Les Miserables has been so successful that it has been performed continuously since 1985. The life story of the former prisoner Jean Valjean is impressively dramatic and powerful. The version in concert form currently performed in London’s Gielgud Theatre is a brilliant illustration of this: Phenomenally played and sung by an extraordinary cast, garnished with outstanding sound technology, this is an event of the century. I was never so overwhelmed after a visit to a musical.
Table of contents
- Back Story
- Les Miserables in concert
- Les Miserables – The story
- Les Miserables – The Music
- Genious combinations
- Les Miserables – The production
- The roles and their actors
This review has the following history: I suffer from something called fear of flying. But fear of flying is a euphemism. That’s what it’s called in general, I’d rather describe my form of it as flight panic. I have not set foot in an airplane for 17 years, I simply cannot. Then a Saturday in April, on which I was allowed to celebrate a round birthday. On this occasion there was a party, at the end of which The Man presented me his gift:
Tickets for Les Miserables in Concert at the Gielgud Theatre in London. The man knows how much I love Les Mis and the man also knows that there is only one Jean Valjean for me: Alfie Boe. (For the faithful readers of my blog, please note: I actually prefer Alfie Boe over Drew Sarich in this one case!)
So it happened that I actually boarded a plane on Monday, August 12th. My children always wanted me to go on holiday with them, The Man always wanted to fly somewhere with me. Alfie Boe was the only one who actually put me in the air. And as you can easily see: I survived it, even if it was mentally and physically (yes, the adrenalin) really exhausting.
And, I’ll say this in advance: It was worth it. More than that.
Les Miserables in concert
The world longest running musical has just taken a break for renovation work and will be reopening this year on December 18 with some innovations in the production. But in order not to ruin the longest run, it will in the meantime be presented in concert form at the Gielgud Theatre. “In concert“ means, therefore, not a complete stage version with props and expansive playing. There would be no room for that either, because for “in concert” versions the orchestra takes a seat on the stage. The singers sing in the front row on standing microphones, but are also amplified via headsets. There are costumes and planned entrances and exits. The term “concert version” is already very elastic. This goes from the pure concert to versions like Jesus Christ Superstar versions in Vienna, where you can’t really tell why it’s called “in concert” anymore.
At Les Miserables Staged Concert 2019 they found the sweet spot.
In the back stage, the orchestra sits elevated in front of a stage-spanning screen on which images are projected. In the middle below the orchestra, the actors can enter the stage through a tunnel. On the level above, still in front of the orchestra, the ensemble takes its place again and again. The stairs leading there are also used for this purpose.
At the beginning, the view of the stage is still obstructed by two trusses on which the spotlights are mounted. These are pulled up during the overture (as can be seen in the anniversary concert version…).
I personally appreciate the concert version very much. It is pure musical. One concentrates on the essential and I have seen so far really only successful concertante versions of musicals.
The main driving forces behind these Les Mis concerts are the two prominent cast members Jean Valjean and his opponent Javert: Alfie Boe and his Best Buddy Michael Ball. Boe’s Valejan star rose brightly into the musical sky in 2010 when he sang the same title role at the 25th anniversary concert of the show in the o2 arena. Michael Ball’s story has a much earlier point of contact with the successful musical: He belonged to the cast of the premiere, at that time still in the role of Marius Pontmercy.
What makes you speechless is the cast of the other roles, which also shows real high carats in supporting roles: For example, the Bishop of Digne is sung by none other than Simon Bowman (also on the road as Valjean…) or the small role of Bamatabois by Earl Carpenter. Carrie Hope Fletcher as Fantine also makes the heart of the musical lover jump.
I know the anniversary concert from the o2-Arena of the fine concert DVD/BlueRay and expected something similar. Excited like a child at Christmas we made our way to the sold out house and took a seat in the second row.
Les Miserables – The story
The novel by Victor Hugo is a bestseller with well over 1000 pages. I read it years ago. At this point I would also like to recommend it to you. It is truly a great story that was written down there. For the musical it was clearly compressed.
And that is something that really fascinates me: How the authors built a musical out of this monumental work that is so much shorter, but still just as monumental. I mean, how do you do that? How do you know what you can leave out, where I put the emphasis, which parts I have to change, that it works on a stage? When I think about it longer, the enthusiasm for this masterpiece only increases.
