The never-ending misery of Les Misérables

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ABOVE: The ensemble performs “One Day More” from the touring production of Les Misérables running at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre through July 23 as part of the BroadwaySF season. BELOW: Christine Heesun Hwang is an excellent Éponine. Photos byMatthew Murphy & Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

When the “new-and-improved” version of Les Misérables came through San Francisco 11 years ago in celebration of the never-ending musical’s 25th anniversary, the big news was that this thoroughly re-staged version had banished the famous turntable that kept the epic’s action spinning and, most famously, the barricade barricading. That version of the tour is back at the Orpheum Theatre as part of the BroadwaySF season, and everything I said about that production then (read my review here) still stands. Happily, the highly annoying projections have been somewhat minimized, although the lighting in general seems so dim it’s like they’re trying to disguise any wear and tear on what is undoubtedly a worn and torn touring production. The version we saw in 2012 felt so much like a video game it was surprising the Playbill didn’t come with a joystick to help guide Jean Valjean through the sewers of Paris. This one feels slightly less so, but the projections are so anodyne they may as well not even be there.

I first saw Les Misérables in London in the fall of 1986. I had fallen in love with the two-cassette cast album, and from my seat in the Palace Theatre way (waaaaayyy) up in what the British call the “angels” seats (because you’re so close to heaven), the show I saw left me cold. I was at such a high altitude that I could see what was happening in front of and behind the barricade and could watch costume changes (Look! Fantine is changing her wig!) and other stage business that was best left unseen. A few months later, I splurged for an orchestra seat and liked the show better but still not as much as I liked simply listening to the score. Then, in 1989, I saw the touring production that spent many months at San Francisco’s Curran Theatre. I was in the second row, and it was Easter Sunday. It was like seeing an entirely different show. I loved it and then proceeded to see it at least five more times across the next two decades.

The tour I saw in 2012 and the current tour have convinced me that my time with Les Miz has come to an end. I’m back to feeling like I’m in the angels seeing something that is, essentially, empty spectacle that no amount of flash and volume can mask. The actors don’t act so much as indicate, and every song, from “I Dreamed a Dream” to “On My Own” to “Bring Him Home” is sung so forcefully and with the expectation of blowing the audience’s collective mind that there’s no room for the song to actually live and breathe. It’s like Broadway’s greatest hits of the ’80s as performed on – take your pick – “American Idol,” “The Voice” or “America’s Got Talent.” The acting makes the show feel even more like an opera because it’s all show-offy singing and cardboard characters.

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Producer Cameron Mackintosh keeps the Misérables machine running, even if it’s probably best to let it rest so that fans can actually start to miss it before it comes back yet again. The show’s press release claims the 1985 musical has been seen by more than 130 million people worldwide in 53 countries and 22 languages. The original Broadway production ran for 16 years and there have already been two revivals: in 2006, only three years after the original closed, and in 2014.

Mackintosh also likes to celebrate the show’s anniversaries with lavish concerts that spawn TV specials and albums. He did that for the 10th and the 25th, and while the London production was temporarily moved out of its theater to make way for renovations, Mackintosh kept the show going in a concert version that kept getting extended (and was eventually televised). For these concerts, multiple old cast members show up, as do choirs and every stringed instrument in England. It’s somewhat ironic that as the touring show gets smaller, the concert productions just get insanely huge. Perhaps he’ll broadcast from space for the upcoming 40th anniversary. Or maybe craft an entirely, cost-saving AI company. Seriously, the Les Miz holographic experience can’t be far away.

It’s also ironic that the musical misery that pours forth from the show makes audiences so happy. For three hours, the audience applauds its way through the abuse of sex workers, abuse of children, murder of children, abuse of prisoners, corrupt policing, suicide, theft, psychotic vengeance, poverty, confusing (ultimately deadly) political ideology and performances that are all costumes and vocal chords rather than living, breathing humans. Side note: there’s an interesting lyric change in the current production when Théndardier is looting his way through “Beggar at the Feast.” The original lyric was: “Here comes a prince. There goes a Jew. This one’s a queer. But what can you do?” The new lyric replaces that last line with “I might try it, too.”

