The first time Bill Millerd saw Les Misérables was in 1985, when it debuted in London under the Royal Shakespeare Company at the famed Barbican theatre. Now, three decades later, he’s got one Les Mis production of his own under his belt—the Arts Club’s critically acclaimed 2009 staging—and is just days away from a remount of the blockbuster musical.
“It was a beautiful production with topnotch designers,” Millerd recalls of his first time. “It’s always a treat to see shows in London and New York because they’re trying out things, introducing ideas, even back then, that we can only dream of. I was quite startled by the whole barricade, that they were doing a kind of revolution on-stage. That kind of thing amazed me.”
Millerd is sitting inside the Stanley Theatre. The director and Arts Club mainstay is a relatively calm presence in a flurry of activity: drills buzzing, techs talking and cuing, various crew members everywhere. Snippets of melody and catches of chorus drift in from the lobby, where the cast and musicians are rehearsing together for the first time, famous songs to which even the most casual fans likely know the words.
“The music is very emotional in many ways,” Millerd says. “But I think it was the story that engaged me—and the conflict.”
Based on French writer Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Misérables opens in 1815 and follows Jean Valjean, who is released after 19 years in a hard-labour prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving children. Policeman Javert grants Valjean’s parole, but demands that he wear a yellow ticket identifying him as an ex-convict, thereby limiting Valjean’s prospects. As Javert’s persecution of Valjean intensifies, so does the civil unrest among the young idealists, students, and impoverished citizens of Paris, and Valjean and Javert find themselves on opposite sides of a revolution.
Thirty years after Les Misérables’ English-language debut, the world is even more politically and socially volatile, a perfectly imperfect time for a production so deeply rooted in revolution, corruption, oppression, morality, and humanity. Unfortunately, Millerd says, the parallels between Les Mis and the present haven’t been entirely instructive.
“I think we Canadians tend to be a little more passive or feel we can do it at the ballot box,” Millerd says. “I don’t think people really feel today like they’re masters of their fate in the way that they did maybe 20 years ago, or when it [Les Mis] was first done.…If we were young again and believed passionately in certain things… Well, that’s not true, really. In a different way you could equate it to the advocacy for same-sex marriage, for instance, but that was more incremental. It’s not just people taking to the streets.”
Well, some people are. There’s substantial resistance in many communities: #BlackLivesMatter, Idle No More, trans rights and inclusivity, anti-pipeline activity, and countless other movements are tirelessly at work all the time. And as Millerd points out, marriage equality in the United States was the result of advocacy. But he fears that “we’re becoming a bit more desensitized as to whether we can overthrow, whether we can make change in a really meaningful way.”
Luckily, Les Mis is the kind of musical that manages to be both thought-provoking entertainment and social-justice lightning rod. Curtains up, fists up, for 30 years and counting.
Les Misérables runs until August 16 at the Arts Club’s Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage.