Sometime in 1989 or 1990 I asked a girl out on a date to see Les Miserables at the Proctors Theatre in Schenectady NY. I worked part-time making ice cream sundaes at the local Friendly’s and the two tickets cost me a full month's wages. However, I had heard great things about the show and I really wanted to go so I figured it was worth it.
On the day of the performance I got dressed up and awaited my date (who was also my ride). However, instead of seeing her pull up at the front door I listened to her on the phone backing out. I had about 20 minutes until the show was about to start, I was a couple miles from the theater, and I had no ride. I dashed out of the house and began running - there was no way I was letting that investment go to waste. It’s a good thing I ran distance for my high school track team. I made it with some time to spare.
While I cooled off outside the theater and elderly man asked me if I had spare ticket I could sell him. He and his wife were in town visiting someone and they had just bought a ticket from some other guy who appeared dateless. I was twice the face value of the ticket so I sold it. At that point I figured my day wouldn’t be able to get any better - I was about to see the show for free!
I was wrong - the show blew me away. The stage and set were incredible, the story was engrossing, and the singers were amazing. It affected me. My tastes in music were altered, my perception in how a person could sing were destroyed. I had no idea an orchestra could sound so good. I had no idea people could hold a note so long. I had no idea. I was seventeen and clueless. I don’t remember the entire show but I know it moved me. I may have cried.
I walked home afterwards in a daze. I spoke about the show for days afterwards. I imagine my mom got tired of me talking about it. I still talk about it whenever someone gives me the chance. It has, since that moment, been my favorite show of any kind.
Memories are dangerous though. Nothing lives up to your memories. In fact, in contrast most things suck when re-experienced after having been built up in your memories over the years. My memories, certainly, have made Les Mis better than it could possibly be. I have seen many musical since then and while they were all, for the most part good, they sucked in comparison to my memory of Les Mis. “Rent”? meh. “Avenue Q”? boring. Sure, when viewed independently each of the other shows I’ve seen have been enjoyable - I just don’t compare them.
I have not seen Les Mis again since that day all those years ago. My memory has just continued to pile on the greatness. Thus, it was with great trepidation that I opened my Christmas present this past December and saw that Lisa was giving me two tickets to Les Miserables on tour in Greenville SC.
I was excited but I knew nothing could live up to my memory so I tried to tell myself to be happy if it was a third of the experience. I tried to cut back on listening to the soundtrack. I tried not to think about the show at all. I had enough distractions with taking a new job that, for the most part, it worked. Well, except the cutting a back on the soundtrack; that just wasn’t going to happen.
As the date approached I did slow down my soundtrack replays. I also managed to avoid thinking about the show entirely. Instead I just focused on the trip that surrounded it. We took a long four and a half day weekend that involved visiting some friends in Johnson City, TN; two days in Asheville, NC; and a little over a day in Greenville, SC.
Asheville is an interesting two full of quirky shops, interesting people, and a personality split between incredible opulence and a artistic freedom. In general, both Lisa and I really enjoyed our entire visit to Asheville and I would recommend it as a weekend getaway for almost anyone. We enjoyed the shops, the brewpubs, the street art, musicians, and the Biltmore.
The Biltmore Estate is the largest privately owned residence in the US. It’s about 125,000 sq feet and was built for a four person family of George Vanderbilt (grandson of the shipping/railroad tycoon of the same last name). The house is situated on 8,000 acres. The land is all beautiful. In fact, the three mile long “driveway” carved through my favorite portion of the estate; a lush and peaceful forest. Everything about the residence and the grounds speaks incredible wealth.
It’s really hard to imagine a family of four (plus the untold number of servants) living in the house. The dining room contains two tables - one for 37 people (used whenever more than four people were going to dine) and a table for four. That room alone was apx 3,500 sq feet. That’s two normal sized houses laid out in one room. It is truly something you have to see to appreciate.
However, at least for me, it is hard to separate the majesty of the house with the fact that it is obscene that four people lived that well while, just off the property, the surrounding countryside was populated with poor farmers and sharecroppers. The house was completed about 30 years after slavery ended and was built, in large part, by black laborers - many of whom were probably born as slaves. When viewed in that light it just made the house seem wrong. The Vanderbilts were truly the 1%.
Just about two miles away from the Biltmore lies downtown Asheville and the difference between the two is stark. That isn’t to say that downtown is dilapidated - it isn’t (far from it in fact) - just that while the Biltmore is overstated elegance downtown Asheville is a comfortable conclave of artists, musicians, students, shops, and brewpubs.
