- Giving the finger to audiences everywhere: J.P. Dougherty as Thenardier in Les Miserables.
To understand the phenomenal impact of this 1987 "pop opera" of Victor Hugo's great epic novel, one must turn to that bastion of reliability, the press kit: "Seen by over forty million people . . . receipts of 1.8 billion dollars . . . fifty major awards . . . whistled by the pope . . . favored toe-tapper of the late Mother Teresa . . ."
What the press kit fails to mention is the true reason for its extraordinary success: namely, that it is pure eau-de-cologne-scented horse manure. There isn't a moment of truth here, nor one that isn't a triumph of tinseled effect and emotional calculation.
Les Mis has been marketed with the savvy reserved for McDonald's Happy Meals it even has its own Ronald McDonald in the large-eyed gamine character of Cosette and has been extolled everywhere from The New York Times to Jack and Jill's Weekly.
It all began about twenty years ago, when co-directors John Caird and Trevor Nunn tossed Dickens's Nicholas Nickleby onto the stage as an eight-hour epic with the emotional sweep of The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. Then they pulled an even more profitable coup when they took a soft-rock opera/musical in French by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg and turned it into the eighteen-karat propaganda pageant Les Miserables. Not since Humphrey Bogart sent Ingrid Bergman and Paul Henreid back to the States to fight the good fight has a work elicited such fervent devotion.
The novel itself is irrelevant. This production can wheedle emotions like a combination of Sergei Eisenstein's Potemkin and a Bugs Bunny "Bonds for Victory" cartoon. It is relentless, grand, and shameless in its quest to live up to the illustrations in the souvenir program: red banners popping out of battle smoke, an imitation Marseillaise anthem that could bestir a hibernating hippo. The action includes one of those French revolutions (not the big one) that totally baffles American audiences.
A tot is shot; curly-headed students sing noble drinking songs, then expire picturesquely on the barricade. There are two abused waifs Cosette and Eponine both longing for the same man, a hero five times larger than life, and twice as handsome, who can leap a five-octave range in a single bound. And there are those bumbling comic villains, Monsieur and Madame Thenardier, straight out of Oliver!
Reviewing the road company is like covering a traveling circus or an ice show. Basically, you just need to reassure the customers that all the exhibits still function, that they are not being cheated in chills and pathos. Every chiaroscuro effect must call attention to itself. What's essential is that the dry-ice smoke keep flowing, the turntables continue spinning, the moving waxworks apply vibrato in all the right spots, and that the ponderous mechanical barricades glance in and out on cue.
The producers have sworn that the production in Cleveland "has not been reduced or edited in any way." It comes to town with a 34-foot turntable, two barricades that weigh over 12,000 pounds, 1,000 costumes, five fog machines, 424 lighting instruments, eighteen musicians in the orchestra, and 36 cast members (who seem like thousands).
The performers themselves are paid professionals in a multimillion-dollar Classics Illustrated comic book. They enact their archetypes with granite accuracy, spraying nobility, suffering, torrid passion, mad obsession, and self-sacrifice with the timed precision of automated lawn sprinklers. The audience, in turn, responds with the same robotic loyalty, offering a de rigueur standing ovation with the fervor of grade-school children reciting The Pledge of Allegiance.
People worship this show. When I asked the weeping woman next to me if her shoes were too tight, she almost slugged me. Yet, Les Mis cannot live up to the joyous jabs of its Forbidden Broadway parody, which, when referring to its turntable mania and three-and-a-half-hour running time, proclaimed: "Try to get in to watch the people spin . . . At the end of the play, we're another year older." (Baby, ain't it the truth.)