Here is a brief summary of the musical’s plot:
In 1815, after 19 years in prison, Inspector Javert released Jean Valjean from prison. The attempt to lead an honourable life after his release fails at first. Valjean then steals from the bishop of Digne who had been devoted to him. When he is caught, the same bishop lies for him, so that Valjean is not punished, and he recommends him to become a decent person for God’s sake. Then he lets him go with the stolen goods.
Eight years later Valjean has broken his parole and is the owner of a factory, mayor and benefactor under a false identity. One of his employees, Fantine, is coaxed out of her secret: she has an illegitimate child – Cosette – and this child is placed with an innkeeper against payment. As she has concealed this message, she is fired because of the lie. As a result, she is destitute, sells her possessions and finally herself. Valjean has her taken to hospital when he learns of her story. There he promises her to take care of her child before she dies.
Meanwhile Inspector Javert has identified the factory owner as Jean Valjean and wants to arrest him at Fantine’s deathbed, but Valjean can escape. He takes Cosette out of the care of the innkeepers Thenadier, who only wanted the money from Fantine and treated the child badly, and accepts her as his daughter.
Again nine years later, the story continues amidst social tensions: A group of committed students led by Enjolras wants to win more members for a revolutionary struggle against the social injustices of the time tolerated by politics.
Cosette, now an adult, falls in love with Marius, who belongs to the same group. They built a barricade in the streets of Paris. During the struggle, Inspector Javert creeps into the students as an informer, but is immediately recognized and detained. Valjean also joins the army of the citizens. He wants to keep an eye on Marius, of whom he now knows that he is in love with Cosette. In the course of the fight Valjean gets the chance to kill his eternal adversary Javert. Instead he releases him. In the final fight all the students except Marius fall. Valjean brings the unconscious man to safety through the sewers.
There he meets Javert one last time, who is influenced by Valjean’s noble mind and lets him run. Since Javert sees himself and his principles of law, justice and morality as being brought to a standstill by Valjean, he kills himself.
At the wedding of Marius and Cosette, Marius finally learns that it was Valjean who saved him from the barricades. Valjean confesses the lies of his life to the unsuspecting Cosette and Marius, he confronts the two of them with his and Cosette’s past. In a reconciling moment he explains his actions with love and care for them. Cosette is with him when Valjean dies.
The story is tragic and difficult. And long. Clearly too nested and complicated for a short replay. But it is extremely moving.
I like that the story spans a wide arc and tries to portray the whole life of a man until his death. It sets several focal points:
On the one hand it is about Valjean’s character, which is unfolded against the background of different human relationships. There is the encounter with the bishop, which touches Valjean to the depths and in him blossoms humility, love and concern for others. The care for Fantine and her child, that he accepts as his own, is a sign of this.
But also the fact that he would sacrifice himself for a nameless prisoner instead of denying himself (Who am I), draws him as a sublime soul. Through the confrontation with Inspector Javert, however, he reaches his limits.
The life story of this man is told until his death with all his love and tragedy. About Marius‘ love for Cosette, the student revolution not only adds a large portion of zeitgeist, but another self-contained dramatic storyline. An individual fate, embedded in a social context that shows the fate of an entire group.
Les Miserables – The Music
But what makes the musical a phenomenon beyond pure history is the music. It is, just like the whole story, simply monumental and massive. You can’t just duck away from it. The music comes, it rolls over you. It’s like you’re standing in the ocean and over-man-high waves rushing over you.
Already the opening of the overture shows the listener the direction of the next three hours. Already in the first booming interval with all the available brass instruments you can get.
Les Miserables has brilliant solo pieces. But the greatest thing for me are the choral scores. Claude-Michel Schönberg draws on the full and offers everything: Male choir (Chain gang), female choir (factory workers), full choir.
These pieces are extremely powerful. And so they are arranged. Brasses like trumpets and trombones give the whole piece something sublime, but also something dramatically driving. Then again, the melodies are softly sparkling with a light harp. One day more is such a sublime masterpiece and in my eyes perfect as a choir piece.
I’m the self-confessed bow fan. That is, I love it when themes from the music find each other later and thus close a circle. That often happens in good musicals, here in Les Mis all the time. I’ll give you a few examples.
