"Les Miserables," the hit of Paris and London, is a Monarch Notes version of the Victor Hugo novel. It gives you sketches of the plot, characters and themes, but no suggestion of the depth of the original.
But just as many students get no closer to the classics than Monarch Notes, many theatergoers will probably find this an easier way to digest the book than actually tackling its 1,200 gripping pages.
What "Les Miserables" does offer is a kind of spectacle American theatergoers have not seen in a long time. Like his set for "Cats," which creates a total fantasy environment. John Napier's designs cast an ominous spell over the whole theater, plunging us into a somber, prisonlike world that light seldom penetrates.
David Hersey has lit Napier's grim stage pictures in a way that often evokes the eerie gloom of 19th century gaslight. It is easy for the audience to lose itself in another world. These powerful settings do much more to convey Hugo's story than the score.
"Les Miserables" tells of Jean Valjean, an ex-convict determined to lead a Christian life, who is hounded by Javert, a policeman too rigid to believe men can reform themselves, and plagued by the poor, ever scheming rascal Thenardier. It is a story music could easily ignite.
Most of Claude-Michel Schonberg's music is drivel - singsong, repetitious, emotionally dead. A few numbers succeed through their very simplicity.
Herbert Kretzmer's English lyrics, based presumably on the French originals, are unbelievably simple-minded. Though there is occasional cleverness ("God, what a wine/ Chateauneuf de Turpentine"), for the most part they are drearily informational.
A witty friend observed that if the creators of "Pump Boys and Dinettes" had written "My Fair Lady," the lyrics would have been on the order of "I'm the teacher/ She's the student." A similar subtlety is evident here.
If I tell you that one line is "Here's to pretty girls who went to our heads" and the next one begins "Here's to the witty girls who..." do I have to finish it for you?
The strongest moments, not surprisingly, have little to do with the text. There is an exchange of glances between Jean Valjean and Javert that is more highly charged than any of their verbal exchanges. When, in the midst of the murkiness, the bright red flag of revolution begins to wave, it has more impact than the theoretically stirring march the rebellious crowd sings.
It is a tribute to the cast that they are able to make the material seem vibrant. As Valjean, Colm Wilkinson has a strong stage presence, and in the one solid song - a prayer - a powerful musicianship that is genuinely moving.
Granted the stiff songs, Terrence Mann can do little more than posture to suggest Javert's pathetic, inflexible devotion to duty.
Leo Burmester and Jennifer Butt have a raunchy humor as the scalawag Thenardiers. As their prostitute daughter Eponine, Frances Ruffelle's singing is full of self-conscious rock mannerisms, but the vulgarity is appropriate to the character.
There is beautiful singing by David Bryant as the suitor for Valjean's daughter and by Michael Maguire as a young revolutionary.
Directors Trevor Nunn and John Caird move the show as fluidly, as imaginatively as they did "Nicholas Nickleby." Do they convey the misery of life in another time? The excitement of life on the barricades? Not really.
One finds oneself admiring the cinematic way the sets move, the haunting way shadows fall on the huge back wall, theatrical inventiveness, not "Les Miserables."
Make no bones about it. "Les Miserables," the Anglo-French import that opened at the Broadway Theater last night, is simply smashing.
This is magnificent, red-blooded, two-fisted theater. Start fighting to see it. You will not be disappointed. This is something like the Grand Canyon. Every expectation is fulfilled. It lives up to its hype.
Of course that is the good news. There is some bad news as well, if you really want to hear it.
This adaptation of the Victor Hugo novel scarcely does it justice - but, despite Fredric March and Charles Laughton, nor did the 1935 classic movie.
In fact, I wonder how fair Verdi's librettist Francesco Piave, for the opera "Rigoletto" more than a century ago, was to his Hugo source, the novel "Le Roi S'Amuse." Adaptors tend to be tough cookies.
But if you really want to savor disappointment and rake over a few cold coals, listen - really listen - to the score.
Most of the time you will be watching the scenery and wallowing in the brutish drama and tear-stained sentimentality, but if your ear gets around to Claude-Michel Schonberg's music you might feel that even as background wallpaper to all the stirring theatrics, it is somewhat monotonously patterned.
There are three or four more or less decent tunes - two lovelorn, one martial and one funny - which are repeated ad nauseam during the long evening. As composers, Schonberg and John Cameron, responsible here for the "orchestral score," could even learn from Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Luckily nowadays, you don't have to be a Richard Rodgers or Cole Porter, or even a Charles Strouse or Stephen Sondheim, to compose a hit musical.
