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'Les Mis' for Dummies

With both the film and the musical playing in the city this weekend, which should you choose?


There’s a reasonable argument to be made that Les Miserables has become the most popular — or at least pop — musical of all time. The London production is still in its original run, which has been underway since late 1985. The Broadway version claims the fourth-longest run in New York history, at over 6,500 performances — and three years after it closed, they brought it back and did it another thousand times. Touring productions are a staple, even in concert performance; well over three million copies of the soundtrack, in various incarnations, sit in American homes. And, of course, the long-awaited film adaptation has been nominated for eight Academy Awards; it’s already grossed over $130 Million.

It’s certainly an unlikely phenomenon. An unwieldy classic novel about the French Revolution is hardly ripe material for a Broadway hit; nor was the earliest version of Les Mis, a French-language concept album, an easy candidate for translation and staging. Even the legendary West End production received a cool welcome from critics on its debut. Popular sentiment, however, was behind the epic musical almost immediately; 27 years later, there hasn’t been a moment when the show hasn’t been a cultural force.

This weekend, Les Mis has the run of the city, with the film playing at every cinema worth mentioning and the acclaimed (and, surprisingly, revised) touring production — rumored to be gearing up for the next Broadway revival, in 2014 — playing a second weekend at the Benedum Center.

So what to choose? I’m assuming that if you’re a diehard fan (and there are many), you’ve already seen both. To the curious, the casual, the confused, a guide:

If you’re familiar with the show, go to the movie
Counter-intuitive, I know, but even the once-a-year theatergoer has likely seen Les Mis two or three times. The film breathes new life into the show, in a number of ways. The storytelling is more clear; the ability to, you know, actually change locations helps a lot, particularly in the second act (which always suffered a bit from rushed storytelling.) The intimate performances — famously recorded live on set, rather than in a studio after the fact — bring the emotional wallop of the titular misery home in a big way, in contrast to the occasionally-operatic style of the stage version. And the production is beautifully done, with every set and scene imaginative and vivid.

If you’ve never seen it, go to the Benedum
Sales figures and speculation aside, Les Miserables is among the best musicals ever written, and maybe the greatest. Songwriting this good rarely collides with Broadway, frankly, and there isn’t another hit with the quantity of gems found here. While many of the moments are indeed more personal, larger set pieces like the building of the barricade are impressive on stage. And, yes, the voices will be a hell of a lot better here than at the multiplex — though the complaints about the Hollywood types have largely been overblown. Most of them do just fine. Except for Amanda Seyfried. Girl can’t sing a lick.

If you’re prone to obsession, go to both
Whereas most musicals are easy to move on from — no one ever listened to the Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat soundtrack non-stop for a week — Les Miserables tends to inspire slavish devotion. If you’re the type who gets really into stuff, save yourself the time and knock both out while it’s easy.

If you don’t like singing, stay far, far away
They sing every line. Every single one. Seriously.

For tickets and info on the touring production, click here. For movie showtimes, click here.

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