At the beginning we hear the Chain Gang with Look Down. This is the beginning of the story 1815, it is the beginning of the story of Jean Valjean.
This massive theme with the booming quart at the beginning is also used as a prelude to the second storyline about the social injustices that lead to the student revolt. Both times it is sung by those who are enslaved in the situation.
The prologue closes with Valjean’s first solo: Soliloquy. There, tortured, he reflects on his situation, reasserts himself and determines a new direction for himself and his life.
I am reaching, but I fall
And the night is closing in
As I stare into the void
To the whirlpool of my sin
I’ll escape now from that world
From the world of Jean Valjean
Jean Valjean is nothing now
Another story must begin
Javert’s last solo is also called that. He is also in himself, the situation torments him too, as it presents itself to him now. He also comes clean with himself and kills himself in the last consequence.
I am reaching, but I fall
And the stars are black and cold
As I stare into the void
Of a world that cannot hold
I’ll escape now from that world
From the world of Jean Valjean
There is nowhere I can turn
There is no way to go on!
Who am I
Valjeans Who Am I is also a reflection of himself. Who is he really now? How much does the past shape him? Is he still a criminal? Has he changed or just his identity? To what extent can he deny himself? Valjean reveals himself in this song.
Before the break, the grand finale rises with the beginning of this melody: One day more. This turns into the Who am I of all those involved in the story: everyone reveals their inner self with their hopes for the next day and tunes in – merging into each other, standing next to each other, their personal musical themes: Marius and Cosette, Eponine, Enjolras, Javert and even the Thenadiers tell what makes them special, even the next day: Who am I becomes Who are we? Valjean’s initially individual destiny is enveloped and put in relation to its surroundings.
Come to me
Fantine lies dying in the hospital and fantasizes that she sees her daughter and wants to put her to bed. Valjean remains reassuring and reconciling at her side in these last minutes.
When Valejan dies at the end of the play, Fantine appears as an angel, as a fantasy and also sings that melody. Again it is about reconciliation with oneself and one’s own life.
My God, it is so beautiful how these two so similar souls support each other in their last hours!
Do you hear the people sing/ Finale
Do you hear the people sing is the perfect anthem of the oppressed and is still popular with demonstrators today.
It is the music of a people who will not be slaves again
The point is to stand up for oneself and others, to pursue a higher goal than one’s own well-being and to fight for it.
At the end of the finale, everyone reappears, including the deceased characters. The song of the people draws the bow from the revolution further beyond the actual life:
this is the music of the people who are climbing to the light
This is also about the the wretched of the Earth, about the downtrodden. During their lives, they are concerned about a better life,
beyond the barricade is there a world you long to see
at the end of that life then to eternal joy:
even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise
So I could go on for hours to make all the wonderful complexity of the musical visible. But that would lead too far and apart from that this work has already been taken apart many times scientifically.
For me, the musical is a masterpiece and in this complexity and power it is more comparable to an opera. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t mind.
Les Miserables – The production
If the dear reader knows the concert for the 25th anniversary of the show (of which there is an excellent DVD!), then he already has a rough idea how the Staged Concerts are staged.
What I particularly liked there now is the fact that ensemble members who have a “break” remain seated on stage. I found that quite enchanting with Earl Carpenter. He plays the blasé Bamatabois, the suitor, because of whom Fantine gets into trouble. After this episode he sits down with the rest of the ensemble in his stiff, noble posture and sings along in the ensemble. The Master of the House is particularly fun. There he “escalates” in a real way, even moving his walking stick rhythmically. Very loving detail, that he doesn’t fall out of the role.
Mainly the actors sing directed to the audience, there is hardly any interaction between them: Only, for example, when Valjean lets Javert walk or drags Marius out of the channels, this is also solved in an acting way. Nevertheless, an intensive experience of the story is possible. The gestures and facial expressions, the posture and last but not least the great variations in the voices let the viewer dive into the world of misery.
If these two large trusses with the spotlights block the view of the stage at the beginning, it becomes clear that the light installation will be enormous. And so it was. Innumerable spots supported the drama at all times, sometimes also giving a line within the play that one could orient oneself by: Thus a glistening white beam of light was always directed at the person who had just died. This touches deeply on each individual, but especially when the whole group of students stands under the spotlight and Marius almost breaks up over their death.
