It was an inspired, if obvious (but abundantly successful, in the long run), ploy to stage a sprawling saga of The French Revolution on a turntable that — well, revolves.
The rest of this history is history: The original 1987 Broadway Les Misérables (or, as you tweeters prefer, Les Miz) raked in eight Tony Awards and racked up 6,680 performances in 16 years (1987-2003), becoming the fifth longest-running Broadway show of all time. When withdrawal started setting in, an emergency revival was trotted out for 483 more shows (2006-2007), followed in 2012 by a $61-million cinematic postscript that garnered 49 international film awards, including an Oscar for Anne Hathaway's Fantine, all the while taking in $423,009,150 worldwide.
Apparently, producer Cameron Mackintosh looked on the above as mere ballyhoo for his latest Les Miz, which opened March 23 at the Imperial. The turntable, which has always been helpful in sprinting through 1,488 pages of Victor Hugo and 28 songs by Claude-Michel Schonberg, Alain Boublil and Herbert Kretzmer, is gone. Now, revolutionaries have got to rough it, not hitch a quick ride on a movable stage.
So, without characters and storylines constantly going in circles, what does the "reconceived" Les Misérables look like? Well, it's a Tall Story — several stories tall, in fact, with scenery seeming to reach into the ceiling. It's certainly one of the largest sets in the city, extending itself on both sides of the stage into the audience (a la Madison Square Garden's A Christmas Carol), but you can't really see it in any detail. Six or seven shafts of light illuminate the proceedings (barely), more often than not pin-spotting particular people, bringing them out of dust, darkness and shadows. "It's like reinventing the wheel," said James Powell, no pun intended (presumably). He and Laurence Connor co-directed the show, and both were mindful of the market.
"You don't want to disappoint your audience on the emotional beats of the show, so we either had to match what their expectations are or exceed them. The response has been fabulous. I'm especially happy with the teenage audience we're getting. I think they recognize some kind of sex appeal that was never in the show before."
The other side of the footlights is likewise bullish, Powell said. "Some of those guys on the crew in that house at the Imperial were on the original show, and they've totally embraced this new production and fallen in love all over again with it."
This is Powell's Broadway-directing debut, and it's something of an inside job: "I was an actor for many a year, and, after 17 auditions, I finally got a job in Les Misérables when it was running at the Palace Theatre in London. Six months after I left the show, Cameron called me up and asked if I'd be interested in becoming the resident director of that production. I would, so I sat and looked after the show, and then I went on to direct some other stuff in my own right, and here I am today."
The trick in co-directing? "You collaborate prior to the event. It's a conglomerate effort. What the actors and what both us directors and Cameron bring — it's all about that smorgasbord of ideas and pitching those and seeing what works best."
View highlights from the show:
Sir Cameron was plainly pleased to have both Paris sewers working again (i.e., Les Misérables on 45th Street and The Phantom of the Opera on 44th Street). "This is the sixth or seventh time we've done this production of Les Miz. What's great about it is that we've never done this particular production in such a small theatre. We've had a marvelous time reinventing it for this space. Where the set comes into the auditorium was something that we did it at the Imperial Theatre in Tokyo last year, and we loved it so much that we decided to add it to the show permanently."
He's not through re-inventing, either. "I'm right in the middle of doing the new invention of Miss Saigon," he said. "It'll be opening in London in a matter of weeks."
Neither he nor his directors ran the press gauntlet that was set up in the lobby of the theatre after the show. Their work was done there, so, self-effacingly, they let their cast do the media dance while they rushed across town to preside over the opulent after-party that was being thrown all over The Metropolitan Club on Fifth Avenue. Ramin Karimloo hit the press line with his wife Amanda. A 35-year-old Iranian-born Canadian actor-singer, he is marking his Broadway debut the hard way with Les Misérables — in the weighty lead role of Jean Valjean, a man on the run his whole life for stealing a loaf bread, but he was thoroughly well-versed in the material, having starred for Sir Cameron in London's West End not only in Les Misérables (as Jean Valjean, Enjolras and Marius) but also in The Phantom of the Opera (as both The Phantom and Raoul). He also appeared in the 25th anniversary of both musicals and originated The Phantom in the Andrew Lloyd Weber's sequel Love Never Dies.
"In my head, I treated tonight like it was a 25th anniversary show," he confessed. "We'd already done the press week, so it was mostly friends and family here tonight. I said, 'Let's celebrate Les Miz's return to Broadway.' That took off a lot of pressure."
Taking his Broadway bow in stride, he said he hoped to be back — but his shingle is out everywhere: "When it comes to work, geography is not an issue if it's the right job that's going to push me as an actor. I think that's the kind of role I gotta look for."
As the unforgiving Inspector Javert in lifelong pursuit of Valjean (get a life!), Will Swenson said he was trying to round off the rough, inflexible edges of the role. "It's one of those characters that could almost be a mustache-twisting bad guy, and the challenge as an actor is to make him a real person — somebody who legitimately tries to do the right thing but just gets distracted by his sense of justice. Some amazing actors have played the part. You're always following in the footsteps of the giants."
It's a lot of hate and bombast to bring to work every day, but, as the husband of Audra McDonald, he is quite familiar about how to cope with the vocal demands of a performing life. "We have certain understandings about how much discussion, how much talk, how much vocal energy should be spent during the course of the day."
Kyle Scatliffe gives a spirited showing of Enjolras, the firebrand at the barricades. In past Broadway lives, the role won a Tony for Michael Maguire and a nomination for Aaron Lazar — and Scatliffe said he identified with the engine of the character. "Fighting for something you believe in is something that's very, very precious in my life. He will take himself completely to the end of his life to fight for that."
Eponine, who suffers eloquently in silence, is another part that is a magnet for a Tony (Frances Ruffelle) or a nomination (Celia Keenan-Bolger), but Nikki M. James isn't panicked since she already picked up a Tony at the starting gate for The Book of Mormon. "You know what, it would be nice to have a second," she admitted. "I'm not ruling it out, but, having already had one, I know that I can go the rest of my career and be less stressed out about it."
Her singing/dying scene didn't come easily. "We spent a lot of time just working on the tension of it, finding a way to localize the pain," she said. "The payoff is: The more tense I am and the more in pain I am, the better it looks. If you have a lot of energy and let that go, it's really powerful. We did a number of exercises with our director."
The Tony-nominated original Jean Valjean, Colm Wilkinson, who'll do his musical mix, "Broadway and Beyond," Oct. 28 at Carnegie Hall, led the night's lightweight guest list. Others: Meredith Vieira (luv her!); Sierra Boggess, The Little Mermaid herself; Betsy Wolfe (who plays one of the relatively sane characters in Bullets Over Broadway — and sings up a storm, to boot!); Arnie Burton; Mormon monologist Emmett Foster; Actors' Equity prexy Nick Wyman; that fabulous Francophile, Jamie de Roy; incipient writer-director Michael Arden of "Arrested Development"; Javert of the 2006 Broadway revival, Norm Lewis; Hedwig and His Angry Inch (I'm sorry, Neil Patrick Harris and David Burtka); Tony-winning director Diane Paulus (who'll launch her Cirque du Soleil female-centric bauble, Amaluna, at Citi Field on March 27) and daughters; and producer Leonard Soloway (prepping his next Broadway biggie, Jack Canfora's Fellow Travelers, about Elia Kazan, Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe).