Will Les Miz change the face of Musical Theater? Again???

Les Miserables is the Oklahoma of my generation.

Or, the Show Boat for the generation before.

I was 16 years old when I first saw it in Boston, MA, and had never seen anything like it on stage.  Before those three hours and ten minutes (this was before they cut it down to under three hours to save the $20k+ in overtime per week), my only experience with musicals was Annie, Anything Goes, and other fun but frothy musicals.   I almost instantly fell off my pre-law track and started wondering how I could be a part of the theater.  I wanted to have the same effect on people that this show had on me.  I wanted to move people.

Like Oklahoma and Show Boat, Les Miz ushered in a new era of musical storytelling.

I was at the uber-exciting re-opening of Les Miz last night, and this classic musical, now about the pivotal age of 30, is back on Broadway, moving people all over again.  (I’ve had my Complete Symphonic Recording (my favorite) on repeat since I woke up this morning – get it if you don’t have it, cuz it’s awesome hearing all the sung scenes between the songs.)

And yes, the new production is terrific, thanks to the velvety-voiced Ramin Karimloo, and the bravura confidence the production has about itself.  It’s as if it’s saying, “We came.  We saw.  And we’re kicking ass again.”  (When you see the production, you’ll get a sense of this in the rock concert like moment after the Prologue.)

But this blog isn’t a review.  It’s a question.

Les Miz forever changed the look of musicals when it debuted in the mid 80’s.  It was sung-thru.  It was serious.  Yet it broke through to the masses, became a part of pop culture and defined what a Broadway musical was for years.

It even inspired a ton of people to write, to act, and to forget their LA Law dreams about becoming a lawyer and to pursue any career in the theater instead (yep, talking about me again).

A whole slew of musicals immediately followed it that were similar, including some by the same authors (Miss Saigon), as well as Sir Andrew and more.

But after about a decade of “poperas,” and around the time that Rent rolled into town, audience tastes shifted, and the giant, spectacle driven historical musicals of the 80’s were no more.

And that was the trend until the 9/11 era, when we went back to good ol’ musical comedy to take us away from reality, thanks to shows like The Producers and Mamma Mia, which birthed The Jukebox Generation.

And that’s the age that I still think we’re in:  people going to musicals for a good ol’ fashioned, rip-roarin’ good time.

But then along comes Les Miz again, which ain’t exactly a knee slapper.

But despite Les Miz not being what I believe is the type of show that is in ‘fashion’ with audiences, it’s doing a million bucks a week, got a great set of notices, and I hear has a barricade-sized advance.

So, my question is . . . could the success of this show once again be the tipping point of the next age of musical theater style?  Will seeing Les Miz excite audiences to see shows with more serious fare?  Will they once again embrace the idea of the sung-thru show?   Will the next generation of almost-gonna-be-lawyers start looking to Arts Universities instead?  Will they start looking at other 1,000 page novels to adapt?  (On a side note – has anyone noticed that two of the longest running musicals of all time take place in Paris, and also both have scenes under Paris?).

Hmmmm .  . . I don’t know.

But I do expect this Les Miz to run for some time.  And I’d also bet that Sir Cameron has The Broadway Theater locked up for a revival of Miss Saigon in just a year or two.  And Phantom will be up for a revival in . . . oh wait, that sucker is still running.

So yeah, look out musical theater.  You could be changing once again.

But don’t worry, you’ve been here before.

(Oh and I have to give a big shout out to last night’s Gavroche, Gaten Matarazzo, my Jesus from The Godspell Cast of 2032!  Don’t remember that?  Click here to watch.)


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  • Sara says:

    Great post. But you glossed over the era when Rent (and Bring In da Noise, etc.) came in and changed/not changed things. We were back to huge (Ragtime, Lion King) w/in a couple of years. What happened? What about the (brief) era between the huge sweeping ’80s sung-through Les Mizes and Saigons and not the Jukebox I-wanna-just-have-a-good-time-and-not-think thing we’ve seen since 9/11?

  • Shannon says:

    You ask a great question, and my answer is that it entirely depends on the company cast in the production. The actors have to be as invested in the show as the audience is. No — let me rephrase that. They have to be even MORE invested than the audience is, because the audience won’t walk away with the sense of having gotten their money’s worth and being inspired to return again unless that cast reached out and tugs at their heartstrings. Nobody is compelled to see a show in theater more than once unless the right people are behind it…people who want you to feel that show in your soul long after you’ve left the theater. The new revival of Les Miz does that specifically because of the mighty cast on the stage.