Times have changed, and the function of music in this kind of musical - shows that would be better called "spectaculars" or "extravaganzas" - has genuinely changed with them. This is a different kind of beast, or, to be more pertinent, a new breed of cat.
Schonberg's real contribution to the entertainment is in dreaming up the idea with Alain Boublil, who in turn formulated the French text in collaboration with Jean-Marc Natel.
With Herbert Kretzmer's succinct, well-pointed and economically dramatic English lyrics, the word-play, which has had additional English text added by James Fenton, makes the perfect foundation for the evening's true architects: the builders, the planners, the technicians, the wizards.
Presumably teamed up under master-wizard Trevor Nunn, these are Nunn and John Caird, the co-directors; John Napier, the great designer in charge of the show's total look; David Hersey, who fixed the lights and Andreane Neofitou, who envisioned and envisaged the pinpointedly effective costumes.
This is precisely the same team that gave us the RSC's production of "Nicholas Nickleby," and this Anglo version of "Les Miserables," originally a Paris musical, was indeed first staged by the RSC at its Barbican Theater.
The production values, concepts and ideas are clearly from the same stable - and of course, luckily, Hugo and Dickens do have quite a lot in common.
Nevertheless, be warned - and I trust I am not being snobbish about this - "Nicholas Nickleby" was a major theatrical achievement, capable of changing a person's view of the theater.
"Les Miserables" is superbly served, instantly disposable trash. It is the difference between a fast-food hamburger and a great haute cusine steak. Superficially they share something. And the difference, for most people, will be in taste rather than nutrition.
Nunn and his Nunnsuch kids never put a foot wrong or a finger misplaced. "Les Miserables" is a technical miracle. I don't mean the computers and the machines (the night I saw it, they malfunctioned and we had to wait an hour for the fuse to be fixed, or whatever). I mean the theatrical ideas.
The British have been preparing for this new kind of musical ever since Sean Kenny designed Lionel Bart's "Oliver!" (a show which is the odd foster-father of this) and "Blitz!," and they now have the methodology perfected.
Hugo's theme has been stripped down beautifully to the concept of a confrontation and a chase. The confrontation is between Valjean, the man of morality and God's justice, and Javert, the man of law and Man's justice.
Valjean is a paroled prisoner from a chain gang, where he served years for stealing food to help a child. Unable to go straight, he steals silver candlesticks from a priest, who lies when Valjean is re-arrested, thus giving the convict God's blessing of a second change.
The reprieved Valjean prospers, but against the colorful backdrop of poverty and revolution in early 19th-century France, Javert mercilessly pursues him.
Intertwined with this pursuit is the death of the little whore Fantine, whose passing would have made Little Nell green with envy; the love story between her daughter Cosette, who becomes Valjean's ward, and the handsome young student Marius; and the unrequited love that the urchin girl Eponine also feels for lucky, carefree Marius.
Add to this French ragout a pair of vicious but comic villains, the rascally innkeeper Thenardier and his crone-like wife.
And on the stage the whole saga, this wonderful human pageant, falls satisfyingly into place - with the help of the revolving stage and the sliding scenery - like a jigsaw puzzle.
Of course it is a unique spectacle and some of the set pieces, like the body-strewn barricade and the steaming Paris sewers, will prove as unforgettable as a Gustave Dore engraving.
But Nunn and Caird have also worked wonders with the simplicities of stagecraft, such as the ingenious dramatic suggestion of Javert's suicide.
And the cast, from top to toe, is terrific. I enjoyed "Les Miserables" much more on Broadway than I did in London, although the production seems virtually the same.
Fundamentally this is because the second time around, I was totally prepared in my expectations.
Colm Wilkinson, with his voice of moral outrage and hulking moral presence, is as superb as ever as Valjean, and the only other British import in the cast is Frances Ruffelle, who gives perhaps the best individual performance of the show as little Eponine, who dies for love.
Terrence Mann is somberly impressive as the implacable Javert, David Bryant sweetly and irresolutely charming as Marius, and while both Judy Kuhn as Cosette and the strong-voiced Randy Graff as Fantine are a little wan in characterization, the actual characters they are playing are, indeed, a little wan.
"Les Miserables" is the stuff of theatrical legend. Go with the proper expectations, and you will have a lovely evening. And before we get stuffy about it, remember in the good old days you never went to Richard Rodgers expecting Mozart.
