That I have not seen the West End production of Les Misérables so far surprises plenty of people, even those I did not expect to have any opinion on this. Myself astonished by this repeated reaction I look even more forward to it. Seated between the massive M&M shopping bags of Chinese tourists wearing surgical masks, frilly blouses and designer jogging pants I am glad to spot a real orchestra pit with a conductor’s baton poking out: The harp will be the outstanding instrument tonight.
I have goose pimples throughout the first twenty minutes, drawn into an 18th century of imprisonment, relentless forced labour, dramatic escapes and both cruelty and mercy of a public burning themselves out for their daily bread. France in those days for those not born into aristocracy or money is a constant struggle for survival and only the bourgeois and educated can afford to give thoughts to politics. The story of the ex-convict Jean Valjean who becomes a major under a new name and promises the badly treated, dying Fantine to look after her daughter Cosette while fleeing himself from the obsessive inspector Javert (ô là! là! He. Is. Hot.) has been retold plenty of times. An epos in the setting of the French Revolution, the story sometimes speeds (wasn’t Cosette only a girl a scene ago? and houp-là, she changed her skin colour too) but gives the characters time to reflect in other scenes and so the three hours in the theatre fill a lifetime.
The seats in the fifth row are so unbelievable good, I can see up the stage and see the spotlights and think: As high end as this show is, it is only a staged musical in a surprisingly small theatre, surrounded by other venues telling other stories. In shock I realised I just denied myself the full escapism I invested in. And because of this cruel, heartbreaking thought, there won’t be many tears during the, well, quite Catholic finale. But then again, this microcosms is installed here almost every single night and has been so for the last 30 years, a parallel universe just here in the middle of busy Theatreland London.
How often have I passed with no rush to go in, having saved up my pocket money for the Duisburg recording in German when I was eleven, then spent the next years in my kids’ room rather listened to the Beatles, Richard Wagner and skater punk? Neither Susan Boyle and Anne Hathaway helped to bring my love for the music of Les Misérables back but looking back I believe I got it all wrong: The score is dedicated to male singers, their songs being ten times better than those for the female voices and while all singers are excellent (I would have never sung Éponine’s song that poppy though) the singing of Valjean, Javert and even Marius shine above all, even above the ensemble choir. This surely passed me until today and feels like a true discovery.
I dedicate the first £50 of the ticket price to that unhappy girl in the 1990s in Hamburg-Bergedorf (always singing) and the other half of the ticket costs to my early 2019 self, frantically reading up every bit about the French Revolution instead of going out to find an answer for what is wrong with today’s world – because life is sometimes unbelievable mean and unfair and everything and everyone just miserable.
This is not only a bombast west end show, it’s a world on its own, raised every evening and then put to sleep to be awoken the next day. The goose pimples are still with me and it feels unfair that I cannot go every night: I urgently want to return.
Based on the 1862 novel from Victor Hugo, composed by Claude-Michel Schönberg
***** out of 5 stars
Les Miserables played at the Queens Theatre until July. After renovations at the venue (by now renamed Sondheim Theatre), Les Miserables reopened on 18 December.
£106 for each ticket plus fees: Stalls E 5 and 4