There are those who believe that Les Miz is the greatest of all musical plays, and I am not going to argue with them. “The greatest” is by definition a subjective category, but people vote by buying tickets at the box office, and by that standard Les Miz certainly measures up.
Last night I watched the 25th anniversary concert version of Les Miz, staged at the cavernous O2 arena in Greenwich, with an audience that resembled what you might see at the Super Bowl, and a company seemingly almost as large. The previous night I had watched the 10th anniversary concert (I had taped it in 1995), so I had a fine opportunity to compare the two productions.
The similarities: A boyish-looking maestro conducted the orchestra in 1995, and the same man, still looking boyish 15 years later, held the baton in the 2010 production. Lea Salonga played Eponine, the waif, in the 1995 concert, but of course Lea is no longer a waif and played Fantine this time. And Jenny Galloway played Madame Thenardier in both productions. Otherwise, the two casts were different.
Alfie Boe, an operatic tenor, played Jean Valjean in the new concert, and I preferred his performance to that of the widely acclaimed Colm Williamson. Williamson was on hand for the reunion festivities at the end, but his voice is a bit frail now. Even in his prime, though, Colm did not have the horsepower of Alfie Boe, who is still relatively unknown but not likely to remain so.
For my money, the best role in Les Miz is that of Javert, the inspector who stalks Valjean mercilessly throughout the play. The material is so good that it is hard to misplay, and both Javerts were excellent, but the new Javert, an actor named Norm Lewis, was more than that; he was brilliant. He looked like a man you wouldn’t want on your case, and he sang powerfully and threateningly, as is demanded of the character.
Fantine, as mentioned, was played in the 25th anniversary concert by Lea Salonga, a good actress with a fine voice. Her daughter Cosette was played adequately by Katie Hall, but 1995’s Judy Kuhn had a much better voice.
The weakest member of the 25th anniversary cast was Nick Jonas, who with his brothers sets teen-age girls' heart aflutter in England and the U.S. He looked the part of the adolescent Marius, but his singing was marginal and his acting was, well, I am reminded of the critic who said of some actress that she expressed the whole gamut of emotions from A to B – in Nick Jonas’s case, unbearable pain. Michael Ball, the 10th anniversary Marius, is clearly too old for the role today, but he joined in the post-concert nostalgia, along with many other performers “from days gone by.”
The important character of Thenardier was taken by comedian Matt Lucas, who tried unsuccessfully to fill the shoes of Alun Armstrong, the master of the house in the ”dream cast” of 1995.
All in all, I thought the principal characters (Valjean and Javert) were stronger in the 25th anniversary production, and the secondary characters were better in 1995. Since Valjean and Javert really carry the play, the newer concert was on balance a stronger production.
But Les Miz is a must-see, whatever the production. It is a towering creative achievement, based on one of the great novels of all time. It’s a good bet that people will still be enthralled by the music of Claude-Michel Schonberg in the 23d century, when the 200th anniversary concert of Les Miz will be shown to the world on holographic video.