If anyone doubts that the contemporary musical theater can flex its atrophied muscles and yank an audience right out of its seats, he need look no further than the Act I finale of ''Les Miserables.''
At that point in the gripping pop opera at the Broadway, the strands of narrative culled from Victor Hugo's novel of early-19th-century France intertwine in a huge undulating tapestry. The unjustly hounded fugitive Jean Valjean (Colm Wilkinson) is once more packing his bags for exile on the ''never-ending road to Calvary,'' even as his eternal pursuer, the police inspector Javert (Terrence Mann), plots new malevolent schemes. The young lovers Marius and Cosette are exchanging tearful farewells while Marius's unrequited admirer, Eponine, mourns her own abandonment. And everywhere in the Paris of 1832 is the whisper of insurrection, as revolutionary students prepare to mount the barricade.
Were ''Les Miserables'' unfolding as a novel - or in one of its many film adaptations - these events would be relayed sequentially, or through literary or cinematic cross-cutting. But in the musical theater at its most resourceful, every action can occur on stage at once. Such is the thunderous coup that brings down the Act I curtain. The opera-minded composer Claude-Michel Schonberg, having earlier handed each character a gorgeous theme, now brings them all into an accelerating burst of counterpoint titled ''One Day More.'' The set designer John Napier and lighting designer David Hersey peel back layer after layer of shadow - and a layer of the floor as well - to create the illusion of a sprawling, multilayered Paris on the brink of upheaval. Most crucially, the directors Trevor Nunn and John Caird choreograph the paces of their players on a revolving stage so that spatial relationships mirror both human relationships and the pressing march of history.
The ensuing fusion of drama, music, character, design and movement is what links this English adaptation of a French show to the highest tradition of modern Broadway musical production. One can hardly watch the Act I finale without thinking of the star-crossed lovers and rival gangs preparing for the rumble in the ''Tonight'' quintet of ''West Side Story'' - or of the revolving-stage dispersal of Tevye's shtetl following the pogrom in ''Fiddler on the Roof.'' In ''Les Miserables,'' Mr. Nunn and Mr. Caird have wedded the sociohistorical bent, unashamed schmaltz and Jerome Robbins staging techniques from those two American classics with the distinctive directorial style they've developed on their own at the Royal Shakespeare Company. This production is the Nunn-Caird ''Nicholas Nickleby'' gone gloriously show biz - which is to say, with conviction, inspiration and taste.
The evening may not appeal to those enraptured by the 1,300-page edition of Hugo. The musical thinks nothing of condensing chapters of exposition or philosophical debate into a single quatrain or unambiguous confrontation; encyclopedic digressions and whole episodes are thrown out. Unlike ''Nicholas Nickleby,'' which slavishly attempted to regurgitate its entire source, ''Les Miserables'' chooses sweeping and hurtling motion over the savoring of minute details. That artistic decision, however arguable, is in keeping with the difference between Hugo and Dickens as writers, not to mention the distinction between musicals and plays as theatrical forms.
While facts and psychological nuances are lost and even the plot is often relegated to a program synopsis, the thematic spirit of the original is preserved. Sequence after sequence speaks of Hugo's compassion for society's outcasts and his faith in God's offer of redemption. When the poor Fantine is reduced to ''making money in her sleep,'' her downtrodden fellow prostitutes are apotheosized in golden light as their predatory clients circle in menacing shadows. When the story's action moves from the provinces to Paris, two hulking wooden piles of domestic bric-a-brac converge to form an abstract representation of a mean slum, bordered on every side by the shuttered windows of a city coldly shunning its poor. In a subsequent and dazzling transition, the towers tilt to form an enormous barricade. Later still, the barricade twirls in mournful silence to become a charnel house - ''Guernica'' re-imagined as a Dada sculpture - crammed with the splayed corpses of a revolution that failed.
Except for that uprising's red flag, Mr. Napier's designs, all encased in a dark, beclouded prison of a proscenium, are drained of color. ''Les Miserables'' may be lavish, but its palette, like its noblest characters, is down-to-earth - dirty browns and cobblestone grays, streaked by Mr. Hersey with the smoky light that filters down to the bottom of the economic heap. The proletarian simplicity of the design's style masks an incredible amount of theatrical sophistication. In one three-dimensional zoom-lens effect, Valjean's resolution of a crisis of conscience is accompanied by the sudden materialization of the courtroom where the moral question raised in his song (''Who Am I?'') must be answered in deed. ''Les Miserables'' eventually takes us from the stars where inspector Javert sets his metaphysical perorations to the gurgling sewers inhabited by the parasitic innkeeper, Thenardier - and in one instance even simulates a character's suicidal fall through much of that height.
