The Brilliance of the ‘Les Misérables’ 10th Anniversary Concert

Reviews

Since its original premiere at the Barbican Centre in London in 1985, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s “Les Misérables” has become one of the longest-running and most beloved musicals of all time. Although it originally opened to mixed reviews, it has now become the longest-running West End show, having played over 14,000 performances, and the fifth longest running show on Broadway, and two concert shows to celebrate the show’s anniversary milestones: the 10th anniversary concert at the Royal Albert Hall, and the 25th anniversary concert at the O2 Arena. 

Although the 25th anniversary concert is the more recent concert, the 10th anniversary concert is the more popular and typically more favored of the two. There are many aspects of it that still resonate with me and many other people 27 years later, such as its simple set-up, excellent lineup of performers showcasing some of their best performances, and the large chorus that sings with the ensemble.

Based on Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel of the same name, at the heart of “Les Misérables” is the story of former convict Jean Valjean in his search for redemption in 19th century France after he breaks his parole. The first half is centralized on the small coastal town of Montreuil-sur-Mer in 1823, while the second half shifts its focus to the 1832 June Rebellion in Paris. In Valjean’s search for redemption, however, there are several other stories within it: Fantine, a single mother abandoned by her lover whose circumstances eventually lead her to turn to prostitution in order to provide for her daughter. Cosette, the daughter of Fantine, whom Valjean rescues from abuse and raises following her mother’s death. Marius Pontmercy, a student and an affiliate of the revolutionary group Les Amis de l’ABC, who falls in love with Cosette. Javert, a police inspector with an extreme devotion to the Bible and an equally strong devotion to capturing Valjean. The Thénardiers, corrupt innkeepers turned street criminals and Cosette’s former caretakers, and their daughter Éponine, who also falls in love with Marius.

In 1995, to celebrate the musical’s 10th anniversary in the West End, Cameron Mackintosh arranged a concert performance at the Royal Albert Hall. Nicknamed “the Dream Cast,” he handpicked each performer from various English-language productions around the world: Colm Wilkinson (Valjean), Michael Ball (Marius), and Alun Armstrong (Thénardier) from the original London cast, Judy Kuhn (Cosette), Michael Maguire (Enjolras), and Anthony Crivello (Grantaire) from the original Broadway cast, Ruthie Henshall (Fantine), Jenny Galloway (Madame Thénardier), and Adam Searles (Gavroche) from various replacement London casts, Lea Salonga (Éponine) from a replacement Broadway cast, and Philip Quast (Javert) from Australia. 

During the performance, each performer stood at one of five microphones — sometimes sharing them with another performer — and sang out. With there being no acting, filmed clips from the stage production were shown during certain numbers, such as in the prologue with the prisoners of Toulon or when Valjean ventures into the Paris sewers with a wounded Marius. Some moments in the show that relied on the set, however, were cut, such as the death of Gavroche, a revolutionary ally and Éponine’s kid brother.

Of course, the concert has the same flaws that plague the stage production; the plot drags in some places, like with the prolonged focus on the Amis’ barricade in the second act. With other aspects of the show, the romanticization of certain characters like Éponine, the character assassination of Cosette, and other questionable changes, like making the Thénardiers — who are overall despicable people — comedic relief also come to mind. However, the beautiful score with its simple yet effective ostinatos and memorable songs, such as the grand Act One closure “One Day More,” make up for the fact. 

When it comes to specific performances in the concert, Colm Wilkinson, Philip Quast, Ruthie Henshall, Lea Salonga, Michael Ball, Judy Kuhn, Jenny Galloway, and Alun Armstrong immediately come to mind. In particular, Colm Wilkinson’s renditions of “Valjean’s Soliloquy” and “Bring Him Home” are both incredibly moving, showing Valjean’s vulnerability and internal conflict. 

In “Valjean’s Soliloquy,” Valjean has just been given mercy after attempting to steal from the Bishop in Digne following his release from Toulon, having his soul “bought for God.” As no one has shown him this amount of generosity before, his internal conflict and road to redemption begin. In the beginning, Wilkinson uses a softer voice to convey Valjean’s conflict, before building up to a belt during the chorus. Using these techniques throughout the song, he is able to illustrate the frenzy of Valjean’s turmoil before he rips up his parole slip at the end of the song.

