Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Return of the Miserable

Yesterday, it was announced that Tampereen Teatteri will do a production of the musical Les Misérables in 2013. We'll come to that in a minute, but first, a history lesson...

How many of you knew that Tampereen Teatteri did a production of the musical Les Misérables in 1984 - a whole year before the now-26-year-old London production had its premiere?


According to a book about the theatre's history, Panu Rajala's Tunteen tulet, taiteen tasot, Tampereen Teatteri was the first theatre outside Paris to do a production of Les Misérables – though in reality, a Croatian theatre called Komedija Theatre had staged the show in 1983 already. Nevertheless, an impressive feat: a production based on the concept version of what later became the world's most popular musical.

Back then, the show wasn't called Les Misérables, but Kurjat, which is the book's Finnish title.

Someone had seen Les Mis's concept version in Paris and fallen in love with it, and the idea was born that it should be imported to Finland. Apparently, it was thought from the start that the piece was be too big for Tampereen Teatteri to do, but they did it anyway, with Rauli Lehtonen directing. He thought it was "a fun piece, with a lot of energy..."

That must be the only time I've seen the concepts of fun and Les Misérables in the same sentence. Wonder if that had anything to do with the production flopping a bit...

First of all, the show had a very mixed reception. Aspects like costumes, sets and the ensemble's ability to sing and move in the same rythm were criticised. The book guesses the criticism was because they didn't have enough time to train the choreography properly. Then again, though, the actors playing Valjean, Marius and Javert (Reijo Lahtinen, Markku Niemelä, Tapani Perttu) got praise for their singing. One critic really liked the barricade scenes, saying the direction worked the best there.

As a whole, some critics said it's new and different musical theatre, but others blamed the source material itself for being unever and unfinished and running through the book's plot too quickly. Maybe that's a problem even with the show as we know it today, trying to shove 1400 pages of events into three hours, but the concept version suffered from that even more strongly: the show begun at At the End of the Day, so you were just supposed to know what had happened beforehand. Iconic songs, like Bring Him Home and On My Own, weren't a part of the piece yet. It was clearly still work in progress.

That doesn't mean it had to flop, though. It was a pretty good show already. The original 85 London Les Mis had a bad reception among the critics, too, but audiences still loved it!

Not in this case. Tampereen Teatteri's 84 Les Mis wasn't as popular as the theatre hoped it would be. It had 44 performances and less than 22 000 watchers in total. Compare that with Helsingin kaupunginteatteri's 99 version and its almost 130 000 watchers, even with ÅST's over 45 000... Not exactly an amazing result.

In 2013, after 29 years, Tampereen Teatteri will stage Les Misérables again. I'm torn between hysterical joy and hysterical panic.

I'm hysterical with joy simply because we're getting Les Mis in Finland again.

It's of course my absolute favourite musical. You couldn't have it any better, being a Mizzie around here. I think we were all prepared to wait for another ten years or so before seeing the show in Finland the next time, but wouldn't you know, we can go back next year already!

But the things I'm worried about... They are so many.

Cast is certainly one thing, but it's maybe the smallest of my worries. In ÅST, every role was cast quite spot on, so I've been spoiled. I try to remember that's rare and not to get my hopes too high! I've also seen performances with a weak Fantine, with a weak Enjolras, a weak Thénardier, even a weak Javert... And I've still enjoyed myself. I of course hope every role will be cast brilliantly, but seeing the only time I've felt bored and annoyed at Les Mis was the time I saw a very bad Valjean... It seems as long as the main role is chosen well, I can live with a miscast or two.

There's of course the matter of how the production will look like, and that makes me a bit more nervous. Seeing that it doesn't usually happen in Finland, I doubt they're copying the original production nor the 25th Anniversary Tour... But something tells me to be slightly afraid of two things.
Firstly, I don't want it to be too similar to the ÅST Les Mis. Even though I loved the production with all my heart, I've seen that take - 13 times. It's time for something different! But that brings me to the other thing: I'm also afraid that they'll go all modern and different just for the sake of being different. I'd love to see a well-done modernization of Les Mis, but it's way too easy to slip into the just doing this to be different category there...