The lighting of the various locations is very intense: The shimmering green, disgusting channels, the shabby Thenardiers‘ dive, and of course the red fire inferno during the fight on the barricades. Hats off to this masterly work of the lighting designer!
Everything about this production is massive, and so far we’ve had excellent acting, excellent musicians and singers, excellent light and stage. The power and precision of the sound technology presses you into the seat. This already begins with the striking first two notes in the overture of Les Miserables. Sounds like fanfares sound crystal clear through the small theatre, all instruments are so cleanly tuned and mixed that all remain recognizable.
Orchestra and singing are perfectly tuned, so that the orchestra does not cover the singing, but nevertheless provides a powerful atmosphere. Throughout the entire first act, the sound technique maintains this high level, finely tuned solos and duets, in which even soft nuances of the singing are very clearly conveyed. The fast choir pieces like At the End of the Day are also handled excellently, all words are to be understood cleanly, which of course is also due to the excellent performance of the choir. At the end of the first act of One Day More this increases again, with the interlocking solos and choral passages together with a tutti of the orchestra. Nothing is overdriven here, no weaknesses in the sound quality.
If the overture was already massive, the opening of the second act even surpasses this. Conductor Alfonso Casado Trigo enters the stage far back, walks onto the square, and faster, much faster than expected the orchestra starts, but how! It is not simply volume that turns up the sound here, but the intensity of the spatial sound, the brass, the strings, everything. Once again it pushes me into my seat, and since Les Mis does not consist of individual songs, but always combines several of them seamlessly, the sound never lets go.
When the firefight breaks out on the barricades, the percussion is not simply used to recreate the gunfire and the volleys of gunfire, but audio samples are used. Not only do the salvos seem to come from behind, you can also hear the projectiles whistle through the hall, the ricochets rush through the width. Here again the audio crew did a great job in terms of surround sound. And then they ignite the acoustic cannons and the seats vibrate, again on impact. At this point, the musical reaches a true climax with the volume of the rifle shots and the cannon thunder, which nevertheless leave room for the orchestra.
Sound design and audio technology alone don’t make a musical, but as we have seen in the past, this craft can ruin an otherwise outstanding work or make it even more excellent, as here in Les Miserables. I am deeply impressed by this experience. Hats off to the crew under sound designer Mick Potter!
The roles and their actors
Jean Valjean: Alfie Boe
I already mentioned it at the beginning: For me there is no better line-up for Jean Valjean’s game than Alfie Boe.
Decisive for this point of view are of course the vocal qualities. Alfie Boe comes from the opera, his voice is rather classically trained (although he can really sing anything…). But it makes him vocally something special in the big pool of musical performers. I like to admit it, I don’t know much about opera, but I know that opera performers usually don’t sing amplified. They have a completely different volume than musical performers. I don’t want to judge that. It’s not that opera singers are in principle the better singers, oh no. But for this monumental work, which I would have previously placed more in the direction of opera, this is exactly the little bit of peculiarity that it needs to appear absolutely brilliant. And Alfie Boe’s voice is by nature so pure, warm and full. For me, this is a perfect match for Jean Valejan. The high, long-lasting final tones are never final tones for me, but their power and beauty promise much more. I can’t describe it to you exactly. It is as if the ears were filled to the top with warmth.
In addition to that, Boe also exactly describes the character of Valjean for me: Valjean is imprisoned for 19 years at the beginning because of the theft of a loaf of bread and various escape attempts. He once stole the bread to save his nephew from starvation. The years in prison were hard, but they did not break him. His incredible power and strength is mentioned several times. But for me it is about more than physical strength, it is also about mental strength. You need that to survive 19 years in a prison camp.
The encounter with the bishop makes him feel deep humility and develop a strong faith. He lets his sense of responsibility mature extremely and Valjean carries that and his mental strength through his story. It feels as if he is carrying out a mission with the highest loyalty. And he actually does that, too:
You must use this precious silverBishop of Digne to Valjean
To become an honest man
The already good Valjean gets a job here, which he systematically, reflectively, uncompromisingly and seriously implements full of gratitude.
Good, modest, humble. Loving and caring, serious and pondering, dignified. But also always elegant and socially smooth.
