“Which musical would you like to see when you visit London?”
Each year B spoils me in this way.
“Les Miserables“, I said without hesitation. “It’s strange, B, I know the songs off pat. Probably I owned the CD before my fall.”
I mentioned to a group of friends that B and I were going to see Les Misérables. Tammy Bonell Garner gave a laugh of pleasure.
“Gaby (Lomberg), you and I went down to Durban for the weekend, to see a musical called The March of the Falsettos, don’t you remember, Gaye?”
I shook my head.
“The show wasn’t coming to Johannesburg and we had quite a few friends in it. So I drove us down there and I happened to have a CD of Les Mis in my car. We put it on and sang along all the way to Durban. We stayed at your aunt, Libby’s home and left really early on the Monday morning. We had to get you back for a rehearsal of Othello at 2.00 pm. I remember we ran out of petrol, just as we got to Jo’burg and we were all hysterical! But luckily enough, we were able to cruise to a garage not too far away and fill up. So you arrived on time!!!”
Isn’t it strange how bits of my forgotten past continue to reveal themselves?
I lost my memory in a fall. Discovering bits of my past that have been hidden from me for twenty-nine years is an otherworldly experience. When this occurs, I am always surprised, amazed and often filled with delight.
Another memory given back to me to store away!
This explained why I knew Les Misérables so well!
B wished to make this theatre experience unforgettable. So, B being B, she contacted the top person in control. She wrote off to none other than Cameron Mackintosh, the theatre producer of Les Misérables! She explained that the two of us had booked to see the show. She then told him that I had been an actor and had an 18 metre fall from the stage during a performance of Camelot. Was there any way, as a treat, that we could have a tour backstage. She received a reply from the Company Manager, Hannah Shafran, saying she would be delighted to show the two of us around.
We arrived at The Queens Theatre at a quarter to six. Warm eyes greeted us as we introduced ourselves to Hannah. We followed her along backstage corridors and suddenly we were there – on stage. We looked out at a beautiful, old theatre that must have seated over a thousand people. Our attention was called back from the auditorium to the stage.
“If you look at the floor you will see a round, movable stage. This is actually integral to John Napier’s stage design.”
Looking down, I could see that we were standing on a large disc-like piece of flooring that had various markings and notches placed in certain locations. Obviously they were distinguishing symbols by which the stage hands moved the rotating stage into different positions.
Gazing upwards, I saw figures hanging eerily in a cluster. I stepped back in horror. Then I thought: ‘Gaynor, you are in a theatre, you Dweet, they are merely props!’
I studied them. They were figures in soldiers uniforms. I laughed softly to myself. I was really looking forward to this show!
Hannah called us over to the Stage Managers desk. Written on the wall in front of it was a well known name. It was a name of royalty in the theatre and film world: Judi Dench!
She had seen the show and loved it. Apparently she had been performing in the theatre next door, The Gielgud. She had a long gap in her performance during which she nipped across to The Queens, still dressed in costume. She stepped onto the stage of Les Miserables during the barricade scene and entered into Victor Hugo’s world for a brief moment in time. Giving careful note of how long she dallied in that world, she withdrew when necessary and raced back to step into her performance at The Gielgud.
I love the daredevilry of such a feat!
“How many people do you have working backstage?” I asked.
“Apart from the performers, there are about 66 of us,” Hannah answered.
“Sixty-six,” I gasped. I had never worked with that many people backstage. Les Miserables must have to have a highly organised system to deal with the backstage workers and the forty-four performers working together to perform a marvellous show.
We were walking across the stage, on our way out when Hannah called out: “Hi, Dean!”
“Dean, meet two friends of mine, B and Gaynor.”
While we were shaking hands, Hannah said: “You will be seeing this man in an hours time onstage. This is Dean Chisnall. He plays Jean Valjean.”
“Oh, my goodness, the lead!”
“One of the many,” he laughed.
“I can’t believe it. Please may I have a photograph with you?”
And that was how Jean Valjean and I ‘got together’. In the photograph, I mean!!!
Les Misérables wasn’t everything I was hoping it would be. No, it was far far more. Each new scene I would imagine the backstage crew quickly going about their work. The performers would be doing their quick changes into costumes I had seen placed in the wings. Seeing the soldiers bodies lying on the stage, I knew where they’d come from.
This was the penultimate performance of Les Mis. The following night, this version closed it’s doors for the first time in thirty-four years. The cramped backstage area of the theatre was due to be torn apart and restructured. Les Miserables is also going to be refurbished. To me, it seemed perfect as it was. But I appreciate, that you should always look forward, seeking improvement.
I marvel at the mastery of Trevor Nunn and John Caird who have adapted and directed this show.
One of the reasons Les Miserables stands out as the masterful musical it is, is because of it’s incredible teamwork. One tends to come away saying: “Oh, wasn’t Éponine wonderful in her song: On My Own” or “Jean Valjean and Javert were utterly incredible.”
What about the lighting, the stage sets, the magnificent stage management etc, etc and etc! Nothing could happen onstage without the incredible backstage team. Laugh – as an audience, you don’t give the backstage a thought! You don’t because you are devoured by what is happening before you, onstage.
This is as it is meant to be!
To listen to my favourite number from Les Mis, ‘On My Own’ click here!
What an amazing experience Gaynor! Testimony too to your amazing friendship with B. xx
Thank you for another fascinating article, Gaynor. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
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