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July 31, 2014

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Q+A: Director Laurence Connor brings his new-look ‘Les Miserables’ to Smith Center

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Kyle Froman

The company of “Les Miserables” performs “One Day More.”

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"Les Miserables" directors Laurence Connor and James Powell.

‘Les Miserables’

Briana Carlson-Goodman ( Launch slideshow »
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Anne Hathaway accepts the award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for "Les Miserables" during the Oscars at the Dolby Theater on Sunday, Feb. 24, 2013, in Hollywood.

Against all odds, the beloved blockbuster musical “Les Miserables” has been playing somewhere in the world since its March 1987 U.S. premiere, and next March, it’s returning to its Broadway theater home to continue its record run.

Domestically, the eight-time Tony Award winner has grossed more than $145 million. International productions have met with equal success and acclaim from Britain to Japan to Korea and Australia, and the film version last year starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway garnered Oscars, Golden Globes and BAFTAs in its $450 million worldwide box office haul (Anne won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar).

In all, 65 million people in 42 countries and 22 languages have witnessed the world’s most popular musical, and when “Les Miserables” celebrated its 25th anniversary, it made theatrical history with three productions in London simultaneously.

It’s now in its 28th sellout year in the British capital, where in debuted in 1985. There have been four U.S. touring companies that have played more than 200 cities since it left Manhattan’s Broadhurst Theater in January 2008 as the fourth-longest running Broadway production of all time.

By all rights and rules, it should never have happened because hours after the premiere, critics were cruel and unkind; producer Cameron Mackintosh feared that it would close as fast as it opened. Instead, it went on to rack up 6,680 performances in New York.

Today, the North American touring company wraps its final week on the road with eight performances at our Smith Center for the Performing Arts through Sunday. The show here also will be a sneak preview of the new version to reopen in Manhattan.

Director Laurence Connor, who admitted reluctantly that he’s never been here and because he’s so busy with other Manhattan fall debuts won’t be here to see it, told me, “I promise to come to Las Vegas sooner than later. I’ve heard so many great things about the Smith Center. It may be the finest place for ‘Mis’ to play.

Here’s our conversation:

I am not being rude, but for a show about French people in absolute poverty, one would never have guessed that it would go on to become the most successful musical in the world. Out of all the badness that could have gone wrong and was criticized on opening night, what is the magic that’s kept this phenomenon alive?

Les Miserables

I think the main thing is the story itself. There are these incredible characters, there’s a quiet passion for the story, there’s lots of hope and redemption within the piece. There are some incredible characters along the way, most of which I think people can identify with; their stories make the piece incredible. You marry that with terrific lyrics, and you’ve got a genius mix for theater. But, most importantly, it’s the heart of the story that really reaches out to people.

Why did critics maul it when it opened? What did they fail to see?

Speed your way back to 1986 and just imagine what musical theater meant in those days. Rock offerings were sort of emerging, and there’d been lovely, safe family musicals, whereas this particular piece was dynamic. There wasn’t a great mechanical set moving; it was a fully ensemble piece. It was radically different. It wasn’t happy.

The critics must have wanted to break a tap number at the end of every scene to lead everyone into a happy tune and dance up and down the aisles. This touched on dark subjects, and everybody pretty much died. I think the critics got caught in the glums when it first opened, but they went by the board, and people felt very differently.

Over the course of 25-plus years, it hasn’t changed very much?

Well, I think the original production hasn’t, but this production, our production, we reinvented it and came up with a new version of it. This one isn’t the same as the original. There’s a whole new set and a different way of telling the story; the events and the costumes are different. So it’s not the same production, but of course it’s the same story and the same producer.

So the show that comes to Las Vegas this week is not the original production, but it still has Cameron’s blessing?

Oh, yes, very much. We all contributed. Cameron felt that after 25 years, during the anniversary year, that the show needed to be rethought. You know most shows don’t have the luxury of surviving 25 years.

Cameron thought the show had run its course. Like most shows, it would have probably closed up after eight years, and now would be the time to create a brand new version of it. And he says, “Well, why do I have to wait until the show finishes? Why can’t I do it now?” He kind of came to us and said I want to completely reconceive it and bring it to the 21st century. So we did that, myself and James Powell, who is my joint director.

Les Miserables

But it remains a very dark period piece?

Oh, yes, very much. Very little has changed in the narrative; it’s much more set intensive.

The show that’s returning to the original Imperial Theater in New York, is it going to be the show we’re going to see in Las Vegas? Or is it the old version?

No, it’s the show you’re going to see in Las Vegas. We direct that production as we’re on tour now throughout the year.

