Victor Hugo's 150-year-old tragedy continues to excite on stage and film

| Monday, Dec. 24, 2012, 7:16 p.m.

For local fans of “Les Miserables,” the most wonderful time of the year is just beginning.

The much-anticipated film adaptation of Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil's blockbuster musical opens Christmas Day.

Hugh Jackman heads the cast as convict-turned-respectable businessman Jean Valjean, with Russell Crowe as the relentless Inspector Javert, who pursues the parole breaker across three decades of 19th-century France.

Backing them up in this tale of romance, deception, sacrifice, dashed hopes and unrequited love are a cast of stars who include Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen.

But the excitement doesn't stop there.

On Jan. 15, the 25th anniversary production of “Les Miserables” begins performances at the Benedum Center as a presentation of the PNC Broadway Across America — Pittsburgh series. It will be the eighth time the national tour has played here. Its last appearance here was in January 2005.

This all-new production has eliminated the stage turntable, replacing it with new staging, scenery and projections that were inspired by “Les Mis” author Victor Hugo's paintings of Paris.

Audiences have been flocking to the musical since its 1985 debut in London. During the past 27 years, more than 60 million people have seen a production of it in 42 countries.

Time and repeat viewings have not diminished fan enthusiasm.

“I would never miss ‘Les Mis,' ” says Robert Potter of McCandless, who looks forward to seeing it again on screen and stage.

“To me, ‘Les Mis' is the best thing I have ever seen on stage. The music is beautiful, of course,” Potter says. “But it is the story — or, really, the stories — that make it great. The intertwining of the multiple story lines done within the restraints of a limited time frame, all told with a rich musicality, is perfect.”

Mt. Washington resident Megan DiTommaso can't get enough of “Les Mis,” either.

DiTommaso began attending productions and playing the CDs after she first saw it a decade ago as a 12-year-old.

Last spring, she saw it again — at the Queen's Theater in London.

“My love for it grew even more,” DiTommaso says. “This is a story of humanity, pain, love and great loss ­— of a failed revolution of the people. It's a story of how our lives intertwine with those around us.”

The planned release of the movie has not slowed ticket sales for the national touring production, says Paul Organisak, vice president for programming at Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.“If you are a ‘Les Mis' lover, you know the movie is coming out. But there has been no drop off in sales. We are seeing ticket sales that are very, very strong.”

That may be because for some, once is not enough. Organisak, like many fans, intends to see both the movie and the live musical.

So does Potter.

He and his wife Cindy are longtime subscribers to the Broadway series, and consider the anniversary production a must-see.

“I hope to see the movie as soon as it comes out,” Potter says. “If there were a midnight showing, I would go even on Christmas Eve.”

Organisak believes fans look forward to seeing both productions because of their differences.

“Obviously, you can do more in a movie than on stage,” he says, referring to the film's ability to transport audiences and actors to multiple, often lavish settings and zoom in on details and facial expressions. And there's no mistaking the considerable drawing power of well-known actors such as Crowe and Hathaway.

But, he says, there's also much to be said for watching live actors perform on stage while you're watching with a thousand or more like-minded individuals.

“The experience of live theater — especially for as powerful a show as ‘Les Mis' — nothing can capture the power of that on film,” he says. “The power of live performance is unmistakable.”

Not everyone is eager to see the movie, though.

“I'm sick of being burned by film versions of musicals I love,” says Geoffrey W. Melada, an avid theater and opera fan, who lives in Shadyside. “I'm not going to spend three hours sitting through this Frankenstein-ish hybrid.”

The music is demanding, and the film's actors are not known for their ability as singers, Melada says.

Serious music fans go to “Les Mis” to experience the singing and the singers, he says. “If you don't have that, what do you have?... It's painful to see an old friend on the screen and have these non-singers and dilettantes dabble in the roles.”

He's unimpressed at the director's decision to have the actors singing as they were filmed instead of having them record their vocals later in a studio, as has been done with many musical films.

“That could make it worse,” Melada says.

Cindy Balentine of Apollo has seen the musical five times, and even though she, like Melada, has some concerns about the performers' vocal abilities, she can't wait for the movie to open.

“My husband and I saw ‘Lincoln' last week, and they had a very long preview of ‘Les Mis'. I almost started crying right then,” she says. “The cast looks great with a lot of big names. I just think that the music and the story are both very strong.”

Alice T. Carter is the theater critic for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808 or


1802: Victor-Marie Hugo is born on Feb. 26 in Besancon, France.

1829: Hugo sees a poor man being arrested on a Paris street for stealing a loaf of bread.

1845: Hugo begins writing “Les Miserables,” which he completes in 1861.

1862: Hugo's book is published in Paris and Brussels, where he was living in exile. People stand in lines and fight to buy one of the 48,000 copies.

1885: Hugo dies on May 23. On June 1, more than 3 million people follow the funeral procession to the Pantheon, where he was buried.

1909: “Les Miserables” made into a pair of silent American films.

1912: Becomes a French silent film.

1913: Made as a French four-part, silent, black-and-white movie.

1917: Yet another silent version made at Fox Studios.

1935: Frederic March and Charles Laughton star in the first sound version.

1952: Michael Rennie and Robert Newton star in yet another film.

1978: Richard Jordan and Anthony Perkins star in a made-for-TV movie.

1980: Debuts as an arena production at the Palais des Sports in Paris.

1985: The musical opens on Oct. 8 in London, where it continues to play.

1987: The musical opens in New York City on March 12, winning eight Tony Awards. In November, the national tour begins, visiting 150 cities.

1989: The musical debuts in Pittsburgh, running from June 15-20.

1995: A non-musical French movie opens, winning the 1996 Golden Globe for best foreign-language film.

1998: A non-musical film stars Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush.

2000: A TV mini-series of four 90-minute episodes for the Fox Family Channel stars Gerard Depardieu and John Malkovich.

2001: The musical celebrates its 21st London birthday and becomes the world's longest-running musical.

2006 A revival of the musical opens on Broadway for 463 performances before closing in 2008.

More about ‘Les Mis'

• “Les Miserables” was first published, not in France but in Brussels, Belgium, while Hugo was living in exile. He did not return to Paris until 1870.

• When it was first published in 1862, conservatives worried about the possible social impact of the book. The Vatican banned it for several years.

• The rebellion and building of the barricade in the climatic scenes of “Les Miserables” recreate the riots that erupted on June 5, 1832, during the funeral of Gen. Jean Maximillien Lamarque, a military hero and leader of the opposition in the Chamber of Deputies who championed the poor and had little patience with the restoration of the monarchy.

• Hugh Jackman, who plays Jean Valjean in the movie, is a long time fan of “Les Miserables.” He had seen the musical three times and early in his career he sang “Stars” as an audition piece.

• The movie's actors sang their roles while performing for the camera instead of singing in a recording studio at a later date.

• While working on location, the film's actors wore earpieces that allowed them to hear the live on-set pianist, who accompanied their singing from a remote location. The pianist was able to follow the performance on a monitor, adjusting tempo and melody to the actors' movements.

• The movie was shot in Gourdon, France, and in England at locations that included Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich and Winchester College.

• Javert's suicidal leap into the Seine was actually shot at the weir on the Avon River in Bath, England.

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