Encore Theatre to present 'Les Miserables' on the heels of the film adaptation's success
“Les Miserables,” the long-running Broadway musical hit that premiered in New York in 1987 (and didn’t close until 2003), is enjoying a renaissance in a big way recently, thanks to last year’s celebrated, Oscar-nominated film adaptation, and the show’s rights finally becoming widely available to regional theaters.
In fact, local theatergoers will have opportunities to see three different “Les Miserables” productions in the coming year: one at Dexter’s Encore Theatre; one via Ann Arbor Civic Theatre; and one presented by U-M’s department of musical theater.
First up, though, is Encore, and co-founder Dan Cooney is taking a month’s leave from the Broadway production of “Mamma Mia” (he plays Bill Austin) to direct “Les Miserables.”“When we were first opening that space, (‘Les Miserables’ was) dancing around in my mind because I have so much history with the show,” said Cooney. “I was 21 when I was part of the first national tour, and then later, I joined the Broadway company, and I’ll be auditioning soon for the revival, to play Valjean. It just continues on and on, and I absolutely love the show. So when we were building Encore, with this idea of presenting Broadway shows unplugged, I kept thinking, ‘When “Les Mis” becomes available, we’ve got to find a way to do it.’”
The Tony Award-winning show—inspired by Victor Hugo’s epic novel of the same name, with music by Claude-Michel Schonberg, French lyrics by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel, and an English libretto by Herbert Kretzmer—began life as a 1980 French language concept album.
Three years after its short-lived premiere in Paris, the album caught the ear of British producer Cameron Mackintosh, who worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company to put together a team that would adapt the material into a stage musical for British audiences. The curtain first rose on “Les Mis” in England in 1985.
The story, set in early 19th century France, focuses primarily on Jean Valjean, who’s violates his parole after serving 19 years in prison for stealing bread for his starving sister’s daughter. Police inspector Javert tracks Valjean relentlessly, while Valjean struggles to make a new life for himself, getting swept up in a political revolt in the process.
The Broadway production of “Les Mis” became one of the longest-running shows in history (running for 16 years), though on paper, one might not have guessed that the show would strike a chord with so many people.
“I think part of its appeal is the central message of, ‘I just want to be the best I can be while here in this form,’” said Cooney. “And the fight against all that the world exposes us to while still trying to be a good, kind person. Valjean’s journey speaks to that.”
With a three hours-plus running time, generally, “Les Mis” presents theater artists with a ton of material to prepare, and it presents a director, specifically, with a lot of choices - especially when trying to contain this epic, big show into a small blackbox space.
Cooney had a vision inspired by “Les Mis”’ original production, but “when I tried it with the actors, it didn’t work,” said Cooney. “So we unplugged for a while, and we’re now doing a more Brechtian thing. And now, it’s all suddenly coming through in a simple, authentic, intimate way. My eyes are filled with tears every 8 minutes.”
Cooney noted that while Encore auditions often draw just a handful of performers, "Les Mis" attracted more than 80 people to try out, and the final cast list includes U-M professor (and star of Encore's "Fiddler on the Roof" last year) Stephen West as Javert, Utah Shakespeare Festival star J. Michael Bailey as Valjean, a few U-M musical theater students, and performers drawn from the community.
And while Cooney believes Tim Burton’s bloody film adaptation of “Sweeney Todd” may have kept audiences away from Encore’s critically acclaimed production of the Sondheim musical, he thinks the film version of “Les Mis” will likely help sell tickets, since it seemed to introduce the show's ear-catching melodies to a broader audience.
“There’s brilliant branding and marketing behind the show,” said Cooney. “It’s incredible how they’ve kept it alive. It’s like Madonna, where it’s not just about her anymore. (‘Les Mis’) isn’t just a show anymore. It’s come to be about so many other things.”