From the projected opening curtain, inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo, author of the namesake novel that inspired Les Miserables, to its final ensemble act, the Imperial Theatre’s current revival of the fifth longest running show on Broadway presents an emotional musical masterpiece. I don’t get to many Big Broadway Shows; I have wanted to see this mainstay for over twenty years. The catalyst for my affection was a variety show medley of the Claude-Michel Schonberg composed tunes I encountered as an eighteen-year-old kid sitting in my high school’s auditorium.
If this show’s tunes are regarded as some of the best ever written for the stage, so are its lyrics, written by Herbert Kretzmer. The words are brilliant, both for their erudition and for their pared down format for audiences unfamiliar with the story. Universal themes like redemption and love play out through a plot that interweaves profound loss, unrequited love, duty, and moral ambiguity, all wrapped up in an intergenerational epic set in the French Revolution. Though I’ve never read Hugo’s source material, France’s best known novelist also deserves a lot of credit.
Going in, I wondered if the fact that the show presents some of the most well-known music in theatre-land, music I’ve adored since the 1990s, would have a detrimental impact on my experience; this music and the broad strokes of the plot were not exactly new to me. But the talented cast and the singular production values one expects on one of Broadway’s historic stages took me on a ride Sunday afternoon that was every bit as magical as I hoped it would be. For those who could give themselves over to the trip, Les Miserables provided an intensely emotional journey, one filled with tears for saps like Michael and me. But it also provided bawdy moments and more than one occasion when I wanted to leap out of my seat and cheer.
The plot and much of the music centers on Jean Valjean, a convict whose petty crime in youth condemned him to a life on the run. The pivotal role was executed exceptionally by Broadway veteran John Owen Jones; his falsetto prayer Bring Him Home well-highlights the actor’s vocal and emotional range – overall, Jones’s talent really anchors this production. Of course Valjean’s passion for his adopted daughter and his country and for doing the right thing are the driving force of the story. His relatable foe Javert, played by the lovely and talented Hayden Tee, provides the moral ambiguity that makes the work so intensely human and so powerful, at least half of it.
The other half is provided by the unrequited love of Eponine, played by Cathryn Basile, who delivers a knockout punch with her torch song On My Own, and the love story of Marius and Valjean’s adopted daughter Cosette. The at once devastating and touching love story comes to its climax in the triangle’s soaring trio A Heart Full of Love. The emotional power of the musical, so well supported by its gorgeous melodies, continually turns the screw with lyrics that guide the audience through the intricate ways in which the characters’ lives unravel and stitch themselves back up, all in service of the creation of a living portrait of a family and a country in crisis.
Personally speaking, this show came at the end of one of the best long weekends of my life – we were in New York celebrating the Central Park wedding of two of our dearest friends. The surreal food and luxurious accommodations and phenomenal company – new friends and old – that we enjoyed all weekend long, backed by the best weather New York in June can muster, added up to a vacation I’ll never forget. But the subject matter of the Revolutionary Epic, despite the production’s decadence, did provide a poignant reminder of the fact that weekends like these are not available to many. I’m grateful; I’m humbled, and I’m sure that the timeless Les Mis will continue to draw crowds, both in Times Square and off, for many years to come.
Thanks for reading.