By Cary Ginell
Last night was the premiere of Actors’ Repertory Theatre of Simi’s production of “Les Miserables,” and I thought it might be of interest to explain what a show is like from the point of view of a musician in the orchestra. “Les Miserables” is not your typical musical. It is more like an opera in that there is no spoken dialog, so the music is pretty much continuous throughout. The score, which was written by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, is a minefield for musicians. Technically, it is not a difficult score (at least from my vantage point, playing “Reed I,” which includes flute, piccolo, alto flute, and alto recorder), but logistically, it’s one of the most mentally draining pieces of music you can play. Key signatures are constantly changing: one flat, three sharps, six flats, seven sharps, as is the time signature: 4/4, 3/4, 12/8 (there’s a lot of that – we call 12/8 the “Pirates of the Caribbean” time), 7/8, 1/4…sometimes it changes every few bars. Sometimes it goes back and forth in EVERY bar. There are pauses for sung recitatives, there are vamps where we wait for a signal from the conductor to continue on. And then there are the tempos. “Les Mis” jumps from a slow waltz to a rapid allegro at a moment’s notice. Accents are thrown every which way, which threaten to throw off your timing. It’s very easy to get lost so it helps to know the music. Since we have to coordinate with the actors on stage, timing is critical, so the score gives the conductor latitude to alter the tempos with “rubato” passages, where the tempo is not regular. All in all, it takes total concentration during the entire three hours of stage time, such that even when we rest for 20-30 bars at a time, we are constantly counting, listening, and watching the conductor. There is little time to enjoy the show, but like the audience, we are immersed in the glorious music.
At the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center there is no orchestra pit, so the musicians sit just beneath the stage, directly in front of the audience. From this vantage point, we can see the actors; the beads of sweat on their faces and the most minute details of their expressions. Occasionally, it is rewarding to look in the other direction at the faces in the audience to watch their reactions. Most are totally lost in the world of Jean Valjean, Javert, and the rebel students. At the end, when “The People’s Song” is sung for the last time, many are in tears.
There are many theaters that are unable to accommodate live music and play pre-recorded scores sent by the music publisher. Make no mistake. Although the pre-recorded tracks are often excellently produced, there is no substitute for a live orchestra. Musicians will tell you that and so will actors. Having this amazing music surround you like it does when you’re in an orchestra itself is an experience that is totally unique and extremely rewarding.
“Les Miserables” has been unavailable to community theaters for the 27 years that it has been in existence; this year was the first opportunity, and it might not come around again for a long, long time. “Les Miserables” carries you away like no other musical in the theater. If you’ve seen the movie, you haven’t seen “Les Miserables.”