Monday, September 12, 2011

Les Miserables in Go Memphis!

An excerpt from Friday's cover story in Go Memphis.

'Les Miserables' gets new look for 25th anniversary
By Christopher Blank
9/9/11

If you had butterflies in your stomach while opening this section of the newspaper today (or while clicking the above headline on our website), it's likely that you have some interest in musical theater.

Enough interest, at least, that you'll probably ace the following quiz.
Name the musicals associated with the following images:
1. Old feline on a flying tire.
2. Masked man in a gondola on an underground lake.
3. Helicopter.
4. French revolutionaries waving a flag.

If there's one thing you can say about the genius of British theatrical producer Cameron Mackintosh, besides the fact that he's a very rich man, it's that each of his most commercially successful musicals has etched images into our collective unconscious that, more than 20 years later, are still remarkably easy to spot when they're spoofed on "The Simpsons," "Family Guy" or "South Park."

 But none of the aforementioned highlights from "Cats," "The Phantom of the Opera" and "Miss Saigon" has raked in more comic residuals than the flag-waving scene from "Les Miserables." It has become such a trope of valor and heroic optimism that other musicals regularly borrow it for a visual joke, a joke that isn't any less stale in the recent "Shrek the Musical" (2008) than it was in "Spamalot" (2005) or "Urinetown" (2001).

In 2008, on the eve of the presidential election, a parody YouTube video called "Les Misbarack" depicted campaign staffers for Barack Obama lip-synching to the epic Act I closing song "One Day More." As expected, the office workers gradually organize themselves into the song's classic "V" formation finale, defiantly raise their fists toward heaven and wave an Obama campaign poster instead of a flag. The low-budget video got more than a million views.

Countless international tours of "Les Miserables," along with several concerts and revivals, have burned the show's iconic imagery into the minds of generations of theater-goers. So when Mackintosh decided to scrap the famous old set design for the 25th anniversary tour of "Les Miserables," which arrives in Memphis on Tuesday at the Orpheum, the new set designer faced a heap of scrutiny.

Matt Kinley, who had worked as an associate designer on Mackintosh's West End shows "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" and "Mary Poppins," would have to figure out a new way to reframe the dramatic life story of Jean Valjean, the heroic petty criminal relentlessly pursed by an obsessive policeman, Javert.

"You have to be mindful of what you're doing," Kinley said from Mackintosh's London office. "This isn't the kind of show where people want to see the avant-garde version. There was never any dictation that certain things were sacrosanct, but you also don't want to infringe on people's claim to the old show. The classic "V" formation is ingrained, and those ingrained images become difficult for a team rolling out a new version of a landmark production."

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