Stage preview: Bright Hugo paintings inspire costumes, lighting in revamped 'Les Miz'
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Taking up a cause as a student rebel in the original London production of "Les Miserables" was good preparation for Anthony Lyn's current position. As the associate director of the touring show, he was part of remaking the look and sound of the world's longest-running musical -- a big difference being that the rebellion against the status quo started in the mind of mega-musical producer Sir Cameron Mackintosh.
Mr. Mackintosh, also a producer of the "Les Miz" film now in theaters, wanted to bring the stage show into the 21st century for its 25th anniversary in 2010. While it continues to run on London's West End in its original form, the touring show has been revamped from the costume colors, to lighting, to orchestrations.
Gone is the turntable stage that was the show's literal foundation, gone are dim lights and gray and black clothes common to characters such as Cosette and Marius.
"From the time the play starts, you know this is going to be different," Mr. Lyn said. "When you hear those grunts of convicts, it is actually on a ship, rowing from an island back to the mainland"
The inspiration for changing the look of the musical "Les Miserables" came from the source novel's author, Victor Hugo, an accomplished artist whose paintings revealed a bright, colorful 19th-century France.
"The changes were made with great love and respect for the show that is still running in London in its original form," Mr. Lyn said of the musical by composer Claude-Michel Schonberg and writers Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel (translated to English by Herbert Kretzmer). "But Cameron's idea was, this was a classic tale, treated in what was the contemporary style in the 1980s. If we did it today, how would we do it?
"With everything open, we went back and looked first at the design, and the springboard was to tie it in with Victor Hugo, who was a prolific artist. There's a gallery in France that has a great deal of his work, and we used it as backdrops and projections. When the audience comes in, the first thing they see is a Victor Hugo painting. All the images throughout the night are actually Victor Hugo's."
Rethinking the music was up for grabs, too. The operatic score began as more of a plugged-in pop opera with music that was all the rage for the 1980s. Robert Billig was the music director and conductor when the show opened on Broadway in 1987, following its success in London, and has been conducting the 17-piece orchestra that takes the compositions to a more traditional Broadway sound.
The tour and the movie share the new orchestrations.
Adding a film version -- one that now boasts eight Oscar nominations -- to the mix of a long-running musical that also is available for high school and college productions might be overkill, but that hasn't been the case for the tour.
Mr. Lyn pointed to precedents with "Chicago" and another long-running, Mackintosh-produced hit, "The Phantom of the Opera."
"Those shows were probably on their last legs [in New York] when the movie versions came out," he said. "Then the movies renewed interest, and they are both still running on Broadway."
Such is the fandom for "Les Miserables" that a production of the touring show at one time ran simultaneously in London's West End, with the original at the Queens Theatre and the newer version at the Barbican.
Networks, the co-producer of the American tour, rallied Mr. Mackintosh to send the show overseas. Productions in Spain, Canada, Korea, Japan and Australia "are sprouting up as if it was the first time around," Mr. Lyn said.
The American tour company combines youth and experience. For Mr. Lyn, it's a reminder of what it was like when he was a young ensemble member experiencing the excitement of coming to the theater and finding lines around the corner to see whether anyone had turned in tickets.
"On the whole, it's a very young cast, which is great," he said. "Of course, they are playing students -- there's nothing worse than seeing 50-year-olds trying to climb the barricade -- I've seen some of those. We have a lot of people in it who are of student age, and what was really inspiring to me was when they come to audition, the love they have and the enthusiasm for 'Les Miserables' right out of college."
Central to the show is the redemption of Jean Valjean, a man imprisoned for stealing bread to save his sister's sick child and later condemned to life on the run. He is played by Peter Lockyer, who played Marius in the 10th-anniversary Broadway revival of "Les Miserables." Andrew Varela, who plays relentless lawman Javert, is a former Broadway Valjean.
Even in this new version, there are some iconic moments that the creative team wouldn't touch, the kind of things that fan club folks such as the Beyond the Barricade faithful would be on the lookout for.
Mr. Lyn said the team for this new "Les Miz" followed fan newsletters to check on how they were doing, and even hard-core fans have embraced the new production -- perhaps because attention was paid to keeping what worked.
"There are a couple of moments so intrinsically part of the show ... for instance, in the cafe, when the students are plotting the uprising and they sing 'Red and Black,' at the end, on the final note, they show their unity and they slowly turn their heads to the front, as if they are looking to the future. That's the best way of telling that story. Nobody would want to change that."
Mr. Lyn, an actor and educator (including at the Royal Academy and Duke University), has brought other shows to Pittsburgh. His credits include associate director for "The Lion King" in cities worldwide, and he is director of the current "Mary Poppins" tour.
"It's a great theater town, and you have that beautiful theater [the Benedum] and the Civic Light Opera," he said, with expectations that the city will embrace this "Les Miserables" new look.
To sum up the new, with a nod to the old, Mr. Lyn borrowed "a lovely quote" from Sir Cameron.
"He said going to see 'Les Miserables,' you don't lose what was there before. It's like seeing a friend you haven't seen in a very long time and they've had a fabulous makeover, and they look better than they've ever looked. They've lost weight, they've had their hair done and you see them and you go, 'Oh my God, you look amazing!' And that's what this 'Les Miserables' is: You revisit an old friend who has had an overhaul and who looks amazing."
First Published January 13, 2013 12:00 am