For nearly two decades, Les Misérables has played at the Palace Theatre in London's West End. Recently, with the theatre in need of repair, the entire production moved from the Palace to the smaller Queen's Theatre down the road. The necessity of the move, however, did give producer Cameron Mackintosh the chance to revamp the 18-year-old production. In doing so, he reunited the entire original creative team that includes lighting designer David Hersey, sound designer Andrew Bruce, and designer John Napier. “Nearly 20 years on, it is a wonderful opportunity for every department in Les Misérables to create the show afresh at the Queen's using revolutionary technology,” says Mackintosh.
The size of the new venue presented challenges for all departments but also allowed the inventiveness of the production team to come to the fore. The costume department had little time to make any major changes as the production was still running at the Palace in the evenings while rehearsals were taking place at the Queen's during the day. The costumes were moved from one venue to another by walking them down the road, followed by a television crew.
Beyond the Barricades
The set, however, was a slightly different matter. A smaller stage at the Queen's meant changes had to be made. The designers reduced the revolve by approximately one and a half feet, and for the wedding scene, John Napier designed a large, mirrored flat which flies in upstage, giving the illusion of added depth. This was to be the first new piece of scenic design on the show since it opened at the Palace. Additionally, a flat used during the sewer scene was originally untextured since the strong backlight made the flat itself unnoticeable. With the audience closer, texture had to be added as the lack of detail was visible from the front of the stalls. The lack of stage depth has not only been addressed upstage: by removing the fronts from several seating boxes, the set can now flow out past the proscenium and into the auditorium. Not only does this design allow various stage technologies to be hidden (more on this later), but it also makes the audience feel more encompassed by the show.
Of the moveable barricades used at the Palace, only the smaller of the two was transported to the Queen's; the larger is now much smaller than the original. The similarity in size of these two set pieces proved a challenge for the crew, while trying to discern which is which. Control of the barricades, however, remained the same, with crew members “driving” them across the stage. Although use of stage automation on the show remains minimal, Stage Technologies in London was asked to provide two 500kg Big Tow winches, controlled by their Saxis control units. “Stage Tech was called in to help when it was realized that the Queen's Theatre counterweight system could not be used on these two pieces (back wall and sewer wall),” says Stage Tech's Ted Moore. “The specification called for simple, inexpensive controllers that could be operated by the fly-men with little or no automation experience.”
The move also allowed lighting designer David Hersey to upgrade many of the lanterns to newer models and introduce more intelligent lighting, which enabled programmer Rob Halliday to re-plot the show in a shorter time. “Because I have done the show more recently than David and also because David was at the Donmar, we just sat here for the first week getting it roughly right, and then he came in and tweaked it,” Halliday says. The lighting rig at the Palace has essentially stayed the same for its 18-year run, and its design was initially used on one of the tours, even down to its lack of followspot one. “Originally, there was going to be a center spot just in case, and it got cut, but they never changed the number. If you know that spot one doesn't exist, then you are obviously in the secret Les Mis masons,” jokes Halliday. All of the lanterns are supplied by White Light and include an array of conventional units including ETC Source Fours, PAR64s, Strand Cantatas and Birdies with the addition of VARI*LITE VL2202s, 2402s and VL3000™ variable focus spots, all controlled from a Strand 520i. Halliday explained that as Les Mis aged and started touring, intelligent lighting was introduced into the rig initially to cut down the focus time: “Fundamentally, if you watch the show [now], it would look like the show has always looked, but it looks much cleaner and much tighter than the show at the Palace ever did.”
Halliday continues, “It also meant that the design could become more precise because the lighting in the show is all about…hiding other things that are happening onstage. So even when there is someone standing down the front singing a song, there will be someone upstage doing a scene change.” Additionally, Hersey employed Light Pipe from Artistic Licence in the auditorium set extension, utilizing the very flexible LED color-mixing strip to light the arches that are created from the removed seating boxes.
Do You Hear the People Sing?
Hidden in these arches behind gauze, Autograph's Andrew Bruce has placed the subs for the audio system — a mixture of Martin WB8s on one side and two L'Accoustic SB15s on the other. The mixture of cabinets came about through a combination of what fit in the spaces and worked with the rest of the system, which comprises of LLW LDS800 ribbon loudspeakers, stacked four high (almost from floor to ceiling) with an additional two in the gallery. The cabinets are a diversion from Autograph's usual choice of Meyers. The cabinets are totally integrated into the part of the set that forms the proscenium and, along with the rest of the audio install, are all but invisible to the audience. The main system — a center cluster of Meyer MSL2s, D&B E3 front-fills, Galaxy Audio Hotspots and Meyer UPM-1Ps foldback and delay, and Tannoy surround cabinets — is driven by a combination of Crown, Lab Gruppen, and Yamaha amps.
Far from upgrading the system, Bruce has finally managed to introduce a new desk onto the show, replacing the aging Cadac J Type with a DiGiCo D5T, a desk whose software development team Bruce has worked extremely closely with over the past 18 months. With encouragement from Mackintosh, Bruce and DigiCo have developed an operating system specifically designed to work in a theatre environment. Additionally, the D5Tc, or Theatre Masters Controller, was created and provides access to the desk's master fader controls along with cue advance and rewind buttons and a dedicated script space. The Tc also does away with the meter bridge, which allows a clearer view of the stage, a major issue in the Queen's where the view from the back of the stalls was already a letterbox.
Apart from using a brand new desk, Autograph introduced a fully redundant, dual optical loop from front of house to stage, with all capable outboard equipment, including Lexicon LX300s, an RX300, a Yamaha SPX1000, CD player for effect playback, and a BSS FCS926 VariCurve, also linked to the D5T digitally. The use of the digital lines helped to reduce the fit up time, making the area almost cable-free. Ultimately, going digital also allowed Bruce to reduce the FOH footprint from 17 seats to 11, something that always makes a promoter smile. When asked if relying on what is essentially a large Windows-based computer made him nervous, Bruce replies, “We are running a fully redundant backup engine, which is fully mirrored to the main console. Everything within the D5T itself has backup-redundant optical loops with dual power supplies everywhere. It's been an extraordinary experience; I don't think ever in my career have I had to put so much focus into one particular thing for so long, almost to the exclusion of everything else.”
By moving the production and reuniting the original creative team, Mackintosh injected a new life into the production and allowed the design team to realize visions that only advances in time and technology could allow.