Les Misérables in Concert: 10th Anniversary Gala Concert on DVD

Colm Wilkinson, Lea Salonga, Ruthie Henshall, Philip Quast, Michael Maguire, Jenny Galloway. Directed by John Caird & Trevor Nunn. Aspect ratio: 1.33:1. Dolby Digital 2.0. 148 minutes. 1995. Columbia TriStar VCI 88709. NR. $24.95.

If any modern musical is likely to have the enduring appeal of Show Boat, Oklahoma!, My Fair Lady, West Side Story, or Fiddler On the Roof, it must be Les Misérables. It's a show in which all the elements—music, lyrics, staging, sets, lighting—come together to tell a story that's moving and timeless. Les Mis has enjoyed hugely successful productions in 19 cities around the world and extensive tours throughout the US, UK, Japan, Canada, and Austria, and it has been running uninterrupted since 1985 in London, and since 1987 on Broadway.

Unless you're one of the half-dozen people who missed the PBS pledge-breaks-till-you-want-to-scream presentations of this version of Les Mis, you know that it was a live concert at Royal Albert Hall on the 10th anniversary of the show's London opening. The featured performers are in costume, stepping to the mics when their turn comes, with the chorus (more than 200 strong) behind them. For some of the action scenes (e.g., the storming of the barricades), there are videotaped excerpts from the stage production. The format works very well, effectively communicating the feel of the full production. David Charles Abell conducts the cast and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra with verve and sensitivity, and the performance has a real sense of occasion.

Leading the cast is Colm Wilkinson, the original Jean Valjean, whose voice seems to have changed hardly at all in the 10 years since the show opened. This is the role of Wilkinson's lifetime; although others have sung it better, he is Jean Valjean. Other standouts include Lea Salonga (the original Miss Saigon) as an Eponine who is less sappy than usual, Ruthie Henshall as the tragic Fantine (heartbreaking in "I Dreamed a Dream"), and Philip Quast, who manages to create a degree of sympathy for Javert. Michael Maguire, who received a Tony for his portrayal of Enjolras, is a disappointment: his voice thins out just when you want it to get strong. Anthony Warlow, who sings the role on the Complete Symphonic Cast recording (First Night MIZ CD1), would have been a better choice. Minor roles are taken by performers who have played leads in other productions.

The video quality of the DVD would be fine except for one anomaly: in some shots, faint vertical lines are superimposed on the otherwise clear picture. It's as if these shots were taken through a piece of glass with lines etched on it. The lines are not present throughout the disc, which makes me think it was a problem with one of the cameras. It's certainly not enough to ruin your enjoyment of the disc, but it is annoying.

The aspect ratio is standard 1.33:1. However, the small print on the DVD box says that the TV production was done in association with the 16:9 Action Plan of the European Union, which suggests that a widescreen version might exist somewhere.

Sound quality is well-balanced and clear. The DVD insert describes the soundtrack as compatible with stereo and Dolby Pro Logic; I got good results using the Music Surround setting of the Lexicon DC-1. Extras include pictures and bios, including one of Victor Hugo, who I suspect would have been pleased with what writer Alain Boublil and composer Claude-Michel Schonberg did with his novel.