Through all the changes to the production, I try to remember what made me love Les Misérables more than 30 years ago, and I still get pangs of that affection in the big, flag-waving numbers “One Day More” and “Do You Hear the People Sing?” and in the finale when we hear the lyric, “To love another person is to see the face of God.” I understand the changes that have been made to make producing the show less expensive – I imagine we’ll even get a turntable-free production of Hamilton at some point. But I don’t need to experience Les Miz again until it is seriously revived in a whole new production. Maybe in 20 years or so when I’m in my 70s and some hotshot director has a new vision to crack open the show for a new generation. Undoubtedly, the ever-youthful Mackintosh will still be around to make sure that version runs for at least another half century.

Les Misérables continues through July 23 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1182 Market St., San Francisco, as part of the BroadwaySF season. Running time: about 3 hours (including one intermission). Tickets are $60.50-$225.50 (subject to change). Call 888-746-1799 or visit

Still Misérables after all these years

Les Misérables by Cameron Mackintosh
Peter Lockyer as Jean Valjean sings “Bring Him Home” in the 25th anniversary production of Les Misérables at the Orpheum Theatre. Below: The Les Miz company ends Act 1 with a rousing “One Day More.” Photos by Deen Van Meer

The 25th anniversary production of Les Misérables now at the Orpheum Theatre as part of the SHN season is annoying and gratifying, pretty much in equal measure.

You have to give credit to super producer Cameron Mackintosh for even attempting something new with such a tried-and-true money maker as Les Miz. He hired new directors (Laurence Connor and James Powell) and a raft of new designers, including set designer Matt Kinley (whose credit includes “inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo) and lighting designer Paule Constable. They 86-ed the turntable, such a memorable (and thematically important) element of the original Royal Shakespeare Company production adapted and directed by Trevor Nunn and John Napier, and added that now inescapable 21st-century plague, projections.

This musical war horse is certainly refreshed if not necessarily strengthened. The show was special when it opened in London in 1985 (the original French production was all the way back in 1980) because it was an epic story enlivened by a pop score with operatic ambitions. The fluid, cinematic staging allowed a large chunk of Hugo’s massive novel to live on stage, and the Schönberg-Kretzmer score, especially its plaintive ballads and rousing anthems, would have captured an audience’s attention even on a bare stage with little to no flag waving.

As part of the British invasion, which also included Cats and The Phantom of the Opera, Les Miz helped usher in an era of deadly serious musical theater that was lushly produced and adored by audiences. More than 25 years later, these musicals tend to feel dated by their extravagance, hobbled by their bloat. And that’s certainly true of this revised production, even though it’s scaled down from the original. There’s a lot of flash and speed and movement, with the heart only occasionally visible thanks to some strong performances and some moving musical moments.

Les Misérables by Cameron Mackintosh, opening night November 28 2010, Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Dr., Millburn New Jersey

But first a word on those projections. When the back wall of the stage is dark and stormy and full of ominous images that look like woodcuts damaged by fire, all is well. But several times the projections sink to computer animation, and the stage is suddenly Les Miz: The Video Game. It happens when hero Jean Valjean, employing his super human strength rescues a man from a runaway cart (the animation happens during the “runaway” part). It happens again during the stirring Act 1 closer “One More Day.” When the revolutionary zealots begin marching, the street behind them begins to move, making them look like cartoon characters and diminishing an otherwise stirring number. For me, though, the worst video projection was a tour through the Paris sewers as Jean Valjean attempts to rescue an injured Marius. The two men stumble through multiple projections as if the designers were anxious to ensure the audience that yes, theater can be 3-D, too! As if it weren’t already in three dimensions.

And though the famous barricade isn’t nearly as impressive as it used to be (and the battle seems especially wan with a few popping light bulbs making the whole barricades pile look like a theme park ride), it’s fine. The inability to see what’s happening on the other side of the barricades means we lose a poignant moment or two, but there are other things going on to compensate.

But I really did miss the turntable. There is a song in the show, after all, called “Turning,” and the whole notion of everything coming around again and again is central to Hugo’s theme, so the turntable really was more than just a slick way to keep the action spinning. I especially missed it during “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” which is performed with neither chairs nor tables, empty or otherwise (it is, instead, performed with candles). It’s funny to miss part of the set, but there you go. The new set designs, heavy on shabby shutters on a grand scale, are sufficient, but now Les Miz feels more like a regional production and less like a Broadway legend.