Bring Him Home” is perhaps Wilkinson’s best use of this technique in the entire concert. At this point in the show, Valjean has come to the barricade after being given a letter by Éponine, who has disguised herself as a boy. He watches over Marius as he sleeps at the barricade, beginning to accept the idea of him as his son-in-law and realizing that, in order for Cosette to grow into adulthood, he must let her be with Marius. Valjean’s musings eventually become a plea to God: if you are truly there, then please spare this boy’s life. It is this moment of realization, combined with Wilkinson’s raw performance, that helps the viewer sympathize with Cosette and Marius’ relationship more — despite how abruptly it began — leading the audience to root for Marius’ survival. 

Lea Salonga’s rendition of “On My Own” is another highlight of the concert. Having just delivered the letter to Valjean at Marius’ request, Éponine sings about her love for Marius while she walks the empty streets. Salonga’s clear enunciation and diction, combined with her excellent mixed belt and tone, cause her to project a pleasant, crystalline sound without sacrificing an emotional performance. Salonga also makes excellent use of her body language and facial expressions to convey her emotions, such as wrapping herself in her arms or smiling in certain parts of the song. As the only non-white performer in the cast, Lea Salonga makes her performance all the more memorable for me, breaking down the barriers that restricted the opportunities of many other POC (people of color) performers in musical theatre. However, despite her excellent performance, I’m always startled by how clear her voice is after having grown accustomed to Frances Ruffelle, who originated the role on both Broadway and the West End, whose voice is rougher and more Piaf-esque.

Jenny Galloway and Alun Armstrong’s performances as the Thénardiers also stick out as a highlight of the concert. Their singing and dancing through “Master of the House” and “Beggar at the Feast,” as well as their excellent chemistry overall, make their performances all the more memorable. Galloway and Armstrong make their roles more tolerable and their ridiculous mannerisms and costumes, such as the aristocratic outfits they wear during “Beggar at the Feast,” add so much to the absurdity of the Thénardiers that you can’t help but laugh at them — out of genuine amusement? Embarrassment? Who knows. Michael Ball’s rendition of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” stands out as well, detailing a recovering Marius as he recounts the memories he has of the Les Amis de l’ABC prior to their deaths on the barricade. 

That being said, however, the main highlights for me have always been Ruthie Henshall’s performance as Fantine, Philip Quast’s performance as Javert, and the duet between Quast and Wilkinson in “The Confrontation.”

Ruthie Henshall has always been my favorite Fantine before I even really knew it, although, I can’t say the same about the horrendous wig they put her in. There’s this unique, velvety quality to her voice, combined with its raspiness, that just ties every role she plays together. Fantine, of course, is no exception, and her performance in the 10th anniversary cast is one of Henshall’s best to date, perfectly shown in her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream.” Henshall perfectly captures the sorrow and joy of Fantine’s tragedy with her raw, gut-wrenching performance, especially in the build-up to the song’s climax. This is particularly shown when she sings “but he was gone when autumn came.” Despite some disliking the voice cracks and breaks in Henshall’s performance, I think they add to the visceral pain and rage of Fantine’s character; she is supposed to be grieving and recounting her tragedy. It’s not supposed to be all pretty and clean. Henshall continues this in “Lovely Ladies,” “Fantine’s Arrest,” and “Fantine’s Death.” At the end of “Fantine’s Death,” there’s a long note where Henshall decrescendos her voice, signaling the death of Fantine. At first, I thought she was stepping away from the mic to create that effect, before I found out she never stepped away from the mic and that it was entirely her voice! Talk about crazy breath control.

While many prefer the performance of Lea Salonga’s Fantine at the 25th anniversary concert, I may be in the minority here when I say that I disagree. I can’t get into Salonga’s performance the same way I can get into Henshall’s. Despite my admiration for both actresses, Salonga’s portrayal of Fantine feels very flat and emotionless. One of the key aspects of Fantine’s character is that the audience needs to sympathize with her and her tragedy, and I just couldn’t get that out of Salonga’s portrayal. However, I do love the acting choices she uses. In Henshall’s portrayal, however, there’s a poignancy to it expressed through not only her voice but through her body language as well; every little movement she makes is intentional, such as the simple head bow or the head turn to Javert in “Fantine’s Arrest.” Henshall’s Fantine is one I view as personally closer to Victor Hugo’s original vision — a woman already dead, only living for the sake of her child.