In a nutshell, I don't know what I'd like the production to look like, exactly, but I sincerely hope it surprises me.

My biggest worry, however, is the translation.

I know many people don't even pay attention to translations while seeing musicals. There's pretty singing, the tune tells how the character is feeling already, so who cares if the words they sing are a little clumsy! I doubt many even notice. Personally, however, I'm a bit of a translation freak and always love hearing good Finnish versions.

Sadly, if the libretto won't be revised, I'm not going to enjoy Les Mis in my native language.

The Finnish libretto is by Jukka Virtanen and Kristiina Drews, and while those two have translated a lot of musicals and sometimes even done a good job... Les Mis is hardly a high point in their career. The translation is available for everyone to enjoy as the Finnish subtitles on the Les Misérables 25th Anniversary Concert DVD, and it was also used as subtitles at Åbo Svenska Teater. If just reading it while it hovers onscreen makes me bury my face in my hands with confusion and embarrassment... How will it sound like sung?

I'll give you an example. Remember the scene where Valjean asks Enjolras to "give me the spy Javert, let me take care of him"? Give that bit a round of Virtanen/Drews treatment and translate it back into English, and you have "I will do the spy!" Sure you will, Valjean, sure you will, in various imaginative ways - too bad, though, that this isn't a piece of silly fanfiction but the real musical, written to be taken seriously!

That is of course not the only unintentionally funny or otherwise weak moment of the translation. I seem to recall some bits, like On My Own, were pretty good, but sometimes the tone of the scene and the words sung simply argue with each other. I wonder if a new translation is too much to hope for, but I certainly hope the theatre will at least find someone to go through the existing libretto and fix the most glaring mistakes.

Tampereen Teatteri's Les Misérables, 2013 - now with 100% less spy-doing..?

Source for the 1984 Les Mis part: Panu Rajala - Tunteen tulet, taiteen tasot.
First photo from Rajala's book, second from here.


  1. VAKOOJAN HOITELEN, hahaha, ei enää ikinä, kiitos. :D Vaikka onhan sillä huumoriarvo!

    1. Jos Tampereella riehuu yksikin kiihtyvä mies, niin itken raivosta.

  2. I do hope they'll use a new translation - by a translator who knows what s/he's doing. I know Jukka Virtanen is supposed to be a guru of lyric-writing, but Les Mis isn't exactly the high point of his career and based on what I've heard (Les Mis, Chicago...), I don't understand the hype around him.

    In any case, this will be interesting.

    1. A guru..? I think I've never talked to anyone who especially likes Jukka Virtanen, but many who don't like him... But yeah, I guess he has fans in the right places since they keep using his translations again and again and again. :P
      Personally, I think his Striking 12 and Cabaret were pretty okay, but there has been more awkward than good in all other translations of his I've heard.

  3. Kiintoisaa! Jos satun ensi vuonna asumaan tampereella opiskelun merkeissä, tiedän minne nokkani suuntaan kun tekee mieli teatteriin.

    1. Ha haa, toivottavasti tavataan Tampereella! :D

  4. I happened to see the 1984 production of Kurjat in Tampere when I was a girl. A good friend of mine even played one of Gavroche's street urchin pals - I remember her rehearsing the Little People song, which had quite different lyrics then:
    "En päässyt kouluihin, ja syy on Voltairen,
    jos pikkulintu oon niin syy on vain Rousseaun!"
    ("I couldn't go to schools, and that's the fault of Voltaire, and if I'm a little bird then that's the fault of Rousseau!")

    I liked the performance very much, particularly because I had just read the novel by Hugo. Tapani Perttu as Javert was most impressive!

    1. The original French lyrics for Gavroche's song were taken directly from Victor Hugo's novel... "Je ne suis pas notaire / C'est la faute à Voltaire / Je suis petit oiseau / C'est la faute à Rousseau" seems to match this part pretty perfectly.

      Anyway, glad to hear someone who actually saw the 1984 show found this little blog entry! Being the huge Les Mis nerd I am, seeing the original TT Kurjat is high on my What Will I Do When Time Machine Is Invented list... ;)