What is the biggest challenge of staging a cult hit like Les Miz? Especially with it currently being revived on Broadway? Does it matter?
Liesl Tommy: The biggest challenge is managing the pressure of expectation. Directing Les Miz is a bit like directing a film of a comic book or graphic novel with a rabid fan base. Every casting choice and costume choice comes with a clash in the hearts and minds of the fans…”It’s not supposed to be like that…” – knowing this was on people’s minds and pushing forward with our vision regardless was quite a challenge. The brilliant costume designer Jacob Climer and I had a wonderful process grappling with “expectation” then discarding it and trusting our sense of storytelling.
It being on Broadway didn’t impact me because, in a way, it gave me license to do something very different. If people want to see the beloved traditional version, they can get it on Broadway or the tour. My job was to explore my personal connection to it and to re-imagine it.
What is your personal connection to the story?
LT: Well, this was one of the books I read at a very young age and it was an astounding experience. My favorite European writers as a child were Forster, Hugo, Dickens, Austen and Hardy. So, I have very vivid memories of the book, of the images I had in my mind as I read it.
I am also a child of a revolution, being from South Africa during the Apartheid era, which was marked by many decades of brutally suppressed student uprisings, so I am deeply connected to the themes of revolution in this story. I find them profoundly moving and familiar. I also have lived and worked in environments of abject poverty. I feel one of the reasons people are so responsive to this particular production is because it is saturated with my personal connections to the story. I think they feel it’s coming from an authentic place.
Whose story is Les Misérables telling?
LT: The musical is telling the story of Jean Valjean’s journey to redemption and the story of a student uprising. But it’s also a story about spirituality and the different ways to live a life of faith. And it’s a story about what it means to live in a brutal and indifferent society and still have compassion for your fellow human, to take a stand, at great risk to yourself, to try to eradicate other people’s suffering. And about loving another person with everything in you. So many humanistic themes, it’s a privilege to stage.
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