and on and on. So, you know, it's one of the best librettos and scores ever written and a wonderful story, so it's actually a real pleasure to sit down and reinvent it.
CM: Oh, yes. I mean, look, there was a practical side to it, too. I knew that there was a great wadge of America that the original show has never played [because those theatres] couldn't [handle the physical production in] split weeks, one-weekers and all of that. So there was that practical thing in the back of my head, that we knew we were going to have a show that had to be rethought. And what I didn't want to do, nor did I think it was the right thing to do, was to try and scale down what we had, because it worked brilliantly in its own right.
Can you talk about music changes — the sound of the show?
CM: Claude-Michel [Schonberg] and my orchestrators and I have been working on re-doing the orchestrations, which have an even longer start life, because the orchestrations of the show were actually based on the orchestrations for the original concept album in 1979 and the French production — before I came on board in 1980! So much has changed in electronic instruments and what you can do now… The clunky bits of the old version were the original DX7s [Yahama digital synthesizers] that were on the cutting edge of that time. Claude-Michel wanted, and I was pushing for: "Let's do something to make it more a timeless classic that we won't need to do anything else to for another 25 years." And so that's how we've come up with this new orchestration. I mean, virtually the whole thing, every note of it, has been overhauled. It still bears a striking resemblance to the original, [but] it is much grittier, and I think it's more dramatic than the original. The direction of the show has been given a much more contemporary, Brechtian feel.
|photo by Deen van Meer|
[That's also the case] with the physical design, which came from [scenic] designer Matt Kinley, who researched the number of paintings that Victor Hugo himself had done. We were all amazed that Victor Hugo had done over 400 incredible impressionistic paintings, ahead of Turner and all of that movement, and they had incredible drama in them, as well as color, as opposed to the original, very much black-and-white show — or certainly black-and-gray show, the original one was. And that combined with the scenery has given us a completely different, fresh look.
Actual projections of the paintings are there?
CM: No. The painterly quality of the projections…combined with the texture on the actual scenery gives you the fantastic quality. It isn't about projection. It's about the atmosphere.
I don't want to give too much away to people who haven't seen the new production, but I hear "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables" is very haunting and very different, the opening is also different…
CM: It is. Well, every single scene is different. I mean, that's one of the challenges: Les Miz had an iconic staging. So many of the famous scenes of Les Miz, you look at a picture of it [and] you know it's Les Miz, with the famous revolve. Otherwise, Forbidden Broadway would not have had one of its best sketches! You can't take away those iconic things without replacing different ones. We have found different ways of making it equally thrilling.