Monday, February 9, 2009

Les Mis

Les Miserables is an anomaly of theatre. With over 20 years under its belt, it's the longest-running production in London. It's an unweildy beast of three hours, with an ensemble of 20 or 30 people, and massive production values. Just think of the chair Valjean breaks after Fantine's death. They would need one chair for every production, of which there are five or six a week. Multiply that by 56 or so, and multiply that by 20 (whatever the number is); that's a lot of money invested in just a chair. Think too of the dry cleaning bills for all the costumes, for whatever food they need onstage, and all the actors' salaries.

This is just to give some background to what is a very accomplished production that I watched on Saturday. The technical details--rotating floor, two huge setpieces that combine to form a scaffolding-set that later turns over to become the barricades--were dazzling, the performers all great (Eponine and Javert were my favorites), and the sleight of hand to keep it all moving without anyone noticing was flawless. It was all very impressive, and I am glad I went.

All the same, I thought the spectacle overwhelmed the story and the characters (which might not be all that deep to begin with; I haven't decided). This would make an amazing movie, and it's surprising that 20 years on there still has not been one made, but the elaborateness of it all on stage ends up feeling like less than the sum of its parts.

Also, whatever Victor Hugo's politics, the production is incredibly conservative. Its state of permanent existence puts the lie any talk of revolution, and thatand the tight choreography effectively choke off any sense of spontaneity. I almost hesitate to call it theatre, in that theatre is supposed to be an ephemeral event; part of the package--in addition to the details a particular night's show being one-of-a-kind, which is inherent and unshakeable-- is that eventually a show will close and will be gone forever. Les Mis is not like that at all. It's been here, and will seemingly always be here, for anyone who wants to see it or see it again. Immortality, whether in production or in real life, effectively robs all sense of urgency and weight.

I really did admire it, though, honest.

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