That is Valjean in my perception. All too often I have already seen a lot of aggressiveness in the portrayal of a Valjean. It’s only present on Boe where he actually needs it (to Javert: If I had to kill you know I’d do what must be done). But she is not a basic part of his character. And that’s exactly what I like about Boe’s way of drawing this character.
Alfie Boe is Jean Valjean for me. He brings so much strength and seriousness to the role that shines love and care for his own. It’s like an aura that surrounds Alfie Boe on stage.
Inspector Javert: Michael Ball
This cast surprised me in that I would never have associated the more extroverted, fun-loving Michael Ball with this role. The fact that he used to play Marius doesn’t make it any better.
Javert’s a cop through and through. His whole life, his principles, everything is straightforward and he follows them faithfully. I like Javert. He is not the principle of evil. He does his job and he does it – just like Valjean does his own – unconditionally well. He does what has to be done and he stands behind it with every fibre of his body. Just as Valjean is deeply rooted in faith in God, has promised himself to him, Javert has promised himself law, justice and morality. He lives that. In this respect, both characters are very similar in motivation. Nobody does anything wrong and that makes the whole story dramatic.
Ball’s acting interpretation didn’t quite pick me up. In the meantime he has built his Javert on his personal vindictiveness towards Valjean. That is not my interpretation. I don’t think Javert has anything against Valejan as a person. Rather than having to put a stop to his activities, because otherwise his order is simply no longer right.
Stars describes that very well:
And so it must be
For so it is written
On the doorway to paradise
That those who falter and those who fall
Must pay the price.
For Javert this is a law, a commandment. And he is destined to carry it out. He swears at this point that he will do everything to find Valjean. However, he does not take his motivation from hating Valjean, but from the idea that he is not enough if he does not put a stop to it.
That it is not about the person, but rather about the principle of life, also becomes clear in the suicide.
That is my interpretation, but of course I make no claim to objective correctness. In this respect, Michael Ball can be much more personal. However, it does not meet my idea of the inspector. Altogether he plays it rather restlessly and doggedly. He rather makes an eternally dissatisfied impression. Usually he sings through tense lips with his mouth only slightly open. His suicide, on the other hand, is grandiose precisely because of this. There one feels and hears the agony, there he reaches his limits in his doggedness. It is either Valjean or Javert. That was great and absolutely comprehensible.
All in all, it was an exciting interpretation for me, which did not always pick me up in acting, but in singing completely.
Enjolras: Bradley Jaden
Man, man, man! What a man! Enjolras is the leader of the revolutionary student group and yes: Bradley Jaden is the epitome of such a front man.
He brings so much charisma to the stage without even singing a note: Smart and handsome and passionate, he functions as a role model, his intelligence and his uncompromising nature make him an alpha animal in the group. He is so straightforward. So firm. And authoritarian. All this can also be found in his voice. There, the passion burns in full loud tones. It’s madness how much elegance this voice can bring up, even though it fills the audience so powerfully. An extraordinary voice rises to call for rebellion. I was shocked. In the most positive sense.
Jesus, Bradley Jaden has done something…
Fantine: Carrie Hope Fletcher
Carrie Hope Fletcher makes her Fantine so, so, so pitiful. A simple, honest, formerly perhaps a little naive poor woman who had not had much but bad luck. Who is driven by love for her daughter, who has to let herself fall all the way to the bottom.
I think that you have to fall similarly deep into this role in order to do her justice. I dreamed a dream is so well known that it would be okay to just sing it down like that. Carrie Hope Fletcher makes something special out of it, gives the song a special twist. She doesn’t put so much anger or annoyance about the suffering into it, she stays calm even in the angry places. On the other hand, pure melancholy shines through every second. Longing. Somehow I had the feeling that she also accepts her fate, even if it is so cruel, although she once had another one in front of her eyes. There was little rage. Rather a cruel realization of her situation.
I have seen many parallels to Valjean, and that makes it round and right for me. Both can be angry of course, but basically they don’t have the idea to change their fate themselves. Of course, both of them occasionally lean against it, but in principle they are both very humble, accepting.
I really liked Fletcher’s portrayal. She wasn’t as drastic as Anne Hathaway in the movie. She also didn’t take as much room as Lea Salonga in the anniversary concert (to name only the two most famous). She was the simple Fantine, pitiful and plagued by fate.
