Monday, October 31, 2011

Les Miserables and the Nature of Tweaking

Yesterday I went to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. to a performance of the national tour of Les Miserables. It was a matinee, and the last performance for this stay at the Kennedy Center.

I enjoyed myself. I have listened to that music for years now, having first seen the Broadway production of it as a student in high school with my family. My mother saw it even before it was on Broadway, when it made its North American debut at the very same Kennedy Center all those years ago.

I don't intend for this to be a review of the production I saw, but I will mention that it seemed different. Rushed in places, not as poignant or powerful in others. Some music was rearranged. Further research after I got home revealed that this was done on purpose. This national tour is employing a slightly more modernized staging, according to the articles I have been reading. It seems that in some circles people were beginning to believe the original staging, (with the now absent trademark rotating barricade and such) was becoming obsolete for modern audiences, and hence was made trimmer, faster, and, once again according to what I was reading, with a plot that is "clarified."

I am not sure one of the most beloved and successful musicals of all time needs to be made "fresh", or sped up. I certainly don't feel anything needed to be "clarified", as I never found the plot to be particularly complex. It's not as though there are many twists and turns in the original. But, that is show business for you. Still, I think as a whole it was less powerful than the original staging. Smaller. More subdued. But it was still Les Miserables for the most part, and still a pleasure to see, and to hear the classic tunes with which nearly all theatre people are at least familiar, even if not fans of the show.

It did get me wondering about that age old question. How does one find balance between keeping something fresh, and keeping faithful to the original intent of a piece? With something like "Les Mis", it isn't as much of a question. It is still a very tightly controlled piece after all these years. Owners and producers still have huge authority over exactly when and where it is performed. There is little room for variation, unless of course, like with this current tour, it is designed specifically by said authorities to be different in key places. But is that good or bad?

I have come to believe that as with many things in theatre, it depends on the nature of the show. Legal issues aside, as an actor, and even as a director, I am usually quite opposed to the popular notion that a playwright owns every single performance of his show until the end of time, and therefore ties the hands of each theatre that performs it. This distant, god like direction from afar in the nebulous mass of "copyright law" constrains theatre in many ways. Especially on the community level, (where, let's be adults here, such boundaries are often ignored, in hopes they will never be noticed.)

Assuming I have a good director that gives me freedom, I usually love being in shows that are not under such restraints. That leeway to create a character, coupled with every other actor on stage doing the same thing, under the direction of someone who is also free to create their own vision is to me what makes theatre alive. It makes it art. It doesn't happen nearly as often as it should.

Then you have something like Les Miserable, which, one could argue, became the phenomena that it is due to the very nature of the staging, the orchestration, and the vocalization. As I said before, if you are in anyway involved in theatre, you have heard of Les Miserables, or else you are locked up in an iron mask talking to nobody when not on stage. So the show has, for good or bad, become a part of the theatre as a whole. And when that happens, might not it be fair to conclude that it has transcended innovation? That like a lighthouse its purpose is not to be fancy, pretty, or mobile, but to remain, exactly as is, so those far and wide can focus upon it? Reach for it? Know that no matter what it is always there, unchanging? I am not insulted by such changes as made to Les Mis for this tour. I just wonder if they were needed to keep it "alive". It seemed to be painting the peacock a bit.

I still think each production of this musical could be unique by allowing some variations in voice, character interpretation, dance numbers. Costumes. So long as the music itself remained essentially in tact. It is, after all, a musical. So I don't suggest that there can be no variation. Indeed I am in the odd position of suggesting that there could be both more personal variation allowed in individual performances, and less variation in the overall impact of the entire production.

In the end, I have no precise answer for these questions of how much freedom artists and producers and directors should have and should not have in any given production. Sometimes as an audience member, I want familiarity. Sometimes as an actor I want freedom. Again, some shows invite one, others invite the opposite. My preferences fluctuate. There may be no formula, if we are talking about pure art, and not legalities. (Which tend to end this debate in an instant, when called upon.)

What do you think? How much variation, change, and updating is needed to shows like Les Miserables? Is any show above the occasional tweeking? If so, how do you determine the cut off point?

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