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16 years of grace on Broadway


Declining attendance following the terrorist attacks on New York may be bringing down the curtain on “Les Misérables,” but what a run the show has had for the past 16 years. When the marquee goes dark at the Imperial Theatre May 18, it will have become the second-longest-running production in Broadway history, overshadowed only by “Cats.”

Not that its popularity is limited to the Big Apple. More than 50 productions have been mounted around the country and the world, in 20 languages. No doubt many NCR readers have seen “Les Miz” in their own hometowns, putting them in the company of six presidents and more than 9 million people. The London production, which premiered the musical in 1985, is still running.

This success would seem unlikely in the highly commercial world of musical theater for a show based on a long novel by a 19th century writer, which probably few attendees ever read. Talk of faith and God abounds. The show features a love story and lots of fighting, two good bets on the popular front, but it also offers early on a scene in which grace enters a man’s soul, and it manages to be one of the most dramatic moments.

In brief, the story follows Jean Valjean who, having been caught stealing bread for his impoverished sister and her sick child, has spent 19 years in prison, his term having been increased from its original five years because of his many escape attempts. Finally a free man, his prospects are bleak until a bishop takes him in, offering him his first taste of forgiveness. A redeemed man, Valjean then goes on to help many people. His faith -- and security -- are challenged through the years by an obsessive officer, Javert, who wants to return Valjean to jail for violating parole.

Despite the themes of love, redemption and grace, the show appeals to a mass audience through its fast pace. A revolving set makes for quick scene changes. Its songs are touching, sometimes rousing. The dogged pursuit of Valjean by Javert plays out as good guy versus bad guy.

The show has grossed more than $1.8 billion worldwide. It also was critically successful, winning eight Tony Awards in 1987, including the one for best musical.

“People relate to its message,” J. Mark McVey, who currently plays Valjean, told NCR: “There are people starving in the streets, there are upheavals and uprisings around the globe in the news everyday. There’s the continuing political battle between the religious right and those who don’t believe, don’t want to be bothered. This tells that story really well.”

McVey, one of the 421 actors who have appeared in the New York production, has a seven-year history playing Valjean, starting with the first national tour in 1988, followed by runs in London and New York.

When composer Marvin Hamlisch heard McVey sing “Bring Him Home,” a prayerful song in which Valjean asks God to keep his future son-in-law safe while fighting with revolutionaries, he was so impressed he hired the actor to perform with him in concert, something the two have been doing for a dozen years.

Playing Valjean has helped him professionally, but it helps him personally as well.

“Unconditional love is what this man is all about,” McVey said, “the selfless giving of whatever it takes to make the situation right.” McVey loves the contrast between Valjean and Javert. “It’s a wonderful story line. Javert is so staunchly driven from his point of view, the way he thinks God wants it.”

Playing Valjean also had a strong effect on Dudu Fisher, a cantor from Tel Aviv, who needed to be coaxed into seeing the show by a cousin when he was visiting in London. But it changed his life. “I told myself,” he said, “I can sing this. I can do this.” It didn’t matter that he had never acted and the part he wanted was the lead in a major musical. “From one moment to the next my confidence became so much bigger. By the time it ended I was Jean Valjean.”

He found out “Aluvei Ha Haim,” the Hebrew language version, was coming to Israel, so he auditioned, singing “Bring Him Home.” Despite stiff competition and the fact the producers wanted a name actor, Fisher got the part, which he went on to perform in London and on Broadway.

In Israel when you sing “Bring Him Home,” it means something, said Fisher, explaining that every person has or has had a family member in the army; he himself has two children serving. He said he considers “Les Misérables” the best show written in the 20th century. “What caught me was the music. Every song is powerful. I felt like it was written for me. I am he. I live it, every step of my life praying and looking for God.”

As an Orthodox Jew, living his life this way also means observing the Sabbath. When he assumed the role on Broadway, he became the first actor in a starring role to be excused from performing for religious reasons, even though this meant hiring another actor for the role on Friday nights and Saturday matinees -- at full pay since that actor would be unable to take another show. “It was like a real miracle.”

Before seeing “Les Misérables” for the first time, Fisher had never heard of Victor Hugo, the author of the book on which the musical is based. “I was in Yeshiva schools,” he said, laughing. “We just learned the Talmud and the Bible.” And even though Valjean is often seen as a Christ-figure created by the Roman Catholic author, for Fisher the character’s faith makes him universal.

McVey receives letters from people who return to the show at various times in their lives and say they are blessed in new ways each time. He said: “There’s nothing else on Broadway that delivers this message with this energy. It all relates to grace. There’s going to be a big void.”

Retta Blaney’s latest book, Working on the Inside: The Spiritual Life Through the Eyes of Actors, will be published in late summer by Sheed & Ward.

Related Web sites

“Les Misérables”

J. Mark McVey

National Catholic Reporter, February 21, 2003