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Empty Chairs at Empty Tables

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Les Miserables closed its Broadway run Sunday. I regret that I will never get to see the show in all its glory on Broadway.
Les Mis was an amazing feat for a Broadway show. It combined great music, great lyrics, great stagecraft and great drama in a package that would appeal to people around the world.
And while the show has closed its Broadway run, it will live on in CDs and at least one video. I thought this would be a good time to critique the offerings:

The Original London Cast Recording – This is truly a classic. Colm Wilkinson is the original Jean Valjean, and this recording captures perfectly his humanity in the part. Remember that phrase. Other highlights from this version are Thenardier (Alun Armstrong), Fantine (Patty LuPone) and Michael Ball (Marius). The biggest problem with this version is that there are several pieces from the full musical that are missing, including the scene when Valjean releases Javert after freeing him from the mob of people intent on execution. Without this crucial bit of dialogue, Javert’s suicide soliloquoy doesn’t quite make sense.

The Complete Symphonic Recordings While I have this version, it doesn’t spend much time in the player. While the producers solved one problem, they created another. The symphonic recording includes the entire production, but it uses Gary Morris as Jean Valjean. Despite what some may say, Gary Morris is not Jean Valjean. Gary Morris is the Phantom of the Opera. His voice is too polished to pull off the doubting of Jean Valean. Remember, the key to Valjean is his humanity. “I am a man, no worse than any man,” he tells Javert. And, to me, Wilkinson does this better than anyone.

The 10th Anniversary Recording This is the real treat of the bunch. You get the entire production, with great cast members. Wilkinson is back as Valjean. Ball is Marius. I think Ruthie Henshall is as good as LuPone with Fantine, but they are interchangeable. The real surprise is Phillip Quast as Javert. I think Roger Allam did a bang-up job on the original London cast recording, but Quast is different. He seems to have more of a sneering quality to his voice. Lea Solanga’s Eponine is good enough, although Francis Ruffelle’s turn on the London Cast recording seems more believable to me. I’ll say here that I’m not a big fan of the Enjolras character, so whoever plays him is acceptable.

And the best part of this is that you get to see it. Sure, you could wait for the annual PBS fund drive to get a look at the full production, or you could order your own DVD. Either way, it’s a definite plus.

Finally, if you really want to reach back and dig into Les Miserabilia, you might be able to snag a copy of the original French language concept album. There’s a lot of music that is similar, but this album has a much more stripped down sound than the finished musical. The synthesizers sound strange. And there are some songs that don’t make it to the final show, and others that are added later. It’s an interesting look into the earlier life of this global phenomenon.

Despite all these great recordings, I’m really disappointed that there is no video of the entire show. Perhaps now that it’s winding down, they will see fit to release a version of the musical on video. It is the little things like the lighting, the rotating stage and the barricade that make the musical such a spectacle.

Of course, none of the recordings is going to please everyone. As one person suggested on Amazon, the best solution may be to buy all of them and burn your favorites onto another set of CDs. Of course, you’d really have to like Les Mis to do that.

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  • Eric Olsen

    Very nice Bryan, thanks, I’ve never seen the real thing either, but about 5 different high school versions!

  • Joe

    I saw it on at the Imperial 10 years ago and expect it to be revived 10 years from now. Another treat on the 10th anniversary DVD is at the end when they bring out the international Valjeans. Pay close attention to the Japanese representative (none other than Chairman Kaga, from the Iron Chef!)