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

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24 Feb 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.


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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