Vital Signs

Viva la Musical Comedy

A few months before I saw the musical Les Miserables—actually a few months before it opened at the Kennedy Center last December—I heard it. The show's publicist had sent me a tape of the London version. When I first listened to it, I felt disappointed. It sounded more than a little like Evita, with the strongest passages or the catchiest musical phrases not only cheaply sentimental but also repetitious in a manipulative sort of way.

Whatever its merits or shortcomings, Les Miserables was earmarked as a significant event for more than just the season. I felt privileged to obtain separate interviews with Cameron Mackintosh, its producer; Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, respectively the French lyricist and composer who together in 1978 conceived of the whole project; Herbert Kretzmer, the English lyricist; and Trevor Nunn and John Caird, the co-directors and the top two artistic minds behind the Royal Shakespeare Company, under whose auspices the English version premiered in London in the fall of 1985.

Back in September and October of 1986, I forced myself to listen to the tape again and again—occasionally as background music while I was revising my routine theater pieces, or perhaps more intently while I was sitting in traffic jams on the FDR drive hoping I'd still make the 8:05 curtain. And then gradually, imperceptibly, it began to happen. The music started...

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