Reviving a beloved property like “Les Misérables” can be a fraught undertaking but to Nikki M. James, who takes on the role of Éponine after her Tony-winning run in “Book of Mormon,” there are only two directions that things can take.
“There are benefits to creating something on your own with an original piece like ‘Mormon.’ And then there is this other thing where you just get to work on something that you know already works, so the only thing you can do is make it better or f— it up. And you pray to God that you’re someone who just makes it better and makes it feel fresh,” she explained.
The revival opened on Sunday night at the Imperial Theater to a remarkably energetic audience that included Neil Patrick Harris, “Beautiful’s” Jake Epstein and Meredith Viera (who was so moved by the performance that she waited in the theater lobby for over a half hour to congratulate the cast.)
For the audience, one immediate difference from the original, which ran from 1987 to 2003 before coming back for a brief, less than successful run in 2006, was the absence of the famed turntable stage. The revolving set-up was jettisoned in favor of more classic staging and sets inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo.
The differences from the original? “With the backdrop being Victor Hugo’s paintings, you’re putting more of the author into the show. I just feel the red is a little bit deeper,” said Ramin Karimloo, who plays Jean Valjean.
Will Swenson, who plays Inspector Javert, sees the removal of the turntable as the reflection of a larger difference in the approach of directors Laurence Connor and James Powell. “It takes away the expectation. That was such an association with the original production of ‘Les Miz’. It forced the intentions of the scenes to be more focused in a way, possibly,” he said.
Growing up while the show was at its pinnacle, the chance to star in it represents a career high, even for those who have already had many. “For my generation, when we were kids, the pinnacle, the benchmark was always ‘Les Miz.’ To be opening a new version of ‘Les Miz’ on Broadway is just a thrill and every moment tonight was very checking things off of that bucket list,” Swenson said. James concurred. “The legacy of ‘Les Miz’ is not lost on anybody who has stepped foot on a Broadway stage in the last twenty years.”
The opening was followed by a lavish after-party at the Metropolitan Club, where a band played into the early hours and the cast enjoyed a full buffet dinner. Functioning as a Broadway reunion, guests congratulated Swenson’s wife Audra McDonald, who’s currently in rehearsals for Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, while Karimloo hung out with Colm Wilkinson, who originated the role of Jean Valjean. Also in the mix was Norm Lewis, who made news last week upon the announcement that he’ll be starring in “Phantom of the Opera,” the first black actor to do so on Broadway. James attended with her mother, who was perhaps the most enthusiastic of all, proclaiming that the said the night’s excitement rivaled that of her daughter’s Tony win.