    I’ll be the first to admit that, after seeing the new production several times now, I don’t think the best ACTORS are in these roles. The casting folks clearly went for the best singers. They did, however, pick a fine bunch of human beings who the audience can tell are genuinely excited to put the stories behind their characters front and center. Karimloo carries the cast on his mighty shoulders and becomes Valjean for the duration of the show. He is kind, full of humility and grace, pushing down his anger and discontent at the world and replacing it with feelings of love and of recognizing all that is good in the world. Caissie Levy makes you feel every depth of Fantine’s suffering during her anguishing “I Dreamed A Dream.” Kyle Scatliffe is an infectious Enjolras in the sense that he can literally convince every audience member to want to join his crusade. You want to drink with John Rapson’s Grantaire. You want to follow little Gavroche around France. You want to dance and scheme with the Thenardiers. Sure, there are a few in the cast who are miscast, but even then, you can almost forgive that because the ensemble is backing everyone with so much gusto, it truly makes you want to join their crusade.

    Phantom of the Opera currently running on Broadway also has a great cast. Hugh Panaro is a longtime, fan-favorite Phantom and will be replaced by another fan-favorite, Norm Lewis. Sierra Boggess coming back in as Christine will help fill the seats every night, as well. Their terrific cast is rounded out by the likes of Jeremy Hays and Laird Mackintosh, etc, and so there you also have a creative bunch of folks who truly love and believe in what they’re doing. If you have casts like that who are going to deliver to the people every night as if the show was still fresh and brand new and being seen by eyes who had never witnessed it before (and ears who had never heard it), this genre will be alive and well for years to come. And for what it’s worth, I think it’s inevitable that Miss Saigon returns to the Great White Way this year at some point (or at least an announcement by the end of the year), but they have to get the right cast. It can’t just be anyone.

  • The short answer is, no. Not a sea change.

    This Les Miz is hot on the heels of the movie, and is not the second coming, it’s the third. The second revival and while clearly a crowd pleaser, it is not a game changer.

  • “Will the next generation of almost-gonna-be-lawyers start looking to Arts Universities instead?”

    Having just survived a strategic guerrilla offensive otherwise know as the “Musical Theatre Program Application Process” I can assure you that the one thing NO ONE should do is walk away from a steady paycheck to pursue Broadway dreams. I am not suggesting anyone abandon their dreams – just just the notion of attending any school to pursue a BFA, BM or BA in Musical Theatre. For anyone who has the talent and tenacity to survive and thrive in “THE BUSINESS” there are plenty of alternate routes to center stage. Schedules can be manipulated to accommodate workshops, seminars and auditions. Skills can be honed with voice & dance lessons at night and stage combat training on the weekends. If you already have a PLAN B that pays the bills and doesn’t totally suck the soul from your body you will already be one up on the waves of new graduates who will be vying for the same jobs with the extra burdens of justifying the last four years, school loan payments and realizing that they don’t have a Plan B anymore.

    Depending on who you listen to, the unprecedented number of applicants to theatre programs this year can be traced back to the success of Glee, Smash, American Idol and its imitators, the film version of Les Miz or, because there always has to be a conspiracy theory, Obamacare – because no one should be forced by economic constraints to put their (many times delusional or at least ill-advised)dreams on hold and remain at a job they despise and the new healthcare act will free us all to follow our bliss. Whatever explanation you choose to believe, the bottom line is
    the pool of candidates has been increasing exponentially over the past decade but there has not been any substantial growth in the size of the existing programs or the number of colleges and universities offering any form of MT degree. The numbers are not in for this year but I know from my own experience some of the top schools screened thousands of applications and held numerous rounds of auditions to fill a small number of openings(all under a hundred – some as few as 12) Unfortunately, the growing interest in performing in the theatre has not been met by investments in the industry to support its growth and survival. There has to be an increase in funding, ticket sales, new venues and new forums before there can be any significant growth in these programs. There have to be jobs with a decent salary and some kind of security waiting at the end of the rainbow in order to justify the heavy price tag that comes with attaining a degree in one of the few fields that doesn’t require a degree in order to compete for a job.

    What we really need is someone of influence in Washington (Ken Davenport in 2016?) or someone with your combination of business savvy and commitment to the arts before we can all quit our jobs and put on a show!

    P.S. Luckily, my daughter saw the light about halfway through the welcome speech at the 16th school she was applying to( this one was auditioning 750 for a freshman class of 32) and decided she’d rather study Arts Administration and eventually come to work for DTE! Smart kid.

  • Jared says:

    I don’t see this as a sea change, because the thing that defines all the previous sea changes you mentioned is that the show were new, not revivals. The “Chicago” revival was a massive hit that continues to run, but it didn’t particularly trigger an onslaught of more serious, dance heavy, striped down musicals. I suspect this “Les Miz” will be similar; an isolated success that doesn’t necessarily signal a new direction for musical theatre.

  • Hi, I read your blogs regularly. Your story-telling style is awesome, keep it up!|

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