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Veto Power: The French speak their minds in 'Les Misérables.'

'Miz' En Scène

'Les Misérables' statistics and influence are bigger than life

By Michael J. Vaughn

EACH PERFORMANCE of Les Misérables uses 500 pounds of dry ice. Since its debut in 1985, Les Miz (playing through March 23 in a touring Broadway production hosted by American Musical Theatre of San Jose) has reaped such incredible success that they now have to use statistics to describe it: 47 million tickets; 47 productions in 34 countries, translated into 21 languages (would you believe, Estonian?). Faced with the millions of words that have been used to describe the show itself, you'd have to be a fool to try to add anything new. So, here goes.

Like other groundbreaking shows (Oklahoma, West Side Story), Les Miz changed the way that performers sing. The style is a hyperdictioned, strident tone, with a slightly nasty nasality. The best example in the current national tour is Stephen Tewksbury's forceful performance as inspector Javert. The only cast member not using the style is Jessica-Snow Wilson, who sings with a plaintive, natural tone. This is well suited to her character, Eponine, a teenage girl who endures dangers both emotional and physical for the sake of her unrequited love, the student rebel Marius (Scott Hunt)--and comes through powerfully in the song "On My Own."

In its day, the show also furthered the growing repertoire for what you might call head-voice tenors. These roles call for male singers who attack the upper register using falsetto--roughly speaking, a physical shortening of the vocal cords that raises the tone an octave. (Think Michael Crawford in Phantom of the Opera.) In the hands of a virtuoso--like this cast's Jean Valjean, Ivan Rutherford--the results can be hauntingly beautiful, especially when used for long stretches, as in the prayerful "Bring Him Home." When it comes out of nowhere, however--as in some bits of second-act recitative--one can still be left thinking, "Why is Valjean singing like Mickey Mouse?" It must have been similarly jarring in the mid-19th century, when operatic tenors began bursting forth with full-voice high Cs (notes that had previously been sung in, you guessed it, head voice).

Which brings me to my final point. Les Misérables is an opera. Though we tend to get confused by the accouterments of musical forms ("How can it be an opera?" my companion joked. "It's not in Italian"), the formula is really quite simple: if almost all of the dialogue is sung, it's an opera. There is a subtle trend in this direction; recent examples include Stephen Sondheim's Passion and Lucy Wilson's Secret Garden. So why do they call them "musicals"? Simple: musicals are easier to sell.

But don't mistake this definition as an arbitrary, technical point. It is, in fact, the key to the success of Les Miz. Using sung dialogue, the show's creators, Alan Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, are able to crank up the time-compression on Victor Hugo's sprawling plot and still keep it believable. When Valjean's ward, Cosette (Amanda Huddleston) meets the rebel Marius, it's not love-at-first-sight so much as love-at-first-glimpse. After 30 seconds of "alone time," the two are exchanging pledges of eternal love, making the lightning-fast courtship of Puccini's La Bohème look like War and Peace. It is a small miracle that these central personal dramas aren't swallowed up by the now-famous battle on the barricades. Which, by the way, weigh 12,250 pounds.

Les Misérables, presented by American Musical Theatre of San Jose, plays March 13-14, 18-19 and 21 at 8pm, March 15, 20 and 22 at 2 and 8pm and March 23 at 1pm at the Center for the Performing Arts, 255 Almaden Blvd., San Jose. Tickets are $39.50-$68.50. (888.455.SHOW)

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From the March 13-19, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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