Les Misérables has changed. Maybe you’ve known this for a while. I didn’t know until shortly before I went to see the show.
My ignorance of the change isn’t because I’m just a casual fan. While there are definitely theatre-goers who are more well-versed in the musical of miserable French people than I am, my love for this show goes well beyond what someone would call “casual” … or “sane.”
- I have owned the following original soundtracks: London, Broadway, France, Hungary, and the Symphonic. London is the best, by far.
- I had a cat named Eponine.
- I can sing nearly every line of the show – even the ones that aren’t part of major songs.
- I own Stage By Stage and the Dream Cast concert performance with Michael Ball and Colm Wilkinson – on VHS.
- Calling someone a “Cosette” was a biting insult among my friends and me.
- I know what Fantine really sold instead of that necklace.
- I have seen productions of Les Misérables in the following places: London, Broadway, Orlando, and Tampa. Some of these several times.
- I love Forbidden Broadway, Volume 2.
- I saw Colm Wilkinson in concert.
- If you need more proof, here’s a picture from my senior yearbook:
Rabid fan, then, let us agree to call me.
In the past few years, though, Les Misérables has kind of fallen off of my map. I still listen to the Symphonic soundtrack on my iPod, but I haven’t looked for new information online, and I haven’t been to the show, mainly because it hasn’t toured here as frequently as it used to.
This year it came back. I was pumped. My big Christmas gift was two tickets for mid-January, and I was so excited that I have listened to nothing other than Les Misérables the soundtrack and Les Misérables the audio book since I opened the gift envelope on Christmas day.
It was about two weeks ago that I learned there had been major changes to the show. After that I spent hours online researching what exactly these changes were. Here is what I learned:
- There is no more turntable stage.
- Some songs have been trimmed.
- The new backdrops are inspired by Victor Hugo’s own paintings.
- There is a new lighting effect that is supposed to draw more emotion.
- The music has changed slightly.
- Trevor Nunn thinks the revival is a betrayal.
To tell the truth, I wanted to know specific details. Usually I have a strict ban on spoilers of all kinds, but this play has a lot of emotional history for me. I was nervous about going in unprepared – what if they had butchered it? Sure, lots of reviewers said it was just fine, but do those reviewers really love this play the way I do?
No one was willing to spoil the details online. At least, no one I found was willing to spoil enough. The result was that I went in to the theatre on Wednesday, half giddy with excitement, half holding my breath in terror.
So, in case you’re here because you, too, are biting your red and black painted nails before you go into the theatre – or because the tour isn’t coming to your area, and you really want to know – I’m going to post spoilers. In black. You have to highlight to see them.
Think long and hard before you do this, though! Notice that I lived through the experience. :) You can likely make it through without spoilers, as well.
Before I begin, I’ll give a quick, two-sentence review of the play that sums up my feelings:
It was good – not as powerful as before, and certainly not better, but good. Some changes were fantastic, some were awful, and most were just fine.
Now, I’ll continue with spoilers below. The whole thing needs to be highlighted to be seen, but in case you are subscribed through email, or your screen colors are off somehow, or you just can’t stop yourself, I’ll also give you clear warnings when I’m about to describe a specific detail. Please read with caution!
THE MISSING TURNTABLE
This is the biggest issue for many people. You may go through something like what I did: “What?! But that’s one of the most famous things about this play!!!” then, “Well, I suppose it must have been a big, expensive pain to travel with it…” then, “Hang on. There are some important moments that require the turntable!”
Exactly. I mean specifically the moment from Gavroche’s death to the aftermath of the final battle.
For the most part, the sets and backdrops (more about those in a bit) make up for the lack of the spinning stage. Things move comfortably around, allowing for smooth transitions that honestly look like slightly stiffer attempts at the exact same thing we’re used to seeing. The overall effect, for fans of the original version, is fine. The show may seem slightly less alive – as if it has just been thawed out and is still unable to move freely – but twenty minutes in you’ll have adjusted to the new look.
