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Les Misérables:

Getting this show on the road

By New York City
"It's similar to a jigsaw puzzle being put together...very fast," says Evan Ensign, production stage manager, describing the current touring production of Les Misérables as it begins a 15-hour load-in at its latest venue. Unlike other Cameron Mackintosh productions, such as The Phantom of the Opera or Miss Saigon, which can take up to two weeks to set up in a new theater, Les Misérables is a true "bus and truck" company that can go from city to city and be up and ready to open in less than two days.

How this is done so quickly is the story behind the tour.

Let's begin with the Sunday evening show--traditionally, the final performance in any given city. The company has less than 48 hours to load the trucks, travel (often during the night) to the next venue, and be ready for a Tuesday evening performance. From the final bows on Sunday to the first note of the orchestra's overture (a B-flat) on Tuesday's opening in a new city--anywhere from 150 to 400 miles away--so much happens. So much has to happen. And all without a hitch.

The load-out actually starts before the final curtain on Sunday night; it begins during the show, as all scenery, backdrops, costumes and props that will not be used again in that performance are put aside and readied for packing. So while the audience is still being mesmerized by Les Miz, the road crew is already busy backstage preparing for the next move. Usually, the load-out is completed five hours after the performance ends, with the show tightly packed into eight semi-trucks and ready to roll. The transport takes place during the night and/or early morning, so that the physical production will arrive at the new venue by midday on Monday.

The load-in, approximately 15 hours in length, begins Monday afternoon as the trucks pull into the theater bays and the road crew begins to unpack the show. We are now just about 24 hours away from opening night in the new city. It's during the load-in process that the incredible Les Miz crew--stage manager, carpenters, electricians, wardrobe and wig people--really make their magic.

Phase One: The company tries to get in ten hours of work on Monday. This is the bulk of the process. True teamwork is needed here as 1,000 pieces of costumes, 45 wigs, 422 lighting instruments, and all of the Les Miz set pieces and props are unloaded and readied. The show's trademark elements include the barricades (which weigh a total of over 12,000 pounds) and the turntable stage itself (10,000 pounds). Watching the earlier stages of the load in, one can't help but be amazed by the camaraderie of the road crew as all these pieces quickly and--to the untrained eye--effortlessly fall into place. Each backdrop is brought in and hung with the utmost precision; no shortcuts here. Every piece of scenery that will come down from the rafters--a.k.a. "the air show"--is meticulously handled as if this were the first time the show was being set up.

On Tuesday, another five hours is allotted for completion of the load-in. Head carpenter David Masacek supervises a hardworking crew as the turntable and barricades are checked for that evening's performance. There has been no skimping on this touring production: "This is essentially what they see on Broadway," says Masacek. Wardrobe supervisor Kathleen Melcher and hair supervisor Barry Ernst really only have one day to prepare everything for each new city. Melcher works with a crew of 14 to be sure that all of the costumes (made in England, mostly of silk, wool, linen, and velvet) are properly cleaned or laundered, pressed and ready for the performance. Similarly, the wigs (all hand-made of human hair) are washed, dried, and prepped.

We are now hours away from the first performance in a new theater, a new city, probably a new state. The actors, who mostly travel by private car, have arrived and settled into hotels or rented houses. Scott Logsdon, the tour's dance captain and a swing, quickly adapts to his new surroundings by finding a bookshop, a Starbucks, and the best place to buy bottled water (not necessarily in that order). He brings his VCR with him on the road, and keeps in touch with family and friends via e-mail.

Ivan Rutherford as Jean Valjean
Ivan Rutherford as Jean Valjean
Ivan Rutherford, the tour's Jean Valjean, travels with his wife and children. "It's tough acclimating yourself to a new theater," he says. "By the time you're accustomed to it, you're leaving. Still, I like the change. One house can be small and intimate, the next can be huge." As far as Rutherford is concerned, Les Miz is "the Cadillac of shows. We're taking this really elegant piece of theater to some small towns. Giving people this show as their first theater experience is so nice."

As the lobby doors open, few of the audience members arriving for the evening's performance will have given a thought to the overwhelming manpower that was required to bring this production to their town. The overture, as Cole Porter once wrote, is about to start. That B-flat is just moments away.


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