As a second-grader in 1989, I could sing every word in the musical Les Misérables. I learned the words “bastard” and “shit” from “Master of the House,” and “Lovely Ladies” taught me about prostitution. Cosette, of course, was my dream girl.
All of this, however, was absorbed through listening to the original cast recording cassette tapes that my parents brought home from their night at the theatre. Growing up in Manhattan, my elementary school was literally on Broadway, but taking the kids to Les Miz was way out of the budget. We did see Cats, but none of the songs stuck with me like “Do You Hear the People Sing?” or “At the End of the Day.” When we moved south, my mother promised that, someday, she’d take me.
By fifth grade I’d gotten a book of transcriptions to the play’s songs, learning many of the numbers for classical guitar. In middle school, a traveling production came to Charleston, and my parents made plans to go with friends. Again I was told, someday.
A few years ago, Les Miz was retired on Broadway. By high school it wasn’t high on my priority list anyway, so it was a disappointing but minor blip on my radar.
For my 25th birthday last fall, my mother offered to take me anywhere in the country for a weekend, to catch up and spend time with each other. I had just noticed that Les Miz was coming back to the Broadhurst Theatre, slightly off-Broadway on 44th. It wasn’t even a debate.
Our tickets were for the Saturday matinee, the smack-in-the-middle peak of our bustling, touristy three days in the Big Apple. We took our balcony seats in the cramped Broadhurst, a theatre with no bad views but with rows stacked one on top of the other. When the curtain dropped on Jean Valjean’s chain-gang, my comfort no longer mattered — I was enthralled.
The strongest moments in the play were group ensemble numbers — a booming “Look down/look down/have mercy if you can/Look down/look down/upon your fellow man” — was every bit as strong as my remembrance of the original recordings. We were in a matinee, albeit, but Valjean, played by Alexander Gemignani, sounded weak in his first set of solo numbers. His enthusiasm strengthened as the play continued, but the characters played by children were ultimately the most convincing. The slum boy who joins the revolution, leaping over the barricades to collect bullets before being shot, gave some of the strongest vocal performances of the day.
Inspector Javert (Norm Lewis) gave a powerful, unrelenting delivery of the black-and-white protector of the law who chases Valjean throughout the story. Innkeeper Thénardier and his wife provided comic relief throughout, from the oom-pah “Master of the House” to stealing silver at Cosette’s wedding.
The newest incarnation of Les Miz utilizes a rotating stage, allowing a destitute Valjean to be swept away into the sewer, or both sides of the barricades to be made visible after a bloody battle. This addition contributes to the telling of the story, but effects like an unnecessarily loud explosion blasting repeatedly on the balcony during the battle seemed hokey and obnoxious. When the play ended, we were quickly herded out by security, allowing a quick turnaround for the next performance.
Without 25 years of build-up, the small disappointments in the new Les Miz may have seemed even more significant. The triple-digit admission fee is a bit steep, especially to a former child-connoisseur captiously comparing every inflection to the original cast recordings.
Criticisms aside, seeing Les Miz in New York after a two decade wait was a definitive moment, and a necessity in my life story. From my perspective, that Saturday afternoon is the only time Les Misérables has ever been performed. “There’s always magic/ in the air/on Broadway.”