Theater: An Epic of the Downtrodden

Les Miserables sets Broadway sales records -- and deserves to

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From the bitter opening invocation "Look down, look down," intoned by prisoners in a dungeon, to the anthemic rallying cry "When tomorrow comes," sung at the finale by the spectral dead of revolutionary 19th century Paris, the musical version of Victor Hugo's epic novel Les Miserables is a melodrama inflamed with outrage. Its politics always matter more than its love stories. Many of its principals die in violence or grief, but the most unprincipled of them endure and thrive. Like Nicholas Nickleby, staged largely by the same team, Les Miserables denies itself the indulgence of even a muted happy - ending: its last image is of struggles to come. Yet also like Nickleby, this epic musical sends audiences out exalted. Handsomely staged, stirringly sung and performed for the most part with consummate craft, Les Miserables nonetheless succeeds not so much for its artistry as for its heart. Far more than an entertainment, it is a thrilling emotional experience.

A hit in London and sold out during an eight-week tryout in Washington, Les Miserables opened on Broadway last week with advance ticket sales of more than $11 million -- the most in U.S. theater history, nearly double the $6.2 million record set by Cats in 1982. The show is already slated to open in 20 more countries: requests have come from the Soviet Union and South Africa, Bulgaria and Japan. Says Producer Cameron Mackintosh, 40, an impresario whose properties include Cats, Little Shop of Horrors and the London smash The Phantom of the Opera: "Les Miserables has the potential to be the most successful musical of the past 20 or 30 years."

Novelist Hugo's chase story between good and evil -- with good ironically represented by a runaway convict and evil by a zealot of a policeman -- has captivated audiences from the moment it was published in 1862. The original Paris press run of 7,000 copies sold out within 24 hours. Since then the combat between the virtuous thief Jean Valjean and the merciless detective Javert has been retold onstage and in at least 14 films. At heart, the novel's conflict is metaphysical: Valjean believes in the forgiving God of the New Testament, Javert in the retributive God of the Old Testament. The story resounds with images of Christian redemption. Yet it is by turns a panorama of the underclass, a Gothic romance about love at first sight threatened by family secrets, a psychological study and a radical tract. The novel's scale and complexity seemingly defy adaptation to a musical, especially one that in the fashion of opera, sets every word to song. The stage version's triumph is that it captures the book's essence while speaking with absolute clarity to that vast majority of spectators who have not read the novel.

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