Interview: Laurence Connor on Rebuilding His 25th Anniversary Les Miz, a Decade Later
More than a decade ago, Laurence Connor embarked on a trip to the Paris of Victor Hugo when he was hired, alongside James Powell, to redirect Les Misérables for producer Cameron Mackintosh. Connor and Powell were set to create a 25th anniversary touring edition of the beloved Boublil and Schönberg musical, a production that has since taken on a life of its own. Not only did their staging tour the world, it played on Broadway and has ultimately replaced the original production in London's West End.
Beginning October 7, a new, 60-week North American tour of Powell and Connor's production will launch at Playhouse Square in Cleveland, and the directors will once again be hearing the people sing. Here, Connor tells us about developing this version from the ground up.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
When it comes to a tour like this, how much are you involved, and how much is in the hands of associates?
With a brand-new cast, we try to be around at the very beginning to set the overall narrative style, so the actors are hearing about it the way we saw it, or so we can try some new ideas. With every cast we've ever worked with, we've never done the same production. It's not a cookie cutter kind of show. It's led by the actors and their performance style. So, whenever we have the opportunity, we try to pop in and do some work with everybody. This tour starts rehearsals at the beginning of September, and I'm only with it for a little while, but between myself and James Powell, we're going to have a chance to spend a bit of time on it together.
How did you and James approach rebuilding Les Miz when it came time to stage the original 25th anniversary production that this tour is based on?
I hadn't really clocked that it was going to be a big 25th anniversary production. When I was approached, it was just to look at the show with fresh eyes. I had worked with Cameron Mackintosh to create a new version of Miss Saigon, which wasn't playing anywhere at that time. But Les Miz was very much still playing in the West End. When we asked him why he wanted to do it, his reason was that when they first did the show, they never really imagined it would ever last five years, let alone 25 years. With every show he's ever done, he's had the opportunity to revisit a title, but he didn't think Les Miz would ever afford him the opportunity.
The idea was that we would create a show that would tour around the U.K., and the London production would stay where it is. And that was all it was ever going to be. Because the show was on the road, there was this very odd sense of, "What are they doing with our beloved piece?" But Cameron fell in love with it, and it was very clear that the audience loved it. Once we had done that, it became an international conversation. It went everywhere. And as I said, we never really thought about what the future would be, so 11 years later, for it to be still as loved and successful as it is, is pretty wonderful.
Was it intimidating to revamp a show as beloved as Les Miz?
I think James and I were tentative, because we both love the piece, we know how loved it is, and we both cut our teeth on the show by being actors in it before we started directing. But once we stopped thinking about the original production and started thinking about it like it was any other show, it was actually a joy to come up with new ideas that were purely born out of and led by the story that Victor Hugo originally wrote.
The original production was created by the Royal Shakespeare Company in the 1980s, and it came after their Nicholas Nickleby, which was ensemble-led and physical. In Les Miz, originally, the feel of it was very much "theater created by the people." The people were the thing that led it. It was our set designer, Matt Kinley, who brought my attention to Victor Hugo's art, which I wasn't aware of. I was quite taken by his style, and when we started looking at it, we started to see the world through Victor Hugo's eyes.
It became obvious that we didn't need the turntable, and it freed us up to be able to look at the story. We spent a lot of time looking at the prologue and all the elements of storytelling we could use — we started it on a ship, with the heaviness of chains and this really suppressed environment that Valjean could become free of. Once we figured that out, it invited us to look at the whole piece, to recreate what the ABC Café might look like, so that you really feel like you're in an underground basement that's illegal, as opposed to a café that everyone can go into. Little things like that made us really open our eyes to how we can tell the story and what elements we might want to use to make that happen.
I think mostly about the "Javert's Suicide" sequence and just how unexpected I found it to be, given what the original looked like.
There were certain things like that, these key moments in the original production. For example, you see Gavroche climb over the barricade, and then it would revolve, and he'd be on the other side, and then it would revolve again, and he'd be lying dead over the flag. We didn't do any of that because we wanted you to see what everyone was seeing. The horror of it is played by the adult actors. You get the sense of how they would feel about the young boy going into that danger field. You see the whole journey, which is so much more powerful.
But what that doesn't give you is those big epic moments. We looked at the suicide to do something very theatrical that would take people off guard. I remember talking to Matt and saying that it would be great if, when he's about to step off the bridge, we switch perspective, so it looks like he's falling into the water backwards. I used the imagery of Die Hard, where he's falling off the building and going in slow motion towards the ground. We needed to find a clean way of doing it, because you can't do anything to distract from it. If we do one trick, nobody will be listening to the words. Earl Carpenter, who was the original Javert in this production, went off and worked it out with the technical people in an hour-and-a-half and it was extraordinary.
It's an almost 40-year-old musical and a decade-old production. Why is there such longevity?
It all comes down to Victor Hugo's book, which has been read and translated into every language, and speaks enormously to the resilience of the human spirit, and the redemptive nature we all crave when we feel that we've failed.
The interesting thing I find about Les Miz is that, no matter where we are in our period of history, we're not a million miles away from the themes. Les Miz concerns the Napoleonic wars, and Victor Hugo is talking about these campaigns that put the country on its financial knees because the men never came back, which had a huge effect on the economic situation of the country, and created the poor and the wretched. We're looking at a world that has just come out of Covid, and the last two years have hugely affected our economic situation. We're seeing people at food banks. The cost of fuel is through the roof. We see how easy it is to fall from graces. And yet, the redemptive nature of forgiveness, to be able to step up and do what's right, still exists. We see these themes through every one of our characters. We recognize Fantine, who is a single mother struggling to put food into a child's mouth.
That, and Claude-Michel and Alain have created some of the most anthemic music, with an emotional heartbeat, and an extraordinary book. It's the perfect cocktail of an amazing musical that even now, 36 years later, emotionally speaks to you. It fills something inside your body. Even a lyric like "I had a dream my life could be so different from this hell I'm living." At some point in our lives, we've all felt that. And that's why this show will always speak to us in the way that it does.