Saturday, May 21, 2011


I just watched north Texas’ public TV station KERA (50 years young) air yet one more time the 25th Anniversary performance and celebration of Les Misérables. To say that I am passionate about and seduced by Les Misérables is a gross understatement of the first order. I consider it the best music and lyrics ever put to paper (Aye, the best musical) and then interpreted by a myriad of talented artists around the world thanks to the genius of Cameron Mackintosh. While I’m not qualified to comment on those Les Mis performers interpreting in other than English, they all sound great and appear to be enthusiastic and dedicated. Les Mis attracts performers of the uncommon variety. We can thank the producer and directors for their wise choices…

We of the Les Mis ilk (We many, we band of Brothers and Sisters…) have our favorite artists and perhaps especially with the central character of Les Misérables, Jean Valjean. All the dedicated performers who play this character bring a unique dimension with their singular interpretation and the passion of their performances - the differentiating element. The point? Among these great performers there is no bad, just different – and all impressive. I am amazed at the countless threads I see on the Internet many arguing that, “My Valjean is better than your Valjean” and diminishing the performances of all save their favorite with some punctuating their obsessive rants with sordid vulgarities.
Ladies and Gentlemen, we are all on the same side…

So, with all these great voices - and many being equal - it’s all about interpretation and performance/acting – dedication to the character. The standard by which all those Jean Valjeans will be judged will be in his anguished prayerful plea, Bring Him Home (BHH). To execute that role and that song, performance after performance, all to the intent and expectation of the ever present authors, producer, directors and every knowledgeable audience (55+ million to date and growing) is the most challenging element of the character.

So, how do we compare anybody to Colm Wilkinson and his Jean Valjean? As the original Jean Valjean the role was his to invent and interpret. Wilkinson became a student of Victor Hugo and understands Hugo’s work and intent. Wilkinson’s trademark will always be his total immersion into the character of Jean Valjean and his now iconic Bring Him Home written specifically for him by composer Claude-Michel Schonberg (music) with English lyrics written by the often overlooked Herbert Kretzmer who captured, created and or reinterpreted much of the soul of Les Mis. Kretzmer as co-writer is more than, “an equal among equals” and deserves far more recognition than the Tony and Grammy awards he has garnered. Kretzmer’s contributions allow us to grasp and begin to comprehend and reflect on our own humanity and we feel are largely responsible for the popularity of Les Mis. We salute Mackintosh for his brilliant decision to bring Kretzmer on board.

Schonberg relates that one month before Les Mis started in London in 1985, Director Trevor Nunn offered that they needed a song for the barricades – with director John Caird later remarking that the Jean Valjean character should sing a prayer? Given the genius and tenor of Colm Wilkinson's voice (the role of Jean Valjean was initially written for a baritone) Schoenberg continued, "If I write for Colm, I should write something very high." Schonberg wrote the BHH musical score during a week-end. The following Monday morning, Schonberg brought the song to Herbert Kretzmer who put his now famous words to BHH literally overnight. Schoenberg, Boublil and Kretzmer brought BHH to a rehearsal where Schonberg revealed the song, their intent and taught Colm the song. After tutelage of some fifteen minutes Colm sang the song in such an inspirational manner it prompted one cast member to state, "We have been told that this show was dealing with God but we've never been told that God would get to sing in the show." From that point there was Colm Wilkinson and everybody else… Co-Les Mis conspirator and lyricist Alain Boublil later translated BHH into French for the second Paris production at the Mogador Theatre in 1991.

Like the carefully crafted Les Misérables itself, though, the world and technology continues to evolve witness the slimmed down but technologically enhanced 25th anniversary show at the O₂ in London which uses expansive projections of Victor Hugo’s paintings. It is the work of a younger generation and while the message is the same (and intact with most of the incredible contributions of the previous collaborators – Trevor Nunn, John Caird, John Napier, et al) change always seems to involve conflict and Cameron Mitchell and Trevor Nunn are now apparently in different corners. Too bad

The conflict also continues with who was and is the best Jean Valjean. As I reflected before, that role belongs to Colm Wilkinson though there are many great performances to appreciate. I have some favorites and they include Jeff Leyton (aka James Urquhart) the Scot from Edinburgh who was given credit in the 10th Anniversary show of Les Mis for representing Ireland? True, he did perform in Ireland, but… Jeff’s performances as Jean Valjean were extraordinary and we need to recognize and preserve them. Many feel that despite Wilkinson’s hold on the role, Leyton may be the best Jean Valjean, ever.

I also recognize what is undoubtedly one of the great Les Mis stories in the person of Native Texan Gary Morris who is just as comfortable singing Puccini's La Boheme as he is on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. Many feel that Morris’ Bring Him Home sets the standard for this challenging song and, indeed, the role of Jean Valjean. We would like to know more how Gary came to be chosen for Les Mis.

If you have not heard/seen Robert Marien sing his English/French – French/English Bring Him Home then your life is incomplete. And, no, Robert Marien is not French. He is Québécois and a proud Canadian who has performed in Les Mis around the world including Montreal, Paris, New York and London.

Other great Jean Valjeans include Randal Keith, Craig Schulman, John Owen-Jones, Anthony Warlow, Simon Bowman, Drew Sarich, Michael Maguire, Michael Burgess, Rob Guest, Phil Cavill, J. Mark McVey, Peter Karrie, Ivan Rutherford, Robert Evan, Fred Inkley, the extraordinary Alfie Boe (who will only get better with age) among many others.

So, we are motivated and inspired by the music, the words, the passion, aye, even the idea of Les Mis. It should speak to all of us from start to finish as Hugo offers, “… the advance from evil to good, from injustice to justice, from falsity to truth, from darkness to daylight, from blind appetite to conscience, from decay to life, from bestiality to duty, from Heaven to Hell, from Limbo to God. Matter itself is the starting point, and the point of arrival is the soul.” The musical is the continuation of Hugo’s work of life and as Scot Stuart Fernie states, “the perfect union of material and medium” which inspires, “people to think on their own lives.”

Ah, the soul - and especially that of the English-born New Zealander Robert John (Rob) Guest who passed to his great reward in 2008. Rob was known as the "Australian Jean Valjean" though he performed in New Zealand as well. It is to Rob we dedicate this post with our earnest appreciation and thanks for his contributions to our lives. You live…


Ned Buxton

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