on 15 January 2007
If you've got to this page, then chances are you've heard of Les Miserables and if you're a wise person indeed then you will have gone to see it in London or on Broadway. This CD is the original cast recording and has excellent vocal work from household names Colm Wilkinson, Michael Ball and rather bizarrely Caroline Quentin of Men Behaving Badly fame.
This CD however is no replacement for seeing the musical live - it misses out pieces of linking material. This means that if you are listening to this as a substitute for seeing the musical, you may become confused by the jumpy plot. My recommendation to you is go and see the musical, then buy the CD and sing along all you like. A CD like this one can only give you the audio, and nothing your imagination can conjure up will be as good as visual feast that is the production in the flesh.
In summary - buy this if you've seen the musical. If you haven't - hold out until you have and it will be a much more worthwhile buy.
In the 1980s, when I lived in London, I got early tickets to `Les Misérables', playing at the Barbican Theatre in London for its London premiere. I actually had ticket for midweek after the weekend opening--as anyone who has seen the production knows, it has a very complicated set structure with a barricade that folds up and down. As luck would have it (for me, in any case), this complicated apparatus had mechanical difficulties the first several nights, forcing them to keep the show closed until (drum-roll, please) the night I had tickets.
Thus, I got to attend (by default) the London premiere of `Les Misérables.'
Please don't hate me because I'm worldly.
As soon as the recording came available for this work, I went out to purchase it. First on tape (these were pre-CD days, after all) of the London cast recording; returning to America, I bought a CD player, and one of the first CDs I purchased was this recording, this recording and the Broadway cast.
Based upon Victor Hugo's magnum opus `Les Misérables', a worked revered as almost scriptural by many of the French (even the British did not rename major thoroughfares in London after Shakespeare as the French did for Hugo), this musical follows the career of Jean Valjean upon his release from prison after 19 years as a convict for stealing bread to feed his starving family. Javert, a prison-official/parole officer type, dedicates his life to finding the parole-jumper Valjean, who has risen to prominence in the town of Montreuil-sur-mer, and in the process of revealing himself to save an innocent from going to prison in his stead, Valjean once again escapes to rescue the daughter of one of his factory-worker charges.
If all of this sound a bit out of a soap-opera, it is in fact much the same sort of convoluted storyline with twists, intrigues, injustices and disreputable characters which had appeal in novels as it does today on the daytime dramas. These personal struggles, which culminate with a love story between Cosette, the factory-worker's daughter, and Marius, a young revolutionary, play out against the greater drama of revolution against the injustices in France. In the end, the bad guy kills himself, the good guy dies peacefully and is welcomed into heaven; the rebellion is crushed but sowed the seeds for greater revolution later, and Marius and Cosette presumably live happily ever after.
The music of this work is stunning, with melodies that stick in the mind for ages after. Perhaps one of the most moving songs are `On my own', sung by the sorrowful but good-hearted Eponine, who is in love with Marius, but cannot win his love away from Cosette -- this song has all the emotion and passion and conflict that one goes through in unrequited love. Finally there is the realisation that, through it all, the world will go on turning, albeit it a world that is lacking something and always shall for Eponine.
Another great song is `Empty Chairs at Empty Tables', sung by Marius, full of regret and sadness at the loss of so many compatriots in the revolt, unsure if the cost was justified. I remember this song being sung in memory of those lost in war at a memorial service; it is fitting and moving as a tribute to those who sacrifice -- what is the sacrifice for? It is, in this story as in real life, up to the living to make that sacrifice worthwhile.
Finally, Valjean's plea in the song `Bring him home' echoes the deep yearnings and hopefulness of any parent toward a child at war; the sorrow and sadness, the willingness to trade places, knowing that no such bargain is permitted; this is perhaps the best work Colm Wilkinson has ever done.
Of course, for comic relief (and a work with so much heaviness of tone and theme needs comic relief), `Master of the House' is a masterful piece. The innkeeper, in a stage aside voice, tells the audience all of the tricks of his trade, lyrically and stylistically it is hilarious.
`Food beyond compare!
Food beyond belief!
Mix it in a mincer
and pretend it's beef.
Kidney of a horse
Liver of a cat
Filling up the sausages
with this and that!'
When the innkeeper's wife chimes in, giving an account of 'the master's' own foibles, we are in high dudgeon and low comedy, all of the best sort, almost (but not quite) enough to make one forget the kind of scoundrel he's been toward the young Cosette. Of course, this character resurfaces again and again, the ultimate survivor in a very complicated world.
From start to finish, this musical is superb, a tour de force (to use a linguistically appropriate turn of phrase) of emotion, and a great introduction to a classic work of literature unfortunately lesser known in the English speaking world than it should be.