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Although Les Misérables was first staged in French in 1980, it was the English-language version that really catapulted the musical based on Victor Hugo's novel to international fame. That version was first staged in London in 1985, and that date is the one most associated with the birth of the musical.

There have, to date, been two large anniversary performances of the English production of Les Misérables. Both were staged in London. Despite celebrating the same musical, they were quite different.

The 10th anniversary

In 1995, Les Misérables was staged at the Royal Albert Hall in honour of the 10th anniversary of the London premiere. Featuring the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and a huge backing choir in addition to the principal cast, this production was a bit of a departure from the stage show. It didn't involve sets, for one thing; set-reliant scenes (Jean Valjean saving a townsperson from the runaway cart and action scenes at the barricade, for instance) were relegated to pre-recorded videos shown on large screens.

Rather than leave the stage between their scenes, the main performers sat in a row a few feet back from the front of the stage when not performing. When their cues came, they walked up to a row of microphones set up at the front. Some scenes were cut for time. Other songs were truncated and the use of props was kept to a minimum. You might almost call it Les Misérables Unplugged.

It didn't seem stripped down, though, since the orchestra was so much bigger than a typical musical theatre orchestra. Stage versions of the show also didn't have a sizeable choir augmenting the company. There were 250 singers and 100 musicians in total. Despite the huge ensemble, the emphasis was clearly meant to be on the music and the performers.

In assembling the principal cast, the organizers were clearly trying to gather well-known actors whose ties to the show ran deep:

  • Colm Wilkinson originated the role of Valjean, playing the role in both the original London and original Broadway casts;
  • Philip Quast played Javert in the original Australian production but was well known internationally for his appearance on the only recording of the complete musical;
  • Alun Armstrong and Michael Ball played Thénardier and Marius in the original London production;
  • Ruthie Henshall and Jenny Galloway joined the London cast later as Fantine and Madame Thénardier;
  • Judy Kuhn and Michael Maguire played Cosette and Enjolras in the original Broadway cast;
  • Lea Salonga was known for playing Eponine in the replacement Broadway cast.

The cast was rounded out by Adam Searles and Hannah Chick, who played Gavroche and young Cosette. Like the cast's adults, they had also played those roles before.

Following the performance, producer Cameron Macintosh took the stage to deliver a speech and to recognize some of the key individuals in the show's development and production. The last people he brought up were Alain Boubil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, who were responsible for the original French-language musical. After Boubil and Schonberg spoke, 17 actors who had played Valjean in international productions joined Wilkinson and the cast on stage for a multilingual performance of "Do You Hear the People Sing?" that segued into an encore of "One Day More."

The concert was recorded and released on video and as a CD. The special aired regularly on PBS in 1996; it was the first exposure a lot of non-theatregoers had to the show. After seeing it about a dozen times I permanently borrowed my mother's cassette tape of the original London cast soundtrack.

In one of the speeches that followed the concert, directors Trevor Nunn and John Caird quipped that everyone present was invited to the 20th anniversary concert at Wembley Stadium in 2005.

They were very nearly right.

The 25th anniversary

In 2010, a massive production was held at London's O2 Arena to mark the 25th anniversary of the English version of Les Misérables. Unlike the 10th anniversary show, this concert more closely resembled a fully staged performance with sets, props and more complex stage direction. As was the case 15 years earlier, a principal cast and company was accompanied by a full orchestra and large choir — 300 performers in total. Less of the show was truncated for this performance, so it featured some more of the recitative elements that didn't make it into the 10th anniversary show. Having said that, it wasn't completely unabridged.

Between the marquee performance — which was also streamed live in movie theatres throughout the United Kingdom — and a matinee, more than 30,000 people saw the 25th anniversary concert.

This time, the cast also featured performers who had previously been in the musical but who were within the age range of the roles themselves:

  • Tenor Alfie Boe was well known in Britain for his singing career and opera roles, but had never played Valjean;
  • Broadway veteran Norm Lewis had played Javert in the U.S.;
  • Lea Salonga had returned to Les Misérables as Fantine on Broadway prior to this performance;
  • Matt Lucas of Little Britain fame had never played Thénardier prior to the anniversary show, though he later joined a London production;
  • Jenny Galloway returned as Madame Thénardier;
  • Ramin Karimloo had played Enjolras on Broadway and in London;
  • Katie Hall and Samantha Barks had played Cosette and Eponine in London;
  • Nick Jonas, now best known as one of the Jonas Brothers, had played Gavroche on Broadway as a boy and Marius in London's West End as an adult.

The performance ended in the usual fashion, with the all-company finale, followed by a curtain call that highlighted that performance's cast as well as two other London companies. One had toured the U.K. to commemorate the show's 25th anniversary while the other had been fixed in London for a period of time. All three casts took a bow, at which point the original 1985 London cast took the stage. Boe and Wilkinson were joined by the Valjean actors from the other two productions for a quartet performance of "Bring Him Home." The original London cast then performed "One Day More."

This was followed by some speeches, which would apparently have been a boring way to end the evening, so children who'd appeared in school productions of Les Misérables marched into the stadium for one more performance of "Do You Hear the People Sing?" complete with the lyrics projected on the screens above the stage so the audience could join in. At this point it was over, and everyone presumably left feeling completely Les Misérables-ed out.

Thoughts

Both performances are available on DVD (though the 10th anniversary recording is said to have been discontinued). Both have been uploaded to YouTube, where commenters devote scads of time to debating which production was better. I think the informed consensus is that they each have their strengths. Naturally, YouTube being YouTube, there are also fierce debates about whether one actor was better than another, who performed certain songs better and what have you.

One of the most intense debates centres around whether Ruthie Henshall or Lea Salonga made the better Fantine. If you've ever read through YouTube comment debates, you can guess how civil this sometimes gets. There is a good deal of agreement on the issue of whether Nick Jonas was an improvement on Michael Ball (hint: no, unless you were already a fan of Nick Jonas).

Like I said, I grew up at a time when the 10th anniversary show was on TV every couple of weeks. Because the point of that show was to reunite some of the most acclaimed performers from the musical's history, it followed that the actors were a bit older. When I first saw the 25th anniversary concert my immediate reaction was "Who are these kids? Get off my lawn." Of course, the story does involve an awful lot of young adults; the fact that the 10th anniversary was designed with a retrospective bent meant I was used to those particular roles being played by people in their thirties.

I'd rate the 10th anniversary show as an A+ and the 25th anniversary show as an A-. Your mileage may vary, and I'm going to attribute my opinions (as I keep mentioning) to the fact that the 10th anniversary concert was basically (along with some other things) part of the soundtrack of my youth.

References:

25th anniversary year: LesMis.com

Friendly note to those who wonder why this wasn't filed under Les Misérables: I intend on noding the book, and possibly the upcoming movie version of the musical, in the future.

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