Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Les Miserables

We caught the very end of the 25th Anniversary Les Misérables on PBS the other night. I don't know how many times we've seen it at this point; it always makes me happy. The encore of "Bring Him Home" followed by "One Day More," featuring the original 1985 London cast and the 2010 anniversary cast, is unfailingly exciting and moving.

I hadn't expected to like Les Miz when I was first exposed to it. That was in 1986, when Colm Wilkinson performed "Bring Him Home" on (I think) the Kennedy Center Honors telecast. Out of context, the song meant nothing to me; I had an (incorrect) idea that Jean Valjean was a younger fellow than Wilkinson and that irked me for no good reason.

Nevertheless, I bought a ticket for the pre-Broadway American premiere, which was playing at the Kennedy Center Opera House (which would explain why the show was featured on the Kennedy Center Honors). My parents did not go with me, I am sure because it was the middle of January and my father never liked the idea of courting a snowstorm.

Which is exactly what we got. But I am getting ahead of myself.

So I saw Les Miz that night in January 1987, high up in the second balcony of the Opera House (the only seat I could get). And I was absolutely thrilled by it. Mr. Wilkinson was out that night, sadly; but his understudy Kevin Marcum was spectacularly good as Valjean. All the other principal players were on that night, and in succession they bowled me over: first Leo Burmester in the unexpected "Master of the House"; then Randy Graff, sitting alone at the edge of the stage in "I Dreamed a Dream"; then Terrence Mann and "Stars"; then Frances Ruffelle "On My Own"; and finally Michael Maguire, dying on that barricade.

The barricade scene is what I remember most, vividly and indelibly. The absolute and complete hush in the audience as the set revolved to reveal the French students, poetically displayed in heroic postures of death, was unforgettable.

The thing is, once you see a show, you can never see it for the first time again. And the first time is almost always what stays with you: no subsequent performance can ever quite match it.

That, at least, was my experience, though it was not for want of trying. I saw Les Miz again later that first year, on Broadway this time. Then I saw it with my parents about a year later; my mother loved it but my father not so much (and admittedly the performance we saw that particular evening was not fully up to scratch). And then, after we moved to NYC, my mother and I saw the show again, at least two or three times, I imagine. I know we saw it right before the first run ended, in 2002. And we saw the 10th Anniversary celebration on PBS, and then, many times as noted, the 25th.

But back to the snowstorm. It was already snowing when I left the Kennedy Center at 11:30 p.m. or thereabouts. I made it home to my apartment in Rockville, pretty much aware that we were getting at least a mini-blizzard, and that I wouldn't be going to work the next day. Or, well, anywhere...for several days, as it turned out. And I was going crazy because the only thing I wanted was the London cast album of Les Miz so I could replay the show again in my home. (Seems quaint, but back then, you actually had to go to a store to buy records; there wasn't any other way to acquire music.) 

I think that having to wait so many days to be able to hear the show again was one of the things that made it special. All that lovely anticipating.

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