Eponine: Shan Ako
That’s great! She understood it fantastically to give her Eponine a feeling of alone. Someone who doesn’t really fit in anywhere. Neither to her repulsive family nor to the educated students. She is alone with herself and her dream of Marius.
I am not a native speaker. But I know the lyrics by heart, I know what they mean. And yet it sometimes happens that through the interpretation of a singer you become aware of another approach. That was like that here: On my own she interprets it great because she vocally draws a very clear line between the part of the song that describes how her world glitters in thoughts of Marius and the reality that always catches up with her. That’s not just the text that takes you in. That’s where all the emotionality of the song hits you.
A little Fall of Rain was just as much a little masterpiece. How she dying enjoying her own last happiness without struggling with fate. How her voice breaks. You have to cry, don’t you?
Thenardier and Madame Thenardier: Matt Lucas and Katy Secombe
Absolutely fabulous. Both hit the bull’s eye. In the book Thenardier is an exclusively evil man, only looking for profit, for whom he really does everything. Disgusting and repulsive. But he is also a master of the art of living and that is the focus of the musical. Master of the house relaxes the drama comedically from the kind of music and the tongue-in-cheek lyrics. Both make it perfect. They are also spontaneous. Jokes, which are not in the libretto, come over their lips in a relaxed flaccid way. The interplay is a true celebration of hidden and superficial vulgarities, cabbage, mockery.
Lucas knows how to use his stage. The other viewers probably saw the same thing: the audience was raving!
Katy Secombe is so wonderfully mean, dirty and gloating. Her whole behaviour, her gestures, her attitude is very original and vulgar. Really deafening applause for two brilliant actors.
Marius: Rob Houchen
Finally a Marius, whom I have taken the love at first sight to 100%. It was enchanting to see how much Cosette captured him and how she enchanted him. The student gets very nervous and gives physical and vocal expression to what he tells Enjolras and the others:
Had you been there today
You might also have known
How the world may be changed
In just one burst of light!
And what was right seems wrong
And what was wrong seems right!
In general, he is more emotional with Marius than others I have seen. And it meets my taste exactly. Whatever shines through is his uncertainty. He is clearly one of the more immature of the students and it seems as if he cannot grasp the implications of the situations because the situations emotionally overrun him. I found the character so holistic and roundly interpreted.
His vocal ability is enormous. Especially in the depth I liked him exceptionally well. In the duet with his Cosette Lily Kerhoas you could feel the honest emotions flowing.
Cosette: Lily Kerhoas
Lily Kerhoas had a difficult task to master with me: I don’t like the figure of Cosette, it’s very contourless. I don’t know how Lily Kerhoas did it, but that was the first time Cosette didn’t get on my nerves. She was present, but very withdrawn. Somehow, for the first time, I felt something like the tragedy of the character: a loneliness that accompanies her all her life and that Valjean cannot eliminate either. Only Marius succeeds.
Perhaps that was the magic thing about this production at all: that the people seemed to be very closely connected. Not only through the plot and their fate, but also again and again through their position, their attitude, their motivation. Innumerable points of contact have opened up to me more than in other productions, and this mainly through the character drawing that the performers have undertaken through the interpretation of their songs:
Cosette and Eponine both seemed very lonely, detached from their social bond.
The more classical way of singing, the volume of the voices, connected Enjolras and Valjean in a way that I have never connected them before. Both uncompromising was so tangible. Enjolras explosive and burning with passion, Valjean quiet and serious with care and love.
The third kind of uncompromisingness can be found in Javert: there she is rather dutiful and cold. But like Enjolras, Javert is driven by the idea of justice.
Thus numerous parallels can be drawn, all these things fit into each other. It becomes clear that the motivations for action do not have to be so different. But what emerges from similar motifs, how they influence the actors in different ways and ultimately lead to similar dramas, is simply breathtaking.
I’m really overwhelmed. It’s overwhelming how much further this production has opened the horizon for me. Grandiose voices and impressive acting, well thought-out character interpretations, light and sound technology: Les Miserables – The Staged Concert was a unique experience.
Photos and translation review: Dr. Joachim Schlosser Photography