Mr. Schonberg's profligately melodious score, sumptuously orchestrated by John Cameron to straddle the eras of harpsichord and synthesizer, mixes madrigals with rock and evokes composers as diverse as Bizet (for the laborers) and Weill (for their exploiters). Motifs are recycled for ironic effect throughout, allowing the story's casualties to haunt the grief-stricken survivors long after their deaths. The resourceful lyrics - written by the one-time London drama critics Herbert Kretzmer and James Fenton, from the French of Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel - can be as sentimental as Hugo in translation. Yet the libretto has been sharpened since London, and it is the edginess of the cleverest verses that prevents the Thenardiers' oom-pah-pah number, ''Master of the House,'' from sliding into ''Oliver!''
It's New York's good fortune that Mr. Wilkinson has traveled here with his commanding London performance as Valjean intact. An actor of pugilistic figure and dynamic voice, he is the heroic everyman the show demands at its heart - convincingly brawny, Christlike without being cloying, enraged by injustice, paternal with children. Mr. Wilkinson anchors the show from his first solo, in which he runs away from his identity as paroled prisoner 20601 with a vengeance that burns his will into the inky void around him. He is symbiotically matched by Mr. Mann's forceful Javert, who at first acts with his sneering lower lip but soon gains shading in the soliloquy that passionately describes the authoritarian moral code driving him to stalk the hero obsessively for 17 years.
Though uniformly gifted as singers, the American supporting cast does not act with the consistency of its West End predecessors. Randy Graff delivers Fantine's go-for-the-throat ''I Dreamed a Dream'' like a Broadway belter handed a show-stopper rather than a pathetic woman in ruins. David Bryant, as Marius, brings fervor to a touching hymn to dead comrades (''Empty Chairs at Empty Tables''), but not before he's proved a narcissistic romantic lead. Jennifer Butt plays the funny but cruel Mme. Thenardier as if she were the toothlessly clownish orphanage matron of ''Annie.''
Other roles fare better. Frances Ruffelle, the production's second London emigree, is stunning as the bedraggled Eponine: She's an angel with a dirty face and an unrelenting rock balladeer's voice. Leo Burmester's moldy-looking Thenardier really metamorphoses into the vicious, dog-eat-dog social carnivore his lyrics claim him to be. Judy Kuhn's lovely Cosette and Michael Maguire's noble rebel, Enjolras, are also first-rate. Donna Vivino, the young Cosette, and Braden Danner, the urchin Gavroche, tower over most child actors, however diminutively.
That ''Les Miserables'' easily overrides its lesser performers, candied romantic tableaux and early Act II languors is a testament to the ingenuity of the entire construction. This show isn't about individuals, or even the ensemble, so much as about how actors and music and staging meld with each other and with the soul of its source. The transfiguration is so complete that by evening's end, the company need simply march forward from the stage's black depths into a hazy orange dawn to summon up Hugo's unflagging faith in tomorrow's better world. The stirring sentiments belong to hallowed 19th-century literature, to be sure, but the fresh charge generated by this ''Miserables'' has everything to do with the electrifying showmanship of the 20th-century musical.
Jean Valjean's most prodigious feat in "Les Miserables" is to lift a huge cart off a man trapped beneath it. The musical version of Victor Hugo's classic novel must lift something infinitely heavier - a mountain of pre-opening hype.
To get out from under that crushing burden, "Les Miserables," the musical, would need the strength that comes from creativity, not publicity. That power source isn't at peak voltage. More faithful to the 1862 novel than inspired by it, "Les Mis" only sporadically lights up the theater with passion. But if you can forget all the hype - the reports of the huge London success, the $11-million Broadway advance, the torrent of articles - and come to the show with reasonable expectations, you can have an enjoyable evening.
You can, for starters, enjoy Trevor Nunn and John Caird's state-of-the-art staging, which whirls characters cinematically into focus on a huge turntable. You can enjoy even more Colm Wilkinson's dynamic performance as Jean Valjean, and the exemplary singing and acting in other major roles.