By far the worst “improvement” happens during the death of Javert. Here you have a fantastic actor – Andrew Varela, whose earlier solo, “Stars,” nearly stopped the show – giving another great turn on “Soliloquy.” And when he makes a decisive move, in rush the special effects, which involve projections (naturally) and a flying rig that is so unnecessary it’s comical. Suddenly Les Miz becomes Wicked in miniature. The truth is that Varela needs no effects other than a spotlight and his wonderful voice.

The performances are generally, fine though the women tend to have a more contemporary vocal bent than the men (which is not always great in a period piece). Peter Lockyer is a powerful Jean Valjean, though as the show progresses, his age makeup lends a Kabuki air to the performance. Timothy Gulan is an iffy Thenardier who is constantly upstaged by his much funnier wife played by Shawna M. Hamic. The young lovers Marius (Max Quinlan) and Cosette (Lauren Wiley) have very pretty voices but lack stage presence, but then again, their characters don’t really give them much to work with. Briana Carlson-Goodman’s Eponine seems like she’s visiting from a shiny, happy sitcom and had the makeup department smudge up her face to help her get into character as a Parisian street urchin circa the 1830s, and it doesn’t quite work

Even with all the annoyances, there’s no denying that Les Miz can still pack a wallop. When those big voices (played at ear-splitting volume at the Orpheum) join together to sing songs like “At the End of the Day” or “One Day More” it’s great musical theater storytelling. Beyond the bells and whistles is a story of redemption and kindness and love in a truly ugly world, and that registers, with the turntable or without.

Les Misérables continues through Aug. 26 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$150. Call 888-746-1799 or visit

Baby, it’s Hugh

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Australian dreamboat and all-around wonderful entertainer Hugh Jackman is about to take the Bay Area by storm. And if he doesn’t, he’ll be back to settle our hash in his full Wolverine drag.

This week, Jackman opens a brand-new song-and-dance extravaganza at the Curran Theatre, courtesy of SHN. It’ll be like what we’ve seen him do on the Tony Awards and Academy Awards telecasts, which is to say, he’ll charm everyone for miles around and leave us wanting more.

I had 15 minutes on the phone with Jackman, which became a feature in today’s San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

Because I had so little time with him, there wasn’t a lot of material from the interview that didn’t make it into the final article, but there were a couple of things.

While on Broadway starring in The Boy from Oz playing gay Australian entertainer Peter Allen, Jackman was called upon to kiss co-star Jerrod Emick. Some of Jackman’s sci-fi/action movie fans weren’t quite prepared for that. Jackson recalls one fateful night on stage: “I’m about to kiss Jerrod, who’s playing my boyfriend, and someone in the audience shouts out, ‘Don’t do it, Wolverine!’ That turned into the longest kiss in history because I was laughing so much I couldn’t let go. It would have been too obvious I was laughing. But the whole audience cracked up as well.”

On various awards shows, Jackman and Anne Hathaway have been adorable together. Jackman says they have talked about doing a movie musical. “I thought I was busy in film. She’s really busy in film. We talk about musicals all the time and would really like to do one together.”

Years ago, in Australia, Jackman turned down the role of bad-guy Javert in stage prdouction of Les Miserables there. Now that Jackman has expressed interest in doing the movie of Les Miz, he says, “I’d be more interested in being Jean Valjean.” The hero, of course.

The last time Jackman was on Broadway, he was in the play A Steady Rain opposite Daniel Craig (aka James Bond). I asked Jackman if he tried to convince Craig to do a musical. “Daniel Craig in a musical — no, that’s the audacity of hope. I don’t think that’ll happen. He’s a brilliant performer, one of the funniest guys I know. But I don’t think he’ll be doing high kicks any time soon.”

[bonus video: Hugh Jackman sings “One Night Only” on the 2004 Tony Awards and high kicks with the Rockettes!]


Hugh Jackman in Performance at the Curran Theatre continues through May 15 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $40-$250. Call 888-746-1799 or visit