“Les Misérables,” the bloated faux opera based on the Victor Hugo novel, has been running continuously in London’s West End, the theater district, since December 1985. It holds the Guinness World Record for the longest run of a musical in London. In the U.S., the musical held on for a somewhat less embarrassing 16 years, running from 1987 into 2003, closing after 6,680 performances.
It was always a cynical project, as so many Broadway musicals have become since the genre became a nostalgic invalid in the 1970s. The show itself is derivative crap, and obviously so to anyone who has a passing familiarity with its superior sources. The translated from French lyrics have the resonance of Hallmark cards; there literally isn’t a clever or memorable pack of words in the whole three hour extravaganza. What “Les Miz” has, or rather had, is spectacular stagecraft, thanks to the original staging by Trevor Nunn that mounted the series of scenes on a massive raked turntable that allowed quick transition and the illusion of excitement. The musical didn’t exactly disprove the old Broadway saw that “Nobody leaves the theater humming the scenery”—the TV ad jingle-like earworms in the score assured that—but it came close.
When I saw the touring company version of the show, I realized immediately that the production could never have a life in high school, college, community theater or even in regional professional theaters, because the turntable, and the special effects it permitted, were essential to the production. Not only are stage turntables extremely expensive, they are notoriously risky, since a mechanical breakdown means the performance must be cancelled. Sure enough, after the Broadway production closed in 2003, there were no productions of the show other than the three professional touring companies owned by the Broadway producers. Then the show’s owner had an idea: let’s see if we can eliminate the turntable and get away with it! Continue reading