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Live from Broadway: Les Miserables returns with Ramin Karimloo

Ramin Karimloo in Les Miserables. Photo: Matthew Murphy
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When Les Miserables celebrated its 25th London anniversary in 2010, it marked the occasion by becoming the first musical to ever receive three separate, but simultaneous, London stagings. As well as the all-star concert staging at the O2 Arena that (like the 10th anniversary concert at the Royal Albert Hall) was filmed and issued as a DVD), an entirely overhauled U.K touring version returned to the show’s original London home at the Barbican Theatre for a short season, while the original continued to play at the Queen’s. The latter, of course, is still playing there in its 29th year and the longest running musical in West End history.

The week before last it also returned to Broadway, where its original production ran for over 16 years, chalking out a run of 6,680 performances and now holding the record for the 5th longest running musical in Broadway history, (It was recently knocked down from the 4th position by the still-running The Lion King overtaking it).

But this wasn’t even its first Broadway revival: just three years after it had last played there, Cameron Mackintosh took it back to New York’s Broadhurst Theatre in a 2006 re-staging of the original production, which used the sets and costumes from a national US tour that had recently shut. That production, however,  ran for just over a year; either it was too soon, or not different enough, to find a new audience.

So it is interesting that this time around Mackintosh has brought in the U.K touring version to grace Broadway. The show’s famous logo remains the same, but (almost) everything else about the show looks different now, apart from the costumes: the sole creative person still on the billing from the original production is costume designer Andreane Neofitou.

Original co-directors Trevor Nunn and John Caird are relegated to a credit for adaptation only, while the co-directors of record now are Laurence Connor and James Powell (both of them former Les Mis cast members turned resident directors, then associate directors, to London and international companies of the show). The designer, likewise, is now Matt Kinley, who has previously been an associate to original designer John Napier, including working on the 2003 Broadway revival).

There is, in other words, a strong connection — some might say debt — to the original version, and there are certainly staging moments that instantly recall the original, such as the triumphal flag waving of the Act One finale of ‘One Day More’, amongst others). But there are also other key changes, in every sense: as entirely re-orchestrated (by Christopher Jahnke, Stephen Metcalfe and Stephen Brooker), the songs at times feel like X-Factor setpieces, with audience-pleasing buttons built in that cause eruptions after each number. That may, of course, also be thanks to their familiarity.

There’s also something familiar to the star casting here of Ramin Karimloo as Valjean: he’s previously played the role in the show’s original West End incarnation in 2011. But it is a show that has also been a big part of Karimloo’s life: he had made his West End debut in the show in 2002, understudying Marius and Enjolras; in 2004 he returned to the show to take over as Enjolras, which he also reprised in the 2010 version at the O2.  And seeing him play the part on Broadway last week, it was wonderful to see the arrival of a brand-new Broadway star. But he’s certainly earned it – he’s no overnight sensation, but a performer who has worked long and hard to get to where he is now.

And so, of course, has this show. It may be refreshing to see it refreshed, as it is now, on Broadway; but none of this would have been possible without the legacy and inspiration of the original production. I can entirely appreciate Mackintosh’s impulse to want to give the show a new look and feel after so many years – we don’t, after all, see the same Hamlet endlessly reprised, but different directors and actors are given opportunity to reinvent it as they see fit.

It doesn’t suit the economics of long-running West End or Broadway shows to let them undergo similar reinventions all the time – and nor should they. Some of these productions are classics for a reason, and rightly beloved for it. But just as opera houses routinely retire old productions eventually, perhaps Mackintosh has shown that it is possible to retire an old production, too, and put a new one in place. But I do wish that more credit had been given to the original creative team. (There is absolutely no mention of original creative co-producers the Royal Shaakespeare Company anywhere in the Playbill, who were surely a large part of the show’s original validation and success).

For more on US theatre, see Howard Sherman’s American Stages column

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