Jean Valjean, Superstar

Les Misérables

a musical by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, based on the novel by Victor Hugo, music by Claude-Michel Schönberg, lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer, original French text by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel, additional material by James Fenton, direct
at the Broadway Theatre, New York City

Victor Hugo
Victor Hugo; drawing by David Levine

The Broadway Theatre, where Les Misérables opened on March 12 amid great fanfare and with a record-breaking $11 million in advance ticket sales, is situated on the Fifty-third Street corner of The Great White Way. Much of the area to its south, Times Square and the Broadway hub, is soon to be demolished by authority of the Times Square Redevelopment Corporation. This destruction, like Baron Haussmann’s revision of Paris in the mid-nineteenth century, is intended to make way for clean façades and pleasant prospects. Gone will be, among other things, the row of edifices on Forty-second Street, between Broadway and Eighth Avenue, that already look like so many rococo, Victorian, and Moderne gravestones. That leaves their population of teen-age hustlers, whores, crackheads, beggars, vagrants, and outpatients. By removing the buildings and replacing them with featureless slabs, the city imagines that the life now present in the area will simply disappear, into history or, if that is not possible, into some other jurisdiction.

The prospect of such sanitizing change inspires nostalgia. The denizens of the Times Square subculture can even now be envisioned as ghosts, and so a romantic tableau of shivering prostitutes, feral children, and destitute cripples can inspire tearful sentiment. Les Misérables presents such a tableau to the great satisfaction of its audience. It also presents an ex-convict hero, a villainous detective, a failed revolutionary uprising, and a great deal of stage machinery.

The musical version of Victor Hugo’s novel was first produced in Paris, in 1980, on a relatively modest scale. By the time of its English-language première, in London in 1985, it had swelled into an epic. It flourished in London in spite of mixed reviews, and then proceeded to sell out its eight-week US tryout in Washington, DC. The hugely successful New York opening merely confirmed its triumph; the show came equipped with a full line of merchandise that included shirts, hats, and wristwatches emblazoned with its logo of gnarled type and its totemic emblem of a tattered Parisian waif.

In spite of its Gallic origins, the show fits into a recent tradition of West End musicals, exported to Broadway over the last decade and a half, that are ambitious, gaudy, and scored to current-sounding pop music. The team of lyricist Tim Rice and composer Andrew Lloyd Webber has been responsible for many of these: Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Evita. Lloyd Webber’s Cats, sprung in improbable fashion from T.S. Eliot’s light verse, is now in its fifth year, and his Starlight Express, a light-show and roller-derby extravaganza, has just opened. All of these creations are considered to belong to the genre of rock opera. This label is rather loose: many of these shows are scarcely operatic, neither do they rock. Les Misérables may not, in fact, rock the house, but it is an opera, at least in that it is through-sung, with…

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