Arguably the best-known adaptation of Victor Hugo’s landmark 1862 historical novel, the story is predominantly set against the backdrop of 1832 June Rebellion in Paris. Composer Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyricists Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel’s original French-language musical debuted in 1980, with the English adaptation featuring Herbert Kretzmer’s lyrics opening in 1985. Les Misérables has since become the longest-running musical on the West End, and has celebrated its milestones with all-star anniversary concerts. A feature film adaptation of the musical was released in 2012, winning three Oscars.
On Thursday morning, F*** was in attendance at the Esplanade Theatre as a press preview was staged, followed by interviews with the cast and crew. This production is at the tail-end of a two-year tour, which began in Australia and is fresh off their Philippines leg. This staging is different from how fans of the original might remember it; the show was reworked for its 25th anniversary with new set designs and a re-orchestrated score. While iconic elements like the turntable and the barricade set that splits in half have been excised, Matt Kinley’s set design takes inspiration from the paintings of author Hugo, who was also an accomplished visual artist. The paintings, projected onto the backdrop, further enrich the depiction of 19th Century France.
“We’re getting older, but it looks like the show is never aging, and is [in fact] getting kind of younger,” Boublil said. “All the people who play in the show now were not born when Claude-Michel and I were writing it!” Boublil told us about the process of adapting the 1500-page book into a musical. When it debuted in 1985, the English-language version was four hours long; this has now been whittled down to around three hours. Boublil stated that the novel is required reading in most French schools, “but you don’t understand it – you know it’s about injustice, but apart from that, you don’t get the heart and soul of it.”
Boublil is of the opinion that not everything makes a good musical, and described how he and Schönberg were convinced of Les Misérables’ potential. “Many of them are musicalized in an opportunistic way, or they don’t last,” he said of other source material. When asked whether or not he remembers the feeling of first seeing the musical on stage, Boublil replied “I remember it very well.” On the cast of the original West End production, which included such luminaries as Colm Wilkinson, Frances Ruffelle and Patti Lupone, Boublil commented “We had the crème de la crème of musical theatre, but we didn’t know it yet! We didn’t know that they would each become a star in his or her own right.” It might be hard to imagine now, but the show opened to scathing reviews on the West End. Boublil remembered a headline in an English daily which read “What can be worse than a bad musical? A French musical.” “That day was like a death sentence is ringing,” he recalled, thinking that the show would surely close inside of a month after those notices. “To my amazement and pride, it has become the world’s longest-running musical,” he said.
The lead role of Jean Valjean is played by actor Australian actor Simon Gleeson, who won a Helpmann award for the role. The character, an escaped convict who embarks on a journey of redemption, is one of the most prominent roles in musical theatre. When asked what aspect of Valjean he most connected with, Gleeson answered “My job is to connect with all of them. The frustration that he feels at the start, the anger that he feels towards the world at the start, the joy he gets when he meets little Cosette, I connect with all of them.”
The part Gleeson most looks forward to during each performance might surprise audiences, since it isn’t the grand solos like Valjean’s Soliloquy or Bring Him Home. “It’s meeting little Cosette. Meeting the little girl is the first time the character gets to smile. It’s the first time he goes ‘I can live for something now’.” He had quite the heart-warming story to relate about his daughter. “When I first was rehearsing for the audition years ago, I would sing Bring Him Home in the house and she actually said ‘I forbid you to sing in the house’.” Gleeson related to us. “I didn’t realise it was because she would go to her room and cry, because she locked on to the fact that something was wrong, that I wasn’t happy, that I was in pain and something was going on and she couldn’t comprehend it, she understood just from the music alone.” His son’s reaction after watching the show was a little less complicated. “He just liked the guns,” Gleeson chuckled.
Gleeson played Raoul in Love Never Dies, the sequel to Phantom of the Opera. “The role I played was a horrible man – alcoholic, abusive, he was a terrible father, he was all the things that Jean Valjean isn’t,” Gleeson remarked, admitting “I had such a good time! It was really great.” Gleeson said the music plays an enormous part in helping him get into character. “The music is so evocative that you can’t helped but be seduced into where you need to be. Good luck if you can resist, you’d be a fool to try.” Gleeson worked briefly with Hugh Jackman, who played Valjean in the 2012 film. “He actually said to me ‘I don’t know how you do it eight times a week,’” Gleeson revealed. Gleeson said that, “frustratingly” enough, Jackman lives up to his reputation as being an affable person. He’s so generous and an incredibly talented guy, I can’t speak highly enough about Hugh.”
Valjean’s arch-nemesis Inspector Javert, a dogged police officer who pursues the fugitive over the course of almost two decades, is played by Earl Carpenter. The English actor has played Javert on Broadway and the title role in The Phantom of the Opera on the West End. He also performed in the 25th anniversary concerts of both shows. “Everyone says he is a bad guy! Not at all!” Carpenter insisted, describing Javert as “a robust individual that knows one thing, which is his belief in the law”. “At that last moment, you see something very different happen to him, which is the fact that somebody has knocked his beliefs off the track and there’s no other way for him to deal with it, he doesn’t have the capacity to deal with it,” Carpenter said of Javert, who is ultimately undone by his own unwillingness to see Valjean as anything other than a criminal. Recalling his first time seeing the show at age 21, Carpenter said “it was just incredible to see something so epic but live, rather than seeing it on the screen, it was extraordinary.”
