THE BOOK SHELF: A Les Miz Coffee Table Book and Benedict Nightingale's "Great Moments in Theatre"

By Steven Suskin
February 24, 2013

This month's column looks at the deluxe, over-stuffed new coffee table book about Les Misérables, plus a survey of world drama entitled "Great Moments in the Theatre," both emanating from veteran London theatre critic Benedict Nightingale.



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Les Misérables — the Alain Boublil/Claude-Michel Schonberg musical that was devised in Paris in 1980, revamped by Cameron Mackintosh for London in 1985, propelled to worldwide domination (notably in New York, in 1987), and most recently transformed into a highly acclaimed 2012 Oscar-nominee — has garnered more than a few fans along the way. They should be tickled pink with Les Misérables: From Stage to Screen by Benedict Nightingale & Martyn Palmer [Applause].

This almost-ridiculously colorful coffee table book is self-described, on the cover, as "The Story So Far of the World's Longest-Running Musical in Words, Pictures and Rare, Facsimile Memorabilia." And that's what it is. The selling point here is the memorabilia, or rather the facsimiles of memorabilia. The text is divided into 20 chapters, with titles such as "Hugo & His France," "The London Opening" and individual sections on the major characters (and the actors who played them). My favorite chapter, here, is "Enter Cameron Mackintosh" — which could serve as the title of its own book. A full third of this particular Les Miz book, and seven of the chapters, deal with the film version.

But it is the memorabilia that fascinates. The book includes four full-size envelope inserts which seem to be Scotch-taped in. (One of them in the copy I received had already detached itself.) These packets — the faces of which are printed in full-color, similar to the other pages — open via front flaps. Enclosed are 20 inserts in all: posters, scenic and costumes designs, opening night invitations, various souvenir pieces and even a facsimile ticket from the Broadway opening at the Broadway. This is a decidedly-unattractive blue computer ticket, cut at an awkward angle to make it look like it had been torn by a ticket taker. (Remember when Broadway tickets were printed on brightly-colored, heavy card stock, and had style?) It is presumably a doctored ticket; one assumes that whoever sat in B101 on opening night had a comp, which on a computer ticket would have probably shown a "$0.00" price instead of the $47.50 on the facsimile. And in those days, I believe comps were still punched with holes.

Statistically, the book has a mere 96 pages (including the inserts) but weighs in at about three pounds — which gives you an idea of just how much stuff has been stuffed in. Let us add, though, that the text is not merely filler. Benedict Nightingale — the long time theatre critic for the London Times — and Martyn Palmer have delved into the goings-on over 35 years to bring us an informative guide. It would have been easy to fill these pages with publicity puffery, but this is not the case. The coverage of the London production, for example, does not mince matters: the reviews were lousy, and this book celebrating Les Misérables spells out just how bad they were. (One review was headlined "Victor Hugo on the Garbage Dump," we are told.) Give Nightingale — who clearly wrote this section — credit for accurate reporting; and credit Mackintosh, too, who surely had control over the book's content.

"Les Misérables from Stage to Screen" is a grand celebration for fans of the musical, although they might complain that an outsized amount of space is given to the film. Understandably so, as the market for books about big-budget films starring Hugh Jackman is somewhat larger than the relative sliver of people who buy books about musical theatre.

Meanwhile, this book is fast becoming obsolete: not only are next month's Oscar results missing, but they totally neglect the just-announced 2014 Broadway revival. "Now and Forever," as the slogan goes. But wasn't that a different Mackintosh megahit?

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Mr. Nightingale, at the same time, has given us a most interesting tome filled with theatrical meat. It is far easier to describe what Great Moments in the Theatre [Oberon/Theatre Communications Group] is not than what it is. This is not a compilation of opening night reviews written by the long-time critic over his 50-year career; nor is it a compilation of opening night reviews by Nightingale and other critics. Nightingale has more or less tried to create opening night reviews.

Some of the plays and musicals he surely attended, of course. But he was unlikely to have been present at the first night of the Chicago tryout of The Glass Menagerie in 1944, when he was a five-year-old living far across the sea. Nor was he at the 1930 opening of Private Lives, the 1904 debut of Peter Pan, the 1898 Moscow premiere of The Seagull, or the infamous 1849 Macready Macbeth at the Astor Place Opera House in New York which culminated in a riot which left 25 dead bodies on the street. (You can now get, on the very spot, a vente caramel macchiato. Just up the street from the Public Theater.)

Nightingale places us at the 17th-century premieres of Hamlet and Tartuffe — he liked them both — and even The Oresteia at the Theatre of Dionysus in Athens, in 458 BC. (I wonder how much legroom they had in the loges?) On the other hand, he takes us to many openings — or press openings, anyway — which he surely attended, right up to Jerusalem at the Royal Court in 2009. We get about 100 essays, at least 40 of which seem to have been reasonably before his time.

So this is not what you might consider accurate first night reporting. But it is not meant to be so. Nightingale borrows liberally from contemporary accounts, in the early stages at least; how else can he reasonably describe Garrick's Hamlet at Drury Lane in 1742? (Here he borrows from Henry Fielding's "Tom Jones," in which the performance is described by Mr. Partridge, the former schoolteacher who is initially accused of being the hero's out-of-wedlock father.) But Nightingale's accounts of the plays, the performances, and the collective mood of the audiences do indeed give us a sense of these many "Great Moments in the Theatre." He takes us along on a trip across centuries of greasepaint, and does it so very entertainingly that we are glad to go along for the ride.

Nightingale's "greats" are not restricted to high quality; he even includes a report on one of the British theatre's all-time greatest fiascos, Lionel Bart's Twang!! At one point during the Manchester opening, leading lady Barbara Windsor — confused after so much turmoil and so many script changes — stopped center stage and innocently said, "I don't know what's going on here." Nightingale reports that someone yelled out from the audience, "nor do we."

And yes, the reports include the opening of Les Misérables at the Barbican in 1985. Nightingale seems to have liked it, but he helpfully quotes an unnamed critic who opined that it was "like eating an artichoke, you have to go through an awful lot to get a very little."

(Steven Suskin is author of the updated and expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," "A Must See," the "Broadway Yearbook" series and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also pens Playbill.com's On the Record and The DVD Shelf columns. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)

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