‘Les Mis’ Celebrates 25 Years

Twenty five years ago, an unlikely phenomenon and juggernaut burst on the Broadway musical scene. It had a huge set including a giant barricade from which young revolutionaries battled the powers that be in a sort of Occupy Paris spectacle. It was based on a classic novel by Victor Hugo, it had enough death scenes to make Dickens weep, it had a brave and saintly hero named Jean Valjean and a relentless pursuer named Javert and it ran just about forever, unstoppable in spite of some critics who sniffed sentimentality in the air.

It was called “Les Miserables,” a big three-hour-plus musical and spectacle with an operatic score and plot, a Cameron MacIntosh production with music by Claude-Michel Schonberg and a book by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel.

Complete with a logo of a revolutionary waif, the show actually made its American and pre-Broadway debut at the Kennedy Center and it was a huge smash for all concerned, sparking perpetual U.S. and world tours and an amazing Broadway run.

And now it’s back in a 25th-Anniversary production that’s revved up, half an hour shorter, kinetic, energetic and replete with a youngish cast, some of whose members were likely not born when “Les Mis” first exploded on the scene.

For the younger members of the cast who play the parts of the dashing revolutionary leader Enjolras, the tragic Fantine, the student Marius, Cosette and Eponine, “Les Mis” may be a legend, but it will also be as fresh as “Spiderman” in terms of size and impact.

But for Richard Vida, a born-to-be-on-Broadway performer if there ever was one, “Les Mis” is a dream come true—again.

Vida, who started dancing and performing when he was still a kid, always wanted to be on Broadway and in musicals. And he’s got one of the juiciest parts in “Les Miserables,” that of Thenardier, the disreputably opportunistic, shameless landlord, gang leader and party crasher of the show.

“God yes, he’s vile, he’s disgusting, he’s a terrible human being,” Vida said in a phone interview. “That of course is what makes him a wonderful character to play, and I’ve played him before, but he never gets old. He’s a survivor—master of the house indeed, and when he’s on he tends to steal the show. You can’t help but be fascinated by him.”

“Les Miserables” arrives just in time to add a little musical flavor to the current goings-on in Washington and all over the city. Revolution is once again in the air as tent cities full of people with grievances sprout up everywhere, modern-day barricades as rebukes to the contemporary power structures.

“I think it’s all very fresh,” Vida said. “The digitalized backgrounds make for a very electric set, much different than before. It all moves a lot faster.”

“I do think I provide a little bridge for some of the younger people in the cast,” Vida, who is in his forties, said. “They don’t haves the context of the show’s history and why it had such an impact at the time. But we’re all family in this production—everybody helps everybody out. I really am enjoying this. You had that feeling at the curtain call that we had done it once again.”

Vida played Thenardier in the 1990s both as an understudy and in performance for a time on Broadway so he’s thoroughly familiar and steeped in “Les Mis” lore. “I was also very much aware of it when it first came to Broadway, it was a show everyone was talking about,” he said.

“I’m back at the Kennedy Center,” he said. “I was here with a revival of “Forty Second Street,” the one that had Dolores Gray in it.”

“I never wanted to be anything else except to be performing on Broadway, in theater, in musicals,” Vida said. “

Vida is used to the vagaries of the business—“I’ve always been performing, and you do all kinds of things—the perennial ‘Law and Order’ parts, which all actors in New York miss tremendously, voiceovers, shows that succeed, and shows that don’t.”

One of those that didn’t was a fairly recent mounting of “The Best Little Whore House Goes Public,” a sequel to “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.” It didn’t go very public. “It ran for 11 performances,” he said. A very original and interesting show called “The Drowsy Chaperone,” which has not been seen in the Washington area, was very successful. “It was very unique; a kind of musical-within-a-play and it did very well.”

More than likely, the 25th anniversary production of “Les Miserables” did and will do very well. For Vida, he’ll remain the master of the house, the beggar at the feast and what a feast it is.

(You still have through this weekend to try and catch the 25th anniversary production at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House.)

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