The first and last time I saw Forbidden Broadway, one of the sketches lampooned Les Miserables by having the actors run in circles, executing costume changes and singing dramatic songs. The 1985 musical about a man who stole a loaf of bread is infamous for having a stage that rotates through scene changes. If the original scenic designer took the idea of "revolution" to a literal extreme, the audiences didn't seem to mind because for the show's first two decades in existence the stage spun and the audiences bought tickets. It wasn't until the 25th Anniversary Tour that performers were given the chance to stand on solid ground on a stationary stage.
Now, four years later, the Dallas Theater Center has made a few more changes to reignite the beloved musical in truly modern ways. In this new version, Les Miserables - which previewed Friday and opens officially July 4 - is a combustible narrative of rebellion and insurgence carrying themes directly from Victor Hugo's novel that resonate in the world's political climate.
"Our version of it really stretches the show," says Nehal Joshi, who plays protagonist Jean Valjean. "We have a multiethnic cast, which means it's not just caucasian anger anymore. We've also charged it with a sense of what's happening throughout the world in these uprisings and what's happening in this country with the growing divide between classes."
But it's still the same musical, right? Well, yes, says Joshi, but cracked open in new ways. And when Joshi describes it, the monotone memories of Russell Crowe as Javert melts away.
"It's already the musical for people who don't like musicals. There's no wind-up to the songs or elaborate tap dance numbers," he says, claiming to be more of a play man than a musical man himself. "Les Mis starts as a prison drama, like Shawshank Redemption or something, then there's a little bit of comedy, some crime drama, and there's a full out war in the second act."
A veteran of the 2006 revival cast, in which he spun around the stage as the unlucky Lesgle, Joshi considers the work that director Liesel Tommy has done with the Dallas production of Les Miserables to be the more exciting of the two.
To listen to Tommy discuss this new production is to hear someone more aware of the novel than of the musical, either on Broadway or film (Tommy told the Morning News she's never seen a production). This time the musical will explore Hugo's portrayal of flaws in the justice and prison systems, as well as the class divide that sparks the French Revolution in the first place. Audience members are likely to draw on recent history with comparisons to Occupy Wall Street or the Arab Spring, according to Joshi.
"These characters, these people, they want to talk about revolution," Joshi says. "And outside of the theater, people all over the world are interested in this idea of what it means to live in this world. In this play, we talk about the world we live in."
It's the still the same musical. They sing the same words, but like any piece of theater, it fits into the world in a very different way that it did in the 1980's when it first hit stages or in the mid-19th century when Hugo published the novel. One of the wonderful things about theater is the way that it doesn't just live within the four walls of the theater. It lives on in our memories and conversations after the curtain falls. And, yes, Do You Hear the People Sing? will repeat in your head for days, just maybe in a new way.