Lisa and I stayed at one of the few hotels in the downtown area so we could just walk around, drink, and safely get back to our room. The city was full of neat little surprises. There was a little inverted corner hidden behind a gate that descended into a cozy courtyard, there were some cool cat sculptures including one hanging out on a lamp, and there was a spectacularly restored old arcade (not the video game kind). We wound our way through all of the downtown streets and on each one we found new cool shops that we couldn’t help but go into. It was all very cool.
It is my understanding that Asheville has risen like a phoenix in the past twenty years. They’ve done an amazing job of making it into a city that you would want to live in. The entire downtown area sees fully of unity and camaraderie. There is a real sense of community. Nothing makes this more evident than the Friday night “Drum Circle” that takes place each week in Pritchard Park. A wide cross section of the city show up. I’d guess about fifty different people were playing a variety of percussion instruments while at least twice that many stood off to the side and watched while still another fifty danced and hula-hooped.
From the tone and sound of it I expected it to be a purely “hippy” kind of experience and, for the most part, it was. However, the crowd was anything but a simple gathering of stoners. There were people playing drums while still wearing their neckties, there was an older black lady rocking the tambourine, and there were little kids shaking their maracas. Amongst the drummers the mix was pretty even between men and women but the ages spread from around eleven (a girl) to a woman who was at least seventy. It was very cool and it filled the night air with a great rhythm as Lisa and I dined just across the street a local (but spreading) joint called the Tupelo Honey Cafe.
I had heard some good things about the revitalization of Greenville before this week so I was a little dismayed by the rundown condition of the north-western outskirts we passed through on our way in. However, once were reached our hotel, on Main Street, I was impressed with what they have done to bring back the “downtown” feel of Greenville.
It is easy for me to compare and contrast Greenville from Asheville but it isn’t fair for either of them. Greenville made me think of a casual stroll through the park in a seer sucker suit. It was casually formal. We didn’t have as much time in Greenville so I can only really speak about the Main Street (yes, it’s actually called Main Street).
Main Street is beautiful. It is a wide but peaceful boulevard surrounded by expansive sidewalks and draped by tall shady trees. If, for some odd reason, you were driving down Main you’d feel compelled to park and start walking. It’s incredibly inviting. The streets are lined with small, slightly high end, shops, restaurants and cafes. Most of the restaurants had abundant sidewalk seating. Plus, and this was cool in Asheville too, their street facing walls were entirely open to the fresh air and the public walking by. Some of the restaurants accomplished the open wall via french doors and others via a “garage door” type system. Either way they did it the effect was a welcoming one that was also very comfortable while we were dining.
Greenville made me want to be, at least temporarily, “southern.” Well, not entirely, but I did want to try and make my visit as authentic as I could so I tried to eat food I just can get anywhere in the north so, for lunch, I had shrimp and grits. I was pretty sure when I ordered it that I wouldn’t like it and that I was just paying for an experience. I was wrong. It was pretty tasty. The grits were blended with some kind of creamy sauce that had a hint of the shrimp flavor and they went wonderfully with the seafood.
I’ve had grits a lot in the past and I like them - sort of. I started eating them when I was in the Army but I didn’t like them with butter. Instead I prepared them with sugar and milk - sort of like oatmeal - and I really liked it. It was the only way I’d had grits that I liked. Granted, these were probably all instant grits, but it was what I knew about grits. Thus I really didn’t think I’d like savory grits. I’m glad I ventured out of my comfort zone because I would definitely eat shrimp and grits again.
While I’m not sure it counts as southern, the next morning for breakfast I also went way outside my comfort zone and had corned beef hash with poached eggs. The hash had a creamy horseradish sauce on it and it was also pretty good. I’m not sure I’d order it again elsewhere but it was a good and filling breakfast and I’m glad I had it.
One of the highlights of Main Street is Falls Park which is a fantastic multi-layered park right on the western portion of Main. There is a cool suspension bridge that gives you a great view of the waterfall. We were lucky to be there on the same night as one of the Greenville high school’s had their prom. Lisa loves admiring the girls dresses on prom night in Huntington so she was thrilled to get to “prom stalk” the girls of Greenville. I’d say, for the most part, she loved their dresses. Plus, it was cool to see so many young people hanging out downtown even if it was just for a special occasion.