But there is one moment in particular – viewing Gavroche’s death and Enjolras’ body – that cannot be done without the turntable. This is usually the point of the play where I’m in tears, and it does not happen. Here is what they do instead:
Gavroche climbs over the barricade to gather ammunition. He vanishes and carries on with his song unseen. We watch as the students wait in fear, and Grantaire particularly falls apart when Gavroche is finally gone. Then we move on.
Yes, Gavroche now dies off stage.
The final battle takes place, and everybody dies pretty much as usual (slow motion has been removed from the play entirely). Enjolras does his flag-waiving bit when it’s clear they don’t stand a chance, and he falls out of sight the same way as before. In this version, when Javert comes to search for Valjean, the barricade parts, and soldiers walk past rolling a small cart that carries two bodies: Enjolras and Gavroche. Javert, at the height of emotion in the music, brings his torch close to the two corpses and pauses to let us feel sad. Then the cart rolls away, and the play carries on.
This was not very powerful for me. I asked my husband, who was seeing Les Miz for the first time, and he did not think it was all that sad, either. In my opinion, this change constitutes a true loss.
Apart from this, the rest of the play does just fine without the turntable.
Things feel pretty rushed in places, but overall it wasn’t a big problem for me. I’d love to hear what others think about this.
The backdrops paintings are inspired from Victor Hugo’s own art. These are quite pretty, and they do work to add depth to the stage (which is really needed, since we lost the turntable).
In addition, some of these paintings actually move: for example, one stretches to give the effect of the students marching toward the audience through the street; another scrolls to show Jean Valjean crawling through the sewer.
In most scenes I could take this or leave it. They were without debate attractive set pieces, but they neither thrilled me nor took away from the magic. Sometimes I found myself thinking, “Oh, cool,” but that was it. Except for once.
One part of the show worked really well with these paintings: Javert’s suicide. This has changed, again because of the lack of the turntable. Before, you will recall, he stood on the stage and pretended to fall as the bridge flew up behind him, and then he kind of rolled under blue lighting as the turntable moved until he was “washed” off stage. I had always liked that effect, to tell the truth, so I wondered how they would handle this in the new version.
Now Javert stands on the railing of the bridge instead of holding on in front of it. Simply seeing him like this is unsettling and moving. Then the bridge flies up behind Javert, but he remains suspended in the air – I’m assuming he’s attached to something we can’t see – and he flails around for his last note while the backdrops swirl with amorphous colors behind him. Eventually he is consumed in darkness, and the song ends. This was so fantastic I nearly gave a standing ovation right then.
THE LIGHTING EFFECT
That brings me to the lighting effect. At first this will seem pretty cheesy:
bright white spots shine on anyone who either dies or prays. Think about the frequency at which this occurs in Les Misérables, and you’re looking at a lot of Heaven lights. There’s nothing subtle about this; the effect is meant to be obvious. You may even begin to roll your eyes after this happens a few times, but then you realize they’ve just been preparing you for something more powerful: after the students die on the barricade, there is a slight pause, and then – POW! a bajillion Heaven lights shine all over the stage. It’s extremely moving, and it demonstrates the heartbreaking point that somehow a ton of bodies doesn’t quite get across – there are way too many deaths here.
It’s also quite sad when you’re used to this light representing the ascent to Heaven, but Javert instead vanishes into blackness.
This is not problematic. The music sounds a bit different in places, but it feels punched up, and in a few places it adds to the emotional strength of the scene. I’d also love to hear what others think about this.
This play is now very physical. You will see characters punching each other, throwing each other up against walls, choking each other out, and even having gratuitous sex on stage. For me, this felt odd. I didn’t like it, but I could see that there had been a deliberate choice to make the show more physical, and perhaps that works for some viewers.
There you have it! You’ll also notice some blocking changes
(the play opens on a ship – Valjean was a galley slave – and there’s a weird thing at the beginning of “At the End of the Day” where everybody kind of slumps into a large heap and sings… not sure what that was about),
but for the most part this should cover what you can expect. At its heart, this is still Les Misérables. Your favorite characters are still the same, and all of your favorite songs are still there. Yep, even “Turning,” though that would have been first on my list of things to change!