From left to right: Michael Kostroff as Thenardier, Shawna… (Deen van Meer, Handout photo )
A quarter-century after its London opening, "Les Miserables" is still a hot ticket. So hot that producers and presenters of the 25th anniversary production have been pulling ads in several cities, including Baltimore, where the musical opens a short visit Tuesday; most of the tickets were snapped up some time ago.
The show, with music by Claude-Michel Schoenberg and book/lyrics by Alain Boubil, was given an anniversary makeover, with a fresh team assembled by original producer Cameron Mackintosh.
"When 'Les Miserables' opened in 1985, no one had seen anything like it before," said Laurence Connor, one of two directors who participated in the new production. "After 25 years, people sort of became used to it. We wanted to find a new language for the show, a new dramatic energy for the piece. It's completely different. New costumes and designs give it a new-millennium look."
That look includes scenery by Matt Kinley based on drawings by Victor Hugo, whose 1862 novel inspired the musical. That book overflows with dramatic ingredients as it spins the tale of bread-stealing, decent-hearted Jean Valjean and the obsessive policeman, Javert, who pursues him — a tale that unfolds against the fervor in revolutionary France.
Hugo's drawings — he was a prolific, forward-looking visual artist in addition to a major literary figure — help give scenes in the new production "more location," Connor said. "You can see the house. You can see the street."
The show now has a different sound — the score was reorchestrated. One example comes right at the start.
"The original opening scene in a quarry had rather heavy orchestration suited to that," Connor said. "Our opening takes place on a boat, a galley ship where Valjean is a slave. I wanted the right sound to fit that rowing, a gushing-through-water energy."
Despite changes in sets and instrumentation, diehard "Les Miserables" fans are not likely to feel at sea.
"It's still the show we know and love, and it's not scaled down," said Michael Kostroff, who plays Thenardier. "At the same time, it feels like a brand new experience. I loved the old production. I thought it was as perfect as a show could get. I was really concerned at first that people wouldn't like it as much, but I've consistently heard that people like this one better. That surprised me."
In a previous "Les Miserables" tour, Kostroff also had the role of Thenardier, the opportunistic, conniving innkeeper who, with his wife, becomes entangled in Valjean's life. The anniversary staging gave the actor an opportunity to view the unsavory character in a fresh light.
"In some cases during the rehearsals, there were new shadings," Kostroff said. "The Thenardiers are a couple who do evil together. In previous productions, they were always a bickering duo. Our Thenardiers are really into each other. They're much more in cahoots than the last time around. There's definitely sex going on."
Villain types come easily to Kostroff. He's probably best known for his recurring role on HBO's Baltimore-focused "The Wire" as the smarmy lawyer who defended gang members.
"Coming back to town playing another villain is unfair to Baltimore," Kostroff said with a laugh. "I love Baltimore. I play a lot of very nice people, too, but the sleazy characters are fun to play. I'm a pussycat in real life."
Kostroff has never seen audiences connect with a musical so personally.
"There's something mystical about it, I have to say. It gets in people's guts in a way," the actor said. "I think the revolution part is plot point 'D,' not the main story. It's about choosing what kind of person you want to be, regardless of what's happening in society. It's about having ethics."
That revolution plot point, though, can't help but give the musical extra resonance and relevance right now, especially given the situation in the Mideast.
"We were doing the show in France and India when there were huge uprisings of students," Connor said. "And there was a student uprising [in the U.K.] recently, when the prime minister wanted to raise tuition fees. So we have lots to draw on for this show. When the people want to be heard, they will be. There's a little rebellion in all of us."
If you go
"Les Miserables" runs Tuesday through March 6 at the HippodromeTheatre, 12 N. Eutaw St. Very limited ticket availability. Call 410-547-7328 or go to broadwayacrossamerica.com.