On Russell Crowe’s much-maligned portrayal of Javert in the 2012 film version, Carpenter pragmatically stated “There’s a reason for everything. Everybody makes decisions. That film had to appeal to a massive audience and to do that, maybe just Les Mis as a musical, wasn’t going to be enough to sell the film. It’s incredibly expensive to put a film on these days.” Coming to Crowe’s defence, Carpenter said “I know he confessed to being very nervous, in front of musical theatre singers. It was an incredibly scary time for him.” Carpenter shared that he thought that “there were moments of Russell’s character that were just absolutely spot on. His persona, for that role, was great.” Quite graciously, he added “there could be people who probably don’t like my singing, it doesn’t matter.”
Central to the story is the love triangle between Valjean’s adoptive daughter Cosette, the dashing, rich young Marius and Éponine, whose parents mistreated Cosette when she was in their care. Emily Langridge plays Cosette, Paul Wilkins plays Marius and Kerrie Anne Greenland plays Éponine. Most fans gravitate to the character of Éponine, who is placed squarely in the ‘friendzone’ by Marius. “Actually, the funny thing is that especially in the rehearsal room, I get to see a lot more of A Heart Full Of Love, where Cosette and Marius finally get to really see each other for the first time, and it’s so beautiful,” Kerrie admitted. “I know I’m Éponine, but it’s really awesome what they’ve got going on!”
“I think it’s hard for Cosette because she actually has gone through a lot,” Langridge said. “We see Cosette as a child and we see Éponine as a child and their roles really swap when they’re older. I think they’re really similar. Maybe if Éponine didn’t die, then they would be friends.”
Commenting on the perceived obtuseness displayed by Marius in his interactions with Éponine, Wilkins said “I think that comes with the territory of young love and experiencing it for the first time and kind of not knowing the signs.” He related a story from his own youth: “When I was in primary school, a girl used to kick me under the table in music. She kicked me, and I thought she hated me – little did I know, months later, that she really, really fancied me!”
Greenland added that Éponine might have stood a chance “if she had a bath”.
The actors spoke of going back to the source material, since much of the material was cut down in the adaptation process. “Cosette as a character has so much description in the book and in so much detail, where in the musical, her role is scaled down quite a lot, so I really try to get as much detail as I can from the book to give the role the most amount of depth in a short time,” Langridge said. This process was also helpful for the actors in creating something that resonated with them, rather than attempting to replicate past portrayals.
Out of all the characters, Fantine, Cosette’s biological mother, probably has the most number of tragic calamities befall her. Fantine sings what is arguably the best-known song in the show, I Dreamed a Dream. Australian actress Patrice Tipoki, who has starred in productions of The Lion King, Wicked and Beauty and the Beast, plays Fantine. She has been a fan of Les Misérables since she was young. “I used to sing Master of the House when people would come to the house, I don’t know how appropriate that was for a seven-year-old girl!” she laughed.
“It took a while for me to shake other people’s versions of this song, especially in my head, because I grew up with it,” she said, on the subject of making the role her own. “It was nice to have the rehearsal process that we do to be able to find my voice and my story that I wanted to tell. And of course, that still changes every night, depending on how I’m feeling and how receptive the audience is. It’s nice to know that everyone already loves the song, so it’s starting on a good note.” Fantine’s appearance in the musical, while impactful, is relatively brief. “Every night I go ‘maybe I’ll live tonight!’ It’s never happened yet, still trying!” Tipoki joked.
Co-director James Powell explained the lasting appeal of the show, saying “The story itself is about the human condition. It’s a classic story that’s just as relevant today as it was 400 (sic) years ago. The generosity of spirit is what I think people are moved by, in the face of adversity, they come through, and I think that’s what people find very uplifting. And the music helps a bit.” Working for super-producer Cameron Mackintosh has kept Powell on his toes. “When you work for Cameron Mackintosh, you are always evolving, you don’t stay still,” Powell said.
So, why should audiences go see Les Misérables? Producer Nick Allott, who is the managing director of Cameron Mackintosh Ltd., has the answer. “This is a story that covers everything: it covers love, it covers conflict between two people, it covers the triumph of good over evil, it has battles, it has epic scale and it has fantastically strong characters, characters you can fall in love or identity with,” he enthused. “I can’t think of anyone sitting there being bored. This is a show that picks you up and carries you through in this extraordinary way.”
Les Misérables runs from 31st May to 24th July at the Esplanade Theatre. Please visit http://www.sistic.com.sg/events/mis0716 for ticket information.
Thanks for staying with us! Here’s your reward: a sneak peek of ‘One Day More’, ‘On My Own’ & ‘Bring Him Home’! You’re Welcome!