The newly remastered DVD of the glorious 1995 10th anniversary concert of Les Misérables, released last November by BBC Home Entertainment has got to be the definitive recorded version of the much beloved musical to date. Not does it present nearly the compete show, but it gathers together what is often thought of as the dream cast for the performance. Music is in the hands of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra with the addition of a chorus 150 voices strong. It is nothing less than a complete joy.
That it comes so close in time to the opening of its Academy Award nominated celluloid cousin is perhaps a mixed blessing. No doubt it will profit some from the hoopla and publicity surrounding the film. Those movie goers who enjoy the film may well want to hear what it sounded like on stage. On the other hand there will be those so impressed by the star power of a Hugh Jackman and maybe even an Anne Hathaway that they choose to wait for the film DVD. That would be a mistake. As effective as the film is, it can’t compete with the stage version. Even in concert, where the cast is in costume but performs before microphones at the front of the stage, the show is an emotional powerhouse. One gets caught up in it and it is very easy to forget they are on stage.
There is, of course, a more recent concert version celebrating the 25 anniversay of the show available on DVD, and for those of us who thrill to the music of Schönberg and Boublil, it has its excellent moments as well, what it doesn’t have is Colm Wilkinson, the original and the definitive Jean Valjean. Not that there is anything wrong with its star, Alfie Boe. He has an operatic voice that soars with power, but he is not Wilkinson. Wilkinson has a voice that is unique and his version of “Who am I?” is a dramatic tour de force, his “One Day More” stirs the soul, his “Bring Him Home” is unmatchable. Indeed once you’ve heard him, he becomes the measure by which to judge all the Valjeans since and all still to come.
Other definitive performances in the 10 anniversary concert are Alun Armstrong and Jenny Galloway (who also appears in the 25 concert) as the Thénardiers. Lea Salonga who sings the tragically doomed Fantine in the newer version sings the tragically doomed Éponine in the 1995 concert, a role she did in the Broadway production. Moreover in the 1995 concert you get the excellent Michael Ball playing Marius instead of the boyishly miscast Nick Jonas. As for the villain, Philip Quast an Australian, (though no Russell Crowe) is a perfect Javert.
From some of the critical reaction to the current film, there are those it would seem, not quite enthralled with the music. They find much of the recitative puerile. They call much of it treacle. They dislike the repetition of the melodies. Of course, they are not the first to find fault with the show. London reviewers dumped on it when it opened in 1985; the London reviewers were wrong, and if popular reaction is any indication so too are the current complainers. While the verdict is still out on the film and its handling of the music, the verdict on the music has long been in. Puerile, treacle, repetitious be damned—audiences love it. There are musical moments in this show that stay with you forever—the comic “Master of the House, “the majestic finale of the first act, Javert’s suicide, the death of Valjean, the. . . . but why go on, you really have to list every musical number in the show.
Bonus material on the two-disc set includes some twenty minutes of newly discovered interview material with producer Cameron Mackintosh, composer Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyricist Alain Boublil. There is also a British documentary from 1988, Stage by Stage: The Making of Les Mis which was included on the DVD’s original release. It features performance footage from a number of productions from around the world. There is also a little commemorative booklet with some nice pictures, but no complete cast listing, and a replica of the ticket to the London reception after the show.