Tuesday, October 02, 2007

In praise of "The Glums"

Les Miserables is the longest running Musical in London's West End. It opened in 1985 at the Barbican (based on a simpler 1982 Paris Production) and was severely panned by the critics. However, the audiences loved it and after trimming the show a bit so that it wasn't overly long, it transferred to the Palace on Shaftesbury Avenue. A few years ago, it moved down the road to the slightly smaller Queens theatre and it is still there, having celebrated over 9000 performances!

I first saw it in 1988 when I worked in technical marketing. I was asked at very short notice to entertain a couple of Danes from a Telco, picking up the bar bill beforehand and the Restaurant meal afterwards. I knew them slightly so it wasn't an ordeal and the tickets were biked down to us in Maidenhead from one of those last minute ticket agencies that charge such silly prices that only the Corporates can afford them.

We were sat centre stalls in row C, an excellent place to see the show. Not too close that you are having to look up, close enough that the stage fills your field of vision and you can see the detail of facial expressions.

Les Mis the Musical is based on the Victor Hugo novel of the same name and charts the post-prison life of a convict (prisoner 24601) who was arrested for stealing a loaf of bread, serving nineteen years overall as he tried to escape. In it there are barricades, gunfights, deaths and sorrow, counterbalanced with love and a couple of comic characters. It is wrongly assumed to be about the French Revolution although it does include a student insurrection.

The show is entirely "sung through", i.e. there is no spoken dialogue at all, every line is set to a melody. The main set consists of a large revolving stage surrounded by French looking 18th Century tenements and two large piles of what look like junk either side. These junk heaps move onstage, mesh together and transform into the barricade at a key point in the show. The revolve is frequently on the move as it is acted upon and the cast make it look easy to step onto and off (it isn't.)

The show is lit by David Hersey and has many of his trademark lighting styles, especially light curtains (narrow vertical or rear angled tight beams in a continuous row). Of particular note is the follow-spotting- it uses low voltage narrow beam projectors for very tight subtle following with a very soft edge to the beam, such that it is hardly obvious that the actors are being followed at all. It is a visual device that when an actor dies, they are briefly bathed in a brilliant white light, readily achievable by the follow-spots that are otherwise running at about one third intensity the rest of the time.

I got to see Les Mis again circa 1990, buying a Gallery tout ticket for a mid-week Matinee when I happened to be passing. (£25, face value £6.50).You feel very remote up there (particularly in the Palace which is vertigo inducing) but I was able to appreciate the gobo effects projected onto the revolve, particularly the sewer and river scenes.

Since then, we have seen it in London again, New York (when we went there via Concorde) and in Manchester (another Palace). In Manchester, the stage is so wide there that the Barricade looked less substantial. A joke was made of it on the UK Soap Coronation Street when two of the actors supposedly went to see it and they kept pronouncing it in all seriousness as "Lez Mizzer-a-Baalls"

A couple of years back, my Mum and I visited the touring set onstage at the Bradford Alhambra. She remembers it better than me and recalls being surprised when a little concealed door opened on the barricade and the driver got out! She also recalls us being let loose onto the revolve, it being set at full speed and then being encouraged to sing whilst we stepped off and back on again. It is hard to do it with full concentration so they must hold training courses for the actors. (They really are the "turns" in that show).

We have the various CDs, DVDs and making of stuff. (Stage by Stage is particularly good, only on VHS though).

Anyway, seeing it in the MAOS show has whetted our appetites and we have booked to see it again in London. The Orchestra is smaller in the Queens show, partially because the Pit is smaller, partially to save money. (The Musicians Union were not happy at the time). I imagine there is another omission- the radio controlled rectangular truck used as the Cafe in the Palace staging that occasionally had a mind of its own- some bricks at the downstage edge were actually girders preventing the truck ending up in the Pit. It was omitted in other stagings as it was troublesome and I imagine it was restaged when it moved.

It isn't the most hi-tech musical and doesn't have the best songs but it remains my favourite for its theatricality, staging, flow and level of emotional involvement. I still get a tear in my eye when little Cosette sweeps the floor and yearns for a Castle in a Cloud.


Ian Appleby said...

The only musical I have ever seen in the theatre was an amateur production of "A Chorus Line". My one singular sensation was that I would do anything, anything, to avoid enduring a musical ever again. I don't like the artifice, I don't like the forced rhymes (in this context, anyway). ACL doesn't even give you any big, spectacular Busby Berkeley rountines.

So you've got a lot to do, in my case, to get my interest in a post about musicals. But your description of the technical aspects of stagecraft and lighting does just that.

Shades said...

Les Miz is an Opera in all but name, a play set to music.

I don't like true Opera and have never gone to see it. I would probably yawn at Glynebourne or the ROH. I've seen top class Ballet though, and been enchanted by it.

jmb said...

I have never seen this in the theatre but have seen a Les Miserables in Concert performance with orchestra of the best of the songs sung by the best singers on PBS TV.
I never figured out how they could make a musical that worked out of that novel but they obviously did since it's still going strong. You must have shelled out a small fortune on tickets for it this many times.

Shades said...

Entertainment doesn't come cheap- unless you make your own.

Ian Appleby said...

That's an interesting question - at what point does a musical become operetta, and is opera just a snobbish title for a musical with pretensions? I'm not drawn to opera, either, and I am generally suspicious of G&S - mostly due to the sort of people who tend to be very enthusiastic about them - so I can safely say none of it is my specialist subject, but is it really just a matter of perceived populism?