So Las Vegas gets an advance peek of the Broadway show?

You will, indeed!

This is the last week of the tour, I’m told.

Yes, indeed. It’s been an incredible three years for the company. It’s been an incredible experience, and three years on the road is quite extraordinary. We have productions in Spain, Korea and Japan, and those productions are continuing. We don’t have an immediate transfer with this touring company to another tour, but it won’t be too long before we see them on the road again in America.

It is a phenomenon. Does everybody associated with it regard it as such?

The reality is that the show and piece itself is uniquely special and different. You feel responsible for telling the story in an incredible way. I don’t think that certainly any one of us has felt bigger or better than it. If anything, it humbled us in everything we do. When we all came together on ‘Les Mis,’ we all felt incredibly pressured. We were so honored to even be allowed to reconceive it. It’s been a real joy for all of us to come up with something new for it.

Did the French love this show as much as the English did when it first started?

When we took the production to Paris, it was well received; they said they loved it. They were really pleased that it had come home. We were really nervous about taking it back because French people are not particularly welcoming of the English language. They don’t particularly like it when you speak English in the theater there, and we were taking our English-speaking version of their musical and book to them and performing it in English with French subtitles.

Ironically, I think that’s what they’ve grown up on. They’ve gown up listening to the recording in English, so that’s how they wanted to receive it. The reaction that we got on opening night was extraordinary.

What did Susan Boyle do for this production when she sang “I Dreamed a Dream”? Did she breathe new life into “Les Mis” because of the way she sang it?

Susan Boyle sings I Dreamed a Dream

I wouldn’t say that is true, but I think certainly what Susan did was she sang a song that people immediately went, “Wow, that’s such a beautiful song.” And what they didn’t realize was that it was from the musical “Les Miserables.” Of course when they realized that, all of a sudden audience sizes rose because of the song. If anything, I think she did bring attention to a show to an audience that possibly wouldn’t ordinarily go to see the show.

Did the recent movie version deplete any of the reaction to the theater production, or did it boost the theater production?

It’s hard to say because we’ve been on tour the last three years, so whether there was any impact, I really couldn’t tell you. I think, though, that the movie did boost us when it came out because it’s a much more expandable audience.

You’ve obviously formed an impression of Las Vegas from what you’ve read and heard over the years that this is an immoral wasteland of decadence, which it isn’t. The theater in which your show will be playing in is truly the most magnificent performing arts center in America, as good as Lincoln Center, by the way. Every artist that who played here has said they never could have believed Las Vegas would have such a beautiful performing arts center. Have you had any conversations about how “Les Mis” will be received in the most unlikely city in the world?

It’s interesting that you say what you say about it. I’ve been more interested in going to Las Vegas more recently because it’s had such a lot of focus in theater as far as the shows that are performing there, some of the greatest shows on Earth. The fact that you have the Smith Center illustrates that really interesting things are happening there.

I think when you think of Las Vegas now, you can’t help but think of shows and the incredible work they’re doing there. I just spoke to the cast, and they’re extremely excited to go to Las Vegas and perform. They think it’s a really nice way to end the tour.

So out of misery comes extraordinary theatrical joy?

Yes, absolutely! The reality is “Les Miserables” is a musical, a touching drama that will change your life. If you haven’t seen it, it’s one of those pieces that will certainly have a long-term effect on your opinion of theater and appreciation of art. It’s one of those shows that everyone at some point in their lives must see.

Like “Phantom of the Opera,” do you have people coming back 10, 20, 50 times?

Yes, it really does have a huge following. People will write you and tell you what they think, and then you read about it, how people are following the tour all over the country and visiting it over and over again. It’s one of those shows they simply can’t get enough of because they feel very much a part of it. That’s true of every country that I’ve ever seen it. When we went to Japan, the audience would come back over and over again because they simply couldn’t get enough of it.

People leave the theater feeling incredibly engaged, and they can’t allow that being the only time they feel that. They need to have it again and again and again. That’s how you will feel in Las Vegas!

“Les Miserables” marks the start of the Smith Center’s much-anticipated 2013-2014 Broadway series that includes “The Wizard of Oz,” “War Horse,” “Sister Act,” “Evita,” “Mamma Mia,” “Flashdance,” “Porgy and Bess,” “Once” and “The Book of Mormon.”

Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.

Follow Robin Leach on Twitter at Twitter.com/Robin_Leach.

Follow Vegas DeLuxe on Twitter at Twitter.com/vegasdeluxe.

Follow Sun A&E Senior Editor Don Chareunsy on Twitter at Twitter.com/VDLXEditorDon.

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