'Les Miz' takes no prisoners

The revolution returns when the Victor Hugo classic begins its six-day run Tuesday at the Phillips Center


The winner of eight Tony Awards in 1987, "Les Misérables" opens Tuesday at the Phillips Center for the Performing Arts.

|JOAN MARCUS/Third National Company
Published: Friday, January 24, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 23, 2003 at 10:52 p.m.

Facts

Les Misérables

  • WHAT: The long-running musical adaptation of Victor Hugo's novel.
  • WHEN: Tuesday through Feb. 2.
  • WHERE: Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, 315 Hull Road.
  • TICKETS: $42-$72 Thursday-Saturday and Sunday matinee; $37-$67 Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday and Saturday matinee. (392-2787)

  • When it was first published in 1862, Victor Hugo's novel "Les Misérables" sold out in a matter of hours.
    The Phillips Center for the Performing Arts hopes for similar success next week when the musical version returns to Gainesville for the first time in four years. And based on the show's last march through this city, the touring cast will face full houses when it starts its six-night run Tuesday.
    "There is almost a cult following, people who will see it anytime they can," said Deborah Rossi, coordinator of information and public affairs for the Phillips Center.
    "Les Misérables" follows a thief who, through a stranger's kindness, develops into a man of conscience. Jean Valjean attempts to start a new life with his adopted daughter, Cosette, against the backdrop of a student revolt in Paris.
    Hugo's novel painted a picture of a desperate class struggle in the early 19th century. He criticized French lawmen and depicted criminals as luckless people plagued by poverty and no education. Near the time of the book's publication, Hugo was exiled from France for his beliefs.
    But more than 150 years after the novel agitated contemporaries and inspired French workers, "Les Misérables" is still a substantial cultural force. The story has influenced modern films, including "The Fugitive" and "Kung Fu." But the stage musical - first shown in Paris in 1986 - remains its most in-demand legacy.
    "Les Miz," as the musical is affectionately called, is currently Broadway's longest running show, having run for 16 consecutive years. As of July, the franchise has grossed $1.8 billion in worldwide box office sales, according to its press representative. It has won eight Tony Awards and two Grammy Awards.
    "'Les Miz' is an amazing show ... This is such an amazing story," said 25-year-old Amanda Huddleston, who has a life-of-the-tour contract to play Cosette. "People are able to lose themselves in it."
    The show is in its 15th year on tour, and Cameron Mackintosh's production has not lost its spark, as the touring cast plays to rave reviews.
    Broadway's "Les Miz" run finally ends later this year, as some grand productions give way to smaller-scale shows like "The Producers." But large musicals such as "Les Miz" continue to thrive with touring companies, one cast member contends.
    "Broadway as a whole is becoming much more intimate. But this show's got a very lush, very melodic statement to make," noted Randal Keith, a musical theater veteran who plays Jean Valjean. He said the epic nature of the show is echoed in the music.
    "You've got a battle and the grandeur of Paris," Keith said recently from Melbourne, the tour's last stop. "The music supports that."
    Keith started as an understudy for the role nearly six years ago and has played the character for about 2¶ years.
    "It's very exciting to be a part of a show that's so well run and well put together. They're not willing to compromise; we have a strong cast all the way around. There's not a weak person in it," he said.
    But, he said, there's more to the success of "Les Miz" than just hard work. There's got to be a little magic, too: "Creations in any art form are not meticulously planned - they happen organically. They just bloom."
    The same cast and set are used in every city on the tour, regardless of the city's size or the length of engagement. Mackintosh, the show's producer, felt strongly about maintaining the quality throughout the tour schedule, which is good news for smaller stops like Gainesville.
    "I have done shows that, instead of a huge set on tour, you had a painted background," recalled Keith. "From the beginning, they weren't willing to pare ('Les Miz') down just because it was going on tour. This is the exact same show that's in New York. I think the barricades may be a little shorter, but that's it."
    And audiences still embrace the musical with overwhelming fervor. Success has followed the musical throughout its evolution. There's the Broadway show, seven touring productions worldwide and even "Les Miz" paraphernalia on the Internet.
    Locally, Gainesville public television station WUFT has offered tapes of "Les Miz" in exchange for money during pledge drives.
    "We have had some really big success with 'Les Miz' ... We always get a really great response," said Harvey Ward, development coordinator at WUFT-TV. "It's an amazing production. It's very gratifying when we at PBS are able to bring our viewers into the best seat in the house, and it's even more gratifying when they respond by making pledges."
    WUFT-TV runs successful fund-drive incentive programs for several years before retiring them. The last time "Les Miz" aired on WUFT was in 1999, and it was quite successful, Ward said.
    "If there was a new 'Les Miz' product out there," Ward said, "we would definitely consider it."
    So why is "Les Miz" so popular? "The music is beautiful, but it supports the story," noted Huddleston, who plays Cosette. "Everyone, no matter what their walk of life, can relate to one of the characters."
    And it's true. Fantine is a woman thwarted in love, while Valjean is a man forced to face his past while trying to shape a future. "Cosette ... seems to have everything," said Huddleston. "But she was abused ... She doesn't know who her mother is. She has to discover her identity on her own."
    The struggles are as human today as they were in the mid-1800s.
    Perhaps the best explanation of the enduring success was written by Hugo himself: It is a story that, "whatever gaps, exceptions or weaknesses it may contain, treats of the advance from evil to good, from injustice to justice, from falsity to truth, from darkness to daylight, from blind appetite to conscience, from decay to life, from bestiality to duty, from Hell to Heaven, from Limbo to God. Matter itself is the starting-point, and the point of arrival is the soul."
    All of which reputedly caused Alfred Hitchcock to remark, "That book would make a wonderful musical."

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