Starting five years ago Lisa and I decided to stop giving each other traditional “object” gifts from Christmas. Instead, we alternate giving the other an Experience. So far we’ve been to an NHL all-star game, the Grand Canyon, Niagra Falls/Toronto, and Chicago for Cubs game. This year we went to Asheville and Greenville but the experience was Les Miserables. I enjoyed seeing our friends and I loved exploring the new towns but, for me, they were all secondary to Les Mis.
We had our tickets for Saturday night, at 8pm so we headed back to the hotel and got into some nice clothes and then headed to the Peace Center about a block away. We arrived at 7pm. We were not going to be late. It’s a good thing too because the Peace Center doesn’t mess around. Once it is time for the show to start - it starts. There is no warning dimming of the lights; it’s just lights out, a quick reminder to turn off your cell phone, and then the music starts.
The Peace Center has an unusual layout - but the acoustics were great (to my untrained ears). However, before the show Lisa and I had to stand and wait for our aisle to fill. We were in row V, seats 1 and 2. That put us three rows from the back of the first floor - right on the edge of the row. There is no center aisle so everyone has to go in via the end. That was cool though because we got to meet the nice couple sitting behind us.
While we talked someone mentioned that the set had changed and that the turntable was no longer part of the show. The turntable was one of the key features of my initial experience that really struck me. I am pretty sure I made an audible sound of appreciation way back in 1989. The turntable added a lot of cool depth to the stage and animated the scenery. It was very cool. Lisa told me that she knew some people who had seen the old version and this new set version and that this new set was even better. I was skeptical. I mean, no turntable and better? Please!
When the first notes hit I had serious chills. I’m talking full body goosebumps. I stopped thinking about how the show was 23 years ago and just instantly lost myself in the music and story of this production. To be honest, initially I was lost. I recognized the song but my mind was still a little caught on the turntable so I forgot what the initial scene was supposed to be. I had to clear my mind and just listen.
Fortunately, the singers were great so it was easy to “just listen”. At times it felt like they were singing a little faster than I remember the songs going but their voices were still incredible. It was also interesting that some of the voices sound so similar to the voices I was familiar with from listening to the soundtrack.
True to what I was told the set was vastly different. It was far more complex this time around. There seemed to be a lot more pieces to it and the set was constantly moving and changing as the singers performed. In fact, the set was so alive it was practically another character in the show. One of the more notable shifts of the set were after Jean Valjean stole some silver from the bishop. When he was captured and brought before the judge the set was shifting as he ran so that as the police turned him around he was suddenly facing a very highly seated judge who seemed to magically appear there out of thin air. The stage hands and manager deserve some serious accolades for their work at keeping the set changing so smoothly.
Just before the end of the first half of the show the screen on the back of the stage begins to show its’ potential but, it is later, when after Valjean flees into the sewer carrying Marius that the backdrop came into its’ own. In the scene Valjean exists stage right dragging Marius and then the lights shift and the backdrop is altered to look like a stone tunnel. Somehow, as if by magic, Thénardier seems to walk out of the screen and the tunnel image shifts to make it appear as if the tunnel is even longer. After Thénardier loots a corpse the scene changes a little more so that suddenly the stage appears to be a full crisscross of catacombs while Valjean enters from stage left still dragging Marius. It was very cool - and thanks to the lighting - and the shifting tunnel scene on the backdrop - I said, out loud (and not in a whisper), “That is cool” I felt a little guilty for bursting out like that but it was really cool.
I did miss the turntable and I don’t think this set was better than the old one. But, it wasn’t any worse either. It was cool and great in its own way. They were able to do some amazing things with the set. I’m still not sure how they managed to change it around so frequently and so quickly. It was extraordinary.
There were a few other changes compared to my memory, most notably how the climax at the barricade was handled. However, it was still gut crushing. In my memory Gavroche’s final scene takes places on the top of the barricade and was shocking in its delivery. However, in this rendition you can’t see Gavroche but Grantaire’s scream of anguish is painful and may have caused a tear or two to be shed.
The entirety of the performance was really good. The only real knock I have is that the singers weren’t always as clear as I would have liked so that I couldn’t understand them. However, considering my expectations going in where that it would, maybe, be about a third as good as the show of my memory, it was exceptional. This was one of those rare memories that, when revisited, wasn’t a let down. I can’t remember any other time in my life where that happened.
The only downside is now the pressure is really on me to come up with an experience for Lisa this Christmas.