A Celebration of Heroes and Humanity: Les Misérables

By Dennis Razze
Associate Artistic Director

When Les Misérables produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company premiered in London at the Barbican theatre in 1985, the reviews that came the following morning were mostly negative. Cameron McIntosh, the producer, and Trevor Nunn, the director, were considering plans to close the show. But a call to the box office revealed that thousands were lining up to buy tickets.

Since that historic night, Les Miz, as it became popularly known, has been translated into 22 different languages, played in 42 countries and more than 319 cities, and has been seen by 70 million people world-wide.

It was more than a year ago that I learned that I would be directing Les Misérables this summer for PSF.  It seemed that I had waited a lifetime for the opportunity to direct this now legendary musical. Les Miz was one of those “sung through” musicals that had blazed a new path for the musical theatre back in the 1980s. Les Miz, Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, Sweeney Todd, Phantom of the Opera, were all hugely successful experiments at combining opera form with the popular sound and energy of the musical theatre.

When I saw the Broadway production as a young man I will admit that I did not immediately succumb to the power of Les Miz. (The same was true for me of Evita.) Like many, I had grown up in the Rodgers and Hammerstein school of musical theatre which was story driven and had at its core a theatrical play enhanced by song and dance. These “sung-through” musicals were more akin to pop operas and were something entirely different. They filled the stage with a great many characters and sub-plots and portrayed a vast tapestry of political and social upheaval. Their scores were often more like pop music than the musical theatre scores to which I was accustomed. Over time, I came to appreciate Les Misérables, its powerful and poignant story, and the intricacies and beauty of its lyrics and score.

The inspiration for the musical, Les Misérables by Victor Hugo published in 1862, is considered both a masterpiece of the Romantic Movement and one of the greatest novels ever written. An epic work of nearly 1,500 pages, the novel is not romantic in the sense of romantic love, but portrays the passionate rebellion of people that have been repressed by unjust governments and kept under heel by a callous ruling class.

Romantic stories often center on the noble struggles of a romantic hero, usually a common, ordinary man who fights injustice and gives voice to those for whom life has been unjust and unkind.  Cyrano, William Tell, Robin Hood, and yes, Victor Hugo’s leading character Jean Valjean, are all great examples of this kind of hero who stands up against tyranny and injustice and provides courageous example to those too miserable and downtrodden to fight for themselves.

Jean Valjean is a particularly poignant example as he himself is transformed by faith to cast off the bitter and violent person he became after he was imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s children. Through God’s compassion, demonstrated to him by an old country bishop, he transforms his life to one of service. He learns that through loving others salvation is possible:“To love another person is to see the face of God.”

This famous line, like many of the lyrics of the songs in Les Miz, are taken directly from passages in Hugo’s novel. Another is Valjean’s statement “If I speak, I am condemned. If I stay silent, I am damned!” Yet another passage provides the words for the show’s famous anthem:

Do you hear the people sing
Lost in the valley of the night?
It is the music of a people
Who are climbing to the light.

For the wretched of the earth
There is a flame that never dies.
Even the darkest night will end
And the sun will rise.

Producing and directing Les Miz is an epic undertaking in its own right. It took seven years for PSF to receive the rights to produce it. The production is by far the most expensive the company has ever done. As the director, my preparation began by listening to every recording of Les Miz there was, viewing the many concert videos, and traveling as far as Orlando to see recent productions and of course, to scout talent.

I saw a record number of auditions for this production--more than I ever have for a single show, easily more than 500, and viewed many more via videos. I spent hours researching the period, Victor Hugo and the novel, and searching for visual research to inspire the look of our production.

Steve TenEyck, the scenic designer who I collaborated with on PSF’s Sweeney Todd, found photographs of Paris from this period taken by Charles Marville showing that Paris was in the process of being torn apart, transforming from its medieval character to the beginning of the Paris of the late nineteenth century. The poor were certainly miserable at this time, living in squalor in collapsing, crumbling buildings and streets, crammed too closely together, conditions that created a hotbed for yet another revolution in French history.

Steve and I have literally re-designed the set for the show three times and with each new version we improved upon the look and feel of the production. Lisa Zinni, our fantastically talented costume designer, has been scouring racks of clothes and creating wonderful new designs to bring each character to life and to create a world that feels “lived in” and real.

I hope you will join us this summer for this epic musical experience. It will be the first professional production of Les Misérables in the Lehigh Valley and we have assembled an extraordinary company of actors and singers, orchestra, and artisans who will lend their talents to making this dream a reality.