The overarching aim of my production of Les Miserables, but where everyone in the cast except Jean Valjean is suspended from the ceiling by a chain connected to a leather gimp mask, is that the experience will be so immersive that the audience doesn’t even realize that everyone in the cast except Jean Valjean is suspended from the ceiling by a chain connected to a leather gimp mask.
Now for Jean Valjean, that’s easy, because he is not suspended from the ceiling by a chain connected to a leather gimp mask. For the rest of the cast, this poses a bit more of a challenge. From the prisoner in the desolation of an 18th-century prison singing the opening “Look Down,” to Eponine’s heart-breaking “On My Own,” it is an almost super-human feat for any of these songs to be heard over the roar of the machines that suspend the cast by chains and lift them up and set them down in different spots on the stage. Sometimes it lifts them very high and doesn’t ever truly “set them down” because their feet are never permitted to make contact with any surface.
On occasion, if a cast member is suspended very close to the level of a set piece, like the head of Fantine’s bed in her captivating death scene, they will try to get their feet onto it. Fortunately, Jean Valjean has an earpiece, and we can say to him “Hey, push her feet off the head of the bed!” and he’ll do that. The masks are extraordinarily uncomfortable, even when not supporting the entire weight of the performer.
At other times, the performers, having acted out a given scene many times before, may fail to imbue it with the appropriate sense of freshness. Again, to use the example of Fantine’s death scene, as she concludes the haunting song “Come to Me,” the ascent of her spirit to eternal rest is represented by having the chain pull her way, way up until the audience can’t see her, and doing it super fast. When done right, it’s incredibly powerful as evidenced by the huge collective gasp in the audience.
Unfortunately, it is a distressing experience for the performer. Also, to achieve the necessary force to hit the right speed, the motors have to be idled up into gear until they’re just screaming, which seems to increase the performer’s anxiety. As such, at the very moment the audience should be aching at the injustice of a woman whose two great loves have been lost only for her to die in abject poverty, and losing itself in the rapturous strains of the song as it tries desperately to overpower the sound of the motors, they find themselves instead puzzling over why Jean Valjean is savagely pinning Fantine’s arms to her side even as he sings sublime promises to care for her daughter as his own.
Of course, he’s doing it because we got into his earpiece and said, “Hey, she’s clawing feverishly at her leather gimp mask, you’ve gotta stop her!” But that doesn’t matter. All that matters is that the audience has lost that magical sense of immersion, and are now less likely to see the transcendent rise of a spirit from its terrestrial bonds than a performer just tearing ass up into the rafters.
Also, when Javert sings his final song before plunging into the icy black currents of the River Seine, he gets spun in a circle so fast his body’s at just like a five-degree angle. It represents how perturbed his mind has become confronted by Jean Valjean’s mercy. We could get him totally horizontal, but then he’d be above the rafters and no one would see him.
And look, I’m not trying to tap-dance around the elephant in the room. As proud as my entire team is of Cats, but where everyone in the cast except Skimbleshanks is suspended from the ceiling by a chain connected to a leather gimp mask, we fully accept in a legally-nonbinding way any missteps surrounding that production. Arts in the Classroom is a wonderful program, but was not, in hindsight, a good fit. Rest assured, the only childhood trauma affiliated with this production will be Cosette’s longing for the absent mother waiting in her castle on a cloud.