for The Human Comedy (based on thenSaroyan novel) instantly comes tonmind as a good production that evaporatednwhen its book idea was panned.nSondheim’s best score, for Merrily WenRoll Along, survived only because henis Stephen Sondheim and because henhas a champion in Richard Shepard, anrecord producer at RCA.nBut, back to Les Miserables. I wasnshocked to hear Cameron Mackintosh,nthe show’s producer, admit henhad never read the novel. Hugo’s classicnwas required school reading for mynfather when he grew up in Hungarynduring the second decade of this centurynand was one of the few novels heninsisted I read before I went off toncollege. While the images of its twonkey figures, escaped convict Jean Valjeannand police inspector Javert, nownseem mostly to stem from their portrayalsnby Frederic March and CharlesnLaughton in the 1935 film version, mynmemory of the story’s majestic spreadnstill came from the summer I spentnwith the 1,200-page novel itselfnBut no matter how irresponsiblenMr. Mackintosh seemed to me for hisnfailure to read Les Miserables, hisnknowledge of its history was impressive.nEven more worthy of respect wasnhis knowledge of, and his love for,nmusical comedy. At the relativelynyoung age of 41, Mackintosh has becomenperhaps the most successful producernof musicals in our day. He hasnsponsored and supervised over 150nproductions, including Cats, LittlenShop of Horrors, Song and Dance, andnnow Les Miserables and Phantom ofnthe Opera, as well as the imminentnrevival of Sondheim’s Follies. What Indidn’t know until I met him was thatnhe worked his way up through thenranks, beginning with his youthfulnstagehand experience on Oliver. WhatnI also didn’t realize until the secondntime I saw Les Miserables was thenextent to which Mr. Mackintosh’s personalnobsession with Oliver may haveninfluenced, no matter how obliquely,nthe winning effect of Les Miserables.nBy the time I saw Les Miserables thenfirst time, I had already interviewednthe six people who were primarilynresponsible for creating it. I was sonsteeped in the score and in the involvednhistory of this international extravaganzanthat I expected to be disappointednwith the result. But I wasn’t.nThe pivotal element that sets thisnmusical apart from others was the onenthat held it together—the ingeniousnstaging of the story as a seamless seriesnof episodes, eclipsing years in the process.nIn respect to this, Les Miserablesnowes its greatest debt to the recentnstage version of Nicholas Nicklebyn—also the brainchild of Mr. Nunnnand Mr. Caird and the Royal ShakespearenCompany. But in retrospect,nthe cinematic devices, the vignettesnand tableaux invented to reveal Nicklebynseem crude compared to the perfectionnof these techniques in Les Miserables.nI saw Les Miserables again the nightnafter it opened on Broadway. What Inrealized then, five months after mynsession with Cameron Mackintosh andntwo months after I first saw it, was thencrucial importance of the massive, rotatingnstage. Many of the scenes arenprepared in the rear of the stage beforenthey rotate to the front. Event meltsninto event, aria into aria, realizing thenincredible 16-year sprawl of Hugo’snnovel in a mere three hours. Whethernor not Mackintosh conceived the rotatingnstage, or whether it was entirely setndesigner John Napier’s contribution,nthe first time I know a rotating stagenwas used so extensively was in Oliver,nin 1960.nIf the huge success of the musicalnversion of Les Miserables suggests anrevival of the romantic sensibility, itnalso implies renewed life for the musicalncomedy. The most vociferous detractorsnof the genre would be amazednto learn what Eric Bentley had to saynabout it over 30 years ago: “The dialoguenis seldom fine but often racy;nthere is enough plot for half a dozenn’plays,’ and the action goes ahead inngreat leaps and bounds from setting tonsetting, interior, exterior, New York,nHavana, all points East or West. If younproposed to do in a ‘serious’ play thenthings that are done all the time innmusicals, your producers would dismissnhalf of them as impossible, thenother half as arty and avant-garde.”nIn the same article, Bentiey underscoresnthe strictly American characternof the musical. “Musical comedy is anvery free form. You can try anything,nand you must try many things. . . .nThe musical is significantly Americannnot because of its famous tempo, nornthe mechanical efficiency that is thennnbasis of that tempo, but rather becausenof its texture: here is the thick and slabngruel of American life (not the mostndelicate of dishes, but a nourishingnand tasty one) served up by chefs withnshrewd heads and open hearts, for allnthe world to relish.”nAside from three or four landmarkndevelopments, the musical has remainednremarkably unchanged duringnthe past century—true to its form andnits formulas, dedicated to its vision of anfantastic reality, a special sensibility,nand obsessed with the happy ending.nThis resistance to change has beennboth its curse and its blessing. Asnmuch as anything else, such a quirk—n•S^ ‘ I-n-i-i:^’ i^x;^4:mnStiV-^- ^.y .’-iv V’T?-.- r-^^ni %nM^Â¥-nColm Wilkinson in the London musical LesnMiserables. Written by Alain Boublil andnJean-Marc Natel, with music by Claude-MichelnSchonberg.nAUGUST 1987 / 41n