The same can be said for Philip Quast as Javert, as he carries both the cruelty and charm of the character that makes him so memorable. In particular, Quast’s rendition of “Stars” is another highlight of the concert. Following an attempted robbery of Valjean by Thénardier and the Patron-Minette, a local street gang — a scene cut from the concert — the song details Javert’s intentions to recapture Valjean, as it is the only way, in his mind, for justice to be served. Despite many people’s presumptions, Javert is not the villain of “Les Misérables;” rather, he is just a man who takes the Bible too literally and, thus, it influences his perception of the law and justice. The steadiness in his voice shows a man sure of himself and his duty, and it adds to his performance of “Stars” when contrasted to the uncertainty and meekness that plagues it during “Javert’s Suicide” — which, not so coincidentally, shares the same melody as “Valjean’s Soliloquy.” 

In “Javert’s Suicide,” having been spared by Valjean back at the barricades after he attempts to infiltrate the Amis’ revolutionary efforts and hoping to catch up with him in the sewers as he carries Marius off, Javert experiences his own inner turmoil — that people can’t be just “good” and “evil.” Contrasted with the steadiness of Philip Quast’s voice in “Stars,” the same man in “Javert’s Suicide” is unable to comprehend this fact. Quast, in his frantic tone, almost seeming to tremble at times, and sometimes fluctuating back to that steadiness, if only for a moment, captures this turmoil perfectly, having to bring his entire moral code into question for the sake of letting Valjean save the life of Marius.

It can be said that one of the peaks of Philip Quast’s Javert comes in the form of “The Confrontation,” sung with Colm Wilkinson. Following the death of Fantine, Javert confronts Valjean — who, at this time, is going by an alias in order to evade recapture — in Fantine’s hospital room, having figured out his true identity. The synchronicity of both Valjean and Javert comes into play, as they recite their melodies from the “Prologue,” beginning with Valjean reciting Javert’s and Javert reciting Valjean’s. It then switches back to the two of them reciting their own respective melodies, showing that they are two sides of the same coin — there cannot be one without the other. This, as well as the blending of Quast and Wilkinson’s voices, leaves the audience squirming in their seats with anticipation as they wait to see who will end up the victor of their game of cat and mouse. 

Although there are many aspects to praise in the concert, there are some aspects that I would have liked to see differently. To begin, there are way too many crucial plot points that had been cut out due to them relying heavily on certain parts of the set, like the barricade. These events include the attempted robbery of Valjean, Gavroche’s death, and the bargain between the Thénardiers, Marius, and Cosette at their wedding. Some of the casting choices also leave much to be desired; as much as I love Judy Kuhn, I wish the original Cosette from the London production, Rebecca Caine — who happens to be my favorite performer in the role — could have reprised her role, as her sweet, operatic voice fit the role perfectly. Michael Maguire hardly resembles Enjolras, both in appearance and vocally, and I wish David Burt, also from the original London cast, reprised his role here as well. There’s also a part of me that, despite loving Lea Salonga’s performance, wishes that Frances Ruffelle was called to reprise her role as Éponine; her Piaf-esque, street singer voice fits the role better than Lea Salonga’s more clear, sericeous tone. 

Despite having listened to many bootlegs, official recordings, and having seen the 2012 film, I always find myself coming back to the 10th anniversary concert. The concert, despite its simplistic concept and execution, has been the production that has always been the most memorable to me; with each performer giving some of their best performances, the wonderful orchestra and chemistry between the performers, and the huge choir that sings with the ensemble. Sometimes that’s all a production really needs to make an impression. Plus, it’s hilarious to see what the performers are doing when they are sitting down. Seriously, what are Michael Ball and Philip Quast doing during “Master of the House?”

If you are interested in getting into “Les Misérables” or are just looking for another cast to listen to, I would highly recommend you watch or listen to the 10th anniversary concert. It remains just as timeless today as it did back then, telling a beautiful story of redemption, love, hate, poverty, wealth, social injustice, and so much more.