That turntable, though, doesn't spin wonders into focus throughout the 3 1/2 hours of "Les Mis."
On first hearing, Claude-Michel Schonberg's music sounds less than wonderful, and so do Herbert Kretzmer's journeyman-English lyrics. (Born in France, the musical came to maturity in England). Though several songs in the all-singing "pop-opera" do soar majestically, many others have a bland sameness.
The adaptation of the novel by many hands (France's Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel, England's James Fenton and the co-directors) is more problematical. No one, of course, expects a musical to encompass all of Hugo's sprawling masterwork. The difficulty is the opposite: The show encompasses too much.
"Les Miserables" is more than a novel in the romantic tradition; it's a story of suffering and salvation that Hugo described in religious terms, and we've got to feel the suffering and the salvation. That doesn't begin to happen until the second act. Unlike the theater work it most resembles, the non-musical "Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby" (by the same directing and designing team), "Les Mis" doesn't grab us by the emotions and refuse to let go. Too many events flash by swiftly, without leaving an imprint on our hearts.
The plot's mainspring is the plight of Jean Valjean, imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread, and, when released after 19 years, relentlessly pursued by Police Inspector Javert. The story stretches from the provincial France of 1815 to the Paris of the mid-30s, from factories and brothels to revolutionary barricades and dank sewers. It encompasses Dickensian poverty, idealistic fervor and near-saintliness.
The episodes spill all over John Napier's stunning sets, masterfully lit by David Hersey. Most inventive are the barricades mounted by the Parisian revolutionaries, an assemblage that would do credit to Louise Nevelson.
Hugo's characters are embodied by a first-rate cast. Randy Graff is especially affecting as Fantine, the factory worker forced into prostitution to support her illegitimate daughter, Cosette. Youthful appeal is provided by Judy Kuhn as the grown Cosette, David Bryant as Marius, the man she loves, and Frances Ruffelle as Eponine, who serves as their go-between because of her unrequited love for Marius. Villainy is given a comic face by Jennifer Butt and Leo Burmester, as a scheming couple who would have felt right at home in "Annie."
The show's Javert isn't given as much complexity as Hugo's, but he's played by Terrence Mann with a rich voice and stern inflexibility. The pivotal performance, though, is Wilkinson's, and he gives what must rank as one of the finest musical-theater performances in years. Whether playing the sullen convict Jean Valjean or the dignified graybeard he becomes, he invests the role with passion and truth.
Wilkinson is most moving in the stronger second act, when Valjean sings the show's best song, "Bring Him Home," over the badly wounded Marius. The battlefield is still and the huge turntable has stopped revolving. "Les Miserables" has, finally, found its heart.
This time the hype was right: Les Miserables, which opened at the Broadway Theater Thursday, is a phenomenon.
Epic musical theater on an unparalleled scale, the three-hour smash - which has already sold $11 million worth of tickets - proves as rich an experience in the theater as at the box office.
If you think of one of Hollywood's best costume dramas - only sung from start to finish - you'll get some idea of the emotional sweep of Les Miz. In fact, there's a cinematic fluidity to the staging, assisted by a huge turntable floor that whooshes sets into and out of sight. That gracefulness permeates the entire production as it glides through its multi-character, two-decade-long story with the precision of dance.
Based on the Victor Hugo novel about social inequity in early 19th-century France, the adaptation distills the massive work into theater magic. And to its credit, for all its commercial appeal, Broadway's biggest hit is also probably one of the most spiritual shows in seasons. Its final line - "To love another person is to see the face of God" - is no throwaway curtain kicker: It's Les Miserables' entire message.
The principal adherent of that philosophy is Jean Valjean (superbly played by Colm Wilkinson), the decent man whose suffering and sacrifices move the musical forward. Hounded by an obsessed policeman for a petty crime of his youth, Valjean seeks to protect his adopted daughter from his sullied past. The aftermath of a student uprising in Paris places the hero in jeopardy again, forcing him to even greater self-abnegation before salvation.
The musical is a re-creation of a London smash, which in turn was a French sensation before. But the play's theme of liberty struggling against oppression strikes home here. That's what Amerika was about, too.
Where that miniseries left many viewers flat, the soaring music from Les Miz intensifies our emotional reaction to a sublime point. Though repetitive at times, the score - and Wilkinson's balcony-busting singing - raises this historical drama beyond anything TV or even the movies can deliver.
Les Miserables is what theater is all about.