A Musical Education: ‘Les Mis’ and ‘White Christmas’

If you want to get an idea of the diversity enshrined in what is loosely called “The Musical,” past, present and who knows what the future holds, all you have to do is take a gander at “White Christmas”, the holiday red musical rife with nostalgia and the best works of the grand old man of the American songbook at the Kennedy Center, and down Pennsylvania Avenue to the National Theatre, where you can find “Les Miserables,” techno-upgraded but now in its second year of touring its 25th anniversary production of the big, spectacular, dramatic musical based on Victor Hugo’s 19th-ccentury novel.

“White Christmas” is based on a 1954 Paramount Studios movie musical, starring the great crooner Bing Crosby and mister-do-everything Danny Kaye as his sidekick, with Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen as their love interests. “Les Miserables” is producer Cameron Mackintosh’s national touring version of the gift that keeps on giving ever since it debuted in London more than 25 years ago—so much so that it’s become a highly anticipated, Oscar-buzzed movie with Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway in the starring roles. There you have it: a stage musical, based on a movie musical, and a movie musical, based on a stage musical.

For all that connective material, the two shows couldn’t be more different. “White Christmas,” performed with the kind of spirit that recalls Mickey Rooney, Gene Kelly and Judy Garland, is redolent of the kind of musical that once were the main staple and fare of both Broadway and major Hollywood studios. The music, the material and the style are so comfortably old-fashioned that they almost seem fresh.

“Les Miserables” is a juggernaut, a powerhouse of a certain kind of musical—call the music rock-pop with oversized operatic style—that began to originate overseas, primarily in England, featuring productions almost entirely sung, usually in a manner that required voices that could reach places and hold notes few people could. “Les Miserables,” created by a French song-and-music team and produced by Mackintosh, was probably the most successful in a long line of shows that included “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Cats,” “Evita,” “Miss Saigon” and “Phantom of the Opera” as well as “Sunset Boulevard.” Andrew Lloyd Webber was the superstar among such creators, along with Tim Rice and MacIntosh.

There was a time when most—if not all—of these shows dominated Broadway and the musical theater. That situation has waned, giving way to the force known as Disney. Mixed in are occasional new, sometimes rock-and-roll themed works (see “Million Dollar Quartet”) and revivals of prominent and reliable staples from the great works of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Cole Porter, Gershwin and Lerner and Loewe, and for the intellectually stimulated, Stephen Sondheim. The next thing as far as we can tell really hasn’t arrived yet, noting of course “Spiderman,” which is a Titanic that, having struck an iceberg in its early voyage, refuses to sink.

With “White Christmas,” it pays to have patience and a passion fo Irving Berlin’s music and old musicals, if you must. As musicals went, “White Christmas” was no “Singing in the Rain” but relied primarily on its star powered quartet, and Berlin’s music, which was quite enough to make it a hit. The star power isn’t in this production, although all the performers more than hold their own, and that includes James Clow and David Elder (a terrific Kelly-kind of dancer), and Stefanie Morse and Mara Davi.

The show is practically a recreation of the 1950s movie in terms of the plot, which includes the heroes, Broadway impresarios and stars, trying to save the fortunes of their old World War II commander, now running a Vermont resort into the ground. They make the rescue just in time for—you guessed it—a “White Christmas.” You kind of have to go with this because it’s part of the season, and, um, well, just because, because you’ll feel better. There are tons of 1950s references to old television shows, gossip columnists and such, which can make you feel very old or very confused.

Here’s what you do: kick your feet back and watch what happens after a somewhat slow and longish first act. Because right off the top comes a little Berlin number, called “I Love a Piano,” which exists solely to make you happy—beginning small, ratcheting up to a riveting, rhythmic and spectacular dancing, much of it in the key of tap. To me, the sound of 30 or two feet hitting the floors loudly or softly and syncopated has always been good for what ails you.

So are songs like “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy,” “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” and “Blue Skies”—not to mention, of course, “White Christmas” and the torchy duo of “Love You Didn’t Do Right By Me” and “How Deep Is the Ocean.”

You’ll probably have the various themes and tunes of “Les Miserables” running around your head once again, but the residual feeling, as always, is of a pleasant and satisfying sadness, giving all the melodrama, triumphant and tragic that is so much a part of Hugo’s novel and of the musical, even more so. The presence of both the show and the movie are serendipitous, but should probably not be compared. The stage is the stage, and a movie is a movie. To be sure, the movie will be louder, and in your face. But, then again, serious weight loss and other physical changes are not a requirement for having a role in the stage production.

This staged version—instead of a turn-tabled barricade—achieves cinematic effects through back projection along with dramatic effects by way of soaring voices and affecting acting. As always the case with touring companies, or new groups, some will rise; others will stand out more. For my money, Andrew Varela as the driven, relentless Inspector Javert and Peter Lockyer as the almost saintly Jean Valjean are the standouts. This is a good thing—their mortal rivalry is the key to the show, the book and a number of songs—“Bring Him Home” knocked out of the park by Lockyer and “Stars,” sung with great revealing power by Varela. But Genevieve Leclerc makes “I Dreamed a Dream” her own song, at least until the movie comes out, as Fantine. Jason Forbach as heroic Enjolras, the leader of a student revolution, is a super-hero in this production.

As for who likes what: you say “Les Miserables,” and I say “White Christmas.” You can do both. In this season of high drama and tragedy, and the need to feel good about something, both shows have something to offer.

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