Les Miserables (feat. Lea Salonga)

Being the longest-running musical in the world is certainly not a small feat. Based on Victor Hugo's powerful classic Les Miserables, the story shows no age, remaining poignant in these troubled times. It is about liberty and love, both personal and societal, and the struggles that go along in its pursuit.

Produced by Cameron Mackintosh with direction and stage adaptation by John Caird and Trevor Nunn, music by Claude-Michel Schonberg and English lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer, the theatrical display is truly a sensation, having been played in 38 countries and 223 cities (including the Philippines).

The original West End production started in London on October 1985 and the Broadway version in New York on March 1987. It won the Best Musical at the Tony awards. Late last year, Boublil and Schonberg's musical was brought back to Broadway after a 3-year hiatus. Performances will be for a six-month period but this may extend until the end of the summer season.

What makes the return of Les Miserables to Broadway more appealing to Pinoys is the return of Lea Salonga to the show itself where she originally played Eponine in the 1993 production. Tonight's performance was her first in her engagements portraying the role of Fantine, a role previously essayed by Daphne Rubin-Vega.

Despite the arctic chill this March evening, many Pinoys trooped to the Broadhurst Theatre on West 44th St., obviously wanting to see Lea perform more than anything else. She was also the reason Pinoys flocked to see the "Flower Drum Song" back in 2002, even if the show itself received lukewarm reviews only.

As the doomed Fantine, Lea didn't disappoint tonight. Her rendition of the much-beloved ballad "I Dreamed A Dream" has all her longings and frustrations wafting through the audience as she sings about "the tigers come at night, with their voices soft as thunder, as they tear your hope apart and they turn your dream to shame". While Les Miserables largely follows the saga of Jean Valjean, Fantine is a pivotal role. While working at the factory owned by Valjean who's hiding by the name of Monsieur Madeleine (after breaking his parole), Fantine's co-workers soon found out that she has an illegitimate child as she was left by the man she thought would marry her. The foreman whose advances she has rejected fired her right away. Now unemployed and destitute, she sells her locket, then her lock of hair and ultimately herself as a whore in order to buy medicines for her daughter Cosette. She got into a fight with one customer and was about to be sent to prison when she was saved by Valjean, demanding that she be hospitalized instead. It is at the hospital that a dying Fantine gets a promise from Valjean that he will take care of Cosette.

Lea's Fantine disappears from Act 1 and does not return well into the Finale of Act 2 when she shows up in the emotionally-charged dying scene of Valjean, urging him to "come with me where chains will never bind you, all your grief at last, at last behind you".

Fantine's stage appearance in Les Miserables is indeed short within the 2 hours and 55 minutes of the show but the spell of her dream is palpable as we see her in her daughter Cosette who blooms into womanhood. The dream of "love would never die" reverberates even at the height of a people's revolt in 1832 Paris.

As the two duelling characters on-stage, Jean Valjean and Javert are both imposing at once. Norm Lewis as Javert is electrifying, especially in his suicide scene where he leaps off a bridge into the river Seine. Alexander Gemignani gives a soulful characterization of Valjean and the audience seem to grow old with him down to his dying moments.

As expected, Claude Michel Schonberg's musical score captivates the mood and the scope of history unfolding. It binds you to the characters and you remember who sang what even after the show. I actually overheard one member of the audience humming along with the cast who was thankfully stopped with a "shhh".

With skillful lighting, the stage set brought the audience to the stark environment of 18th century France. The employment of a rotating stage ensured fluidity of movement among the cast. Even the sound of a firing gun jolted my ears.

Truly, there's nothing like being free - whether it's freedom from poverty in the eyes of poor Parisians or freedom from the shackles of unfair imprisonment in the eyes of Jean Valjean or freedom "from this hell I'm living" in the eyes of Fantine.

When you think about freedom now, how many are the Jean Valjeans, or the poor Parisians or the Fantines among us? How many more revolutions, large and small, do we have to see?

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