From my first introduction to a true musical stage production, Les Miserables, in my opinion, has always been the pinnacle of greatness. Admittedly a novice, and not someone who has spent a great deal of time viewing musical theater, I will grant that my opinion should carry very little weight. But having said that, I was definitely in the Les Miz camp over the Phantom camp when it came to the Lakers/Celtics type debate (Team Jacob Vs. Team Edward for those that are too young or too sports disinclined to get the Magic/Bird comparison) that existed in America during the late eighties and early nineties.
As such, as an adult, every time Les Miz has come to Gammage in Tempe, AZ, my wife and I have made the effort to go and see it. For the twenty-fifth anniversary (and I suspect in promotion of the upcoming movie version) the show returned to Tempe for a week long engagement last week. We decided to attend.
Not only did we attend, we also made the call that my thirteen-year-old daughter was ready to see this play. She is very much interested in drama and music and is showing some signs of talent in both. Now I recognize the definite PG-13 subject matter addressed in this play and my wife and I thought long and hard about whether or not to include her. In the end, based on our previous viewings, we felt she was old enough to handle the risque scenes and language in order to experience one of the truly great stories of mercy vs. justice.
Now that the event is over, I would like to write an open letter to the director and producers of the latest touring stage version of Les Miserables that they will never read, but that will make me feel better in writing.
Dear Sirs and or Madams (How appropriate a title as we shall soon discuss)
Having just attended your interpretation of Les Miserables at Gammage Auditorium in Tempe, AZ, there are a few items I would like to bring to your attention in an effort to help you return this stage production to its former glory.
1. Using any long cylindrical prop for a visual joke regarding a man’s sex organ does not constitute wittiness at its best. And doing it repeatedly does not make it any funnier. About the fifth time a man held a wine bottle to his crotch I was simply embarrassed for you. It felt as if you had run your production past a focus group of junior high boys and then actually listened to their recommendations. I will return to this thought again a little later.
2. I have been trying to teach my teenage daughter that screaming her lines in a dramatic production does not necessarily add intensity to a scene but rather, more often than not, only adds volume. Thank you soooo much for undermining my efforts. Maybe you’ve never seen Les Miserables in person before, but the disdain some characters hold for other human beings they deem as worthless would, I believe, be better manifested by unconcerned disdain rather than in-your-face anger. There were times I felt the entire cast was just yelling at me. In case you hadn’t noticed, this entire production is done in song. It has been my experience that yelling and singing do not often mix well together.
3. Your major lead characters should be able to hold pitch during their highlighted solos. Most of your characters did fine, but specifically, Fantine was a disaster. Again, it felt as if the direction to her was given by a community theater director who was barely dipping his toes into the thespian world while he had a few minutes of free time from his lucrative, and extremely busy, gas station enterprise. The Fantine character sacrificed heartbreaking emotion for, again, yelling. Not sure I understand that. Beautiful strains of notes were left off so she could make sure the audience understood we were having an “emotional” moment. As my friend who attended on a different night than I said, “It felt like my ears were hurting,” during a song that is supposed to leave one feeling anguish for the character, not deaf.
Furthermore, she missed notes constantly. Going back to my community theater example, this would be okay if our minor star had been performing voluntarily and the audience was primed to expect an amateurish performance. Instead, everyone there had spent a good deal of money expecting to see a Broadway level performance. The actress playing Fantine did not come close in meeting that expectation.
4. Finally, I had my thirteen-year-old daughter with me. I have experienced this production before and I understand the lyrics of the songs, Lovely Ladies and Master of the House are somewhat risque and adult oriented. However, based on previous viewings, I felt the overall message of the production in contrast with the fleeting lyrics that often fly over the head of younger viewers made the exposure to my daughter acceptable. Thank you so much for proving me wrong. Since our last viewing several years ago, you added multiple simulated sex acts in a multitude of positions including the completely inappropriate and unnecessary oral position. Instead of basking in the memory of the numbers you did well (ie. A Heart Full of Love, Stars, Bring Him Home and others), I can’t keep my mind from hearkening back to the completely gratuitous antics of Lovely Ladies and the over-the-top garbage taking place at the top of the set that provided nothing to the story happening below during Master of the House. Again, I felt like I was watching a production of my favorite musical play that was being presided over by a group of infantile, giggling teenage boys.
I realize this probably matters little to you, but this work that is so clearly tied to God and redemption means something to people of faith. Its message is timeless and has inspired thousands of people, including myself, to see myself and others around me the way God would. It’s sad to me that you felt the need to debase the entire experience.