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Designer John Napier: ‘Les Mis has gone backwards — it’s become formulaic, not radical’
After more than three decades in the West End, John Napier’s staging of Les Miserables is set to be replaced by the touring version at the end of this year. Looking back on a career that has also included Cats, Starlight Express and Sunset Boulevard, the designer tells Matthew Hemley why he’s pleased that fans are mourning the revolve
At the end of this year, a musical theatre icon will leave the West End. While Les Miserables will continue to run on Shaftesbury Avenue in a slimmed-down, slicked-up touring version, the much-loved original staging is to close for good.
As well as Trevor Nunn and John Caird’s visionary direction, Les Mis became legendary for its extraordinary design, based on a revolving stage and its awe-inspiring barricades. For John Napier, the man who designed the show that opened in 1985, the loss of the original production inspires something akin to grief. It is grief mixed, it’s fair to say, with a splash of bewilderment and a heap of frustration.
Napier, who won a Tony award for that design, is at pains to say he does not want to appear petty, or seem “churlishâ€ towards the show’s producer Cameron Mackintosh, who took the decision announced last month. But as an era in musical theatre comes to an end, it’s clear he wants to have his say.
“I have made an enormous amount of money from these three Cameron Mackintosh productions [Les Miserables, Miss Saigon and Cats] over the years, but clearly there was something going on in Cameron’s mind where he was not satisfied with what we did originally on Les Mis. And once again he’s turned it into sort of another Oliver!â€ When he describes it as “another Oliver!â€ he explains that he feels many of Mackintosh’s “revitalisedâ€ shows are “formulaic as opposed to out-of-the-box and radicalâ€.
Napier continues: “My grief about that, if there is such a thing as grief with someone tinkering with a show, it is that it led Les Mis down a path that felt a bit backwards, into some sort of era of stage cloths and people pushing things on from left and right… The thing about the original is that it’s much simpler and more organic than the other production.â€ In losing the original’s simplicity, it has lost some of its beauty, he feels.
The 74-year-old designer found out that his staging of Les Miserables would finish in a letter from Mackintosh last year. But the seeds were likely sown when the new touring production began in 2009. At that time, Napier was keen to know what the financial implications would be for him when the new version began to tour.
“We had a dispute about this whole production,â€ he explains. “I felt I was relatively deserving, given it was the original production that had underpinned the new production really. But there was a disagreement about that.â€
He adds: “I have subsequently had no financial benefit from the touring production whatsoever.â€
Napier says Mackintosh offered to buy out his intellectual property — “for the wonderful sum of $50,000â€, though it could have been pounds, he can’t remember. “But, as you can imagine, I refused.â€
Napier reveals there were “sharp words said from people on both sidesâ€ and that the situation is ongoing. Though he points out the company knows he is not in a position to make a legal challenge and doesn’t really want to anyway. “I am not sure I want the bother, quite frankly,â€ he says. “I’d be dealing with a behemoth.â€
As it stands, when the new version opens in London, Napier will make nothing from it.
From art school to the West End
Napier studied art at Hornsey College of Art in the early 1960s, before studying theatre design at the Central School of Arts and Crafts under Ralph Koltai. After graduating, he became an associate designer for the Royal Shakespeare Company and worked on productions of Macbeth, The Comedy of Errors, King Lear and Hedda Gabler there. At the National Theatre he worked on shows including The Party, starring Laurence Olivier in his final performance at the Old Vic, and Equus.
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats marked his first foray into musical theatre, followed by Starlight Express, before Les Miserables and Miss Saigon came calling. Napier, modest though he is, feels he and a handful of other designers at the time “changed the dynamic of theatreâ€.
He says his style has always been anything but pretty. “If you look at the three big shows I did with Cameron, almost all of them are in a territory that is kind of grim. Cats, because it’s TS Eliot, I put in a wasteland. Les Mis was in Paris, and I made it gritty and grey and dull — deliberately so the performers would stand out.â€ He adds: “It’s the slicking up of stuff that I object to. I believe, as Peter Hall once said, that really great theatre has a rough edge to it.â€ He adds that the newer Les Miserables has “something more colourful about it — and I don’t think the story needs thatâ€.
When he was designing the original Les Mis in the early 1980s, he and Nunn took a trip to Paris. Together, they listened to the music and read the book. Nunn felt the production needed “motionâ€, which led to the creation of the now-legendary revolving stage, which gives the musical a “dynamic that is sculptural and not painterlyâ€ according to Napier.
He isn’t alone in his love for the revolve. When news of the original production’s end was announced, there was uproar from fans of the musical, who were sad to see Napier’s design leave the West End. A petition was set up, urging Mackintosh to retain it, which has attracted several thousand signatures.
“I find it interesting that people have observed or felt that the original production, in some way, has more gravitas,â€ he says, adding: “It’s truer in a way to the spirit of Victor Hugo. Trevor and John did an enormous amount of work with the writers Alain [Boublil] and Claude [Schonberg] on restructuring it, to create something rather unique in its day.â€ Nunn and Caird’s production has an “epic qualityâ€, he adds, with a sense of “movement and travelâ€.
Napier is disappointed, to say the least, that Mackintosh failed to consult him on the newer show. “Having worked on the three productions that have been the furnace of his engine — what has become a multimillion-pound organisation — it would be nice if you were asked [to work on the new] interpretation, and not your assistant,â€ he says. That assistant was Matt Kinley, the designer of the new show, who worked in Napier’s studio for many years and “got jolly well paid for doing itâ€.
Napier says he would rather Mackintosh had chosen to put on a brand new production. “I would have been perfectly happy if it had been people with no association with the original in the first place. Therefore its originality would have been authentic. It’s when you have people who have worked on it before, that I find it a little bit galling.â€
He continues: “I would have celebrated another production of Les Miserables — a new take on it. But it seems to me this is a fudged take on the old production. I am not wishing to do anything other than to say it’s a bit tragic that maybe a younger, more energetic and up-to-date group of creatives weren’t chosen. I would have celebrated that, I really would. Shakespeare gets reinvented every week of the year. It’s possible to do these things.â€
The designer also reveals that, before the updated Les Mis began touring, he told Mackintosh he was not interested in doing new productions, but that he would always be available to revisit old ones. “Having worked on three of the longest-running musicals in the history of the 20th and 21st centuries, I felt it was time to hang up my boots and hand the baton to the younger generation,â€ he says, adding that he feels a duty to give emerging designers the chance to work on shows.
But Napier also feels his words to Mackintosh about turning down new shows came back to bite him. “Cameron took the word ‘new’ and put it smack bang on this production of Les Mis, calling it the ‘all-new Les Miserables’. How can anyone not feel churlish if that is the way the cookie crumbles?â€
Though his own design for Les Mis will no longer be seen, Napier, a three-time Olivier award winner, believes its influence can be felt in shows today. He references Hamilton, with its revolving stage and exposed brickwork. “It’s not dissimilar to the original Les Mis, and all these things happen by osmosis,â€ he says. “I believe Les Mis set a bar for staging shows in a certain way.â€ He adds: “I wonder what will happen in five, 10 or 15 years’ time, when Hamilton needs to move to a smaller theatre.â€
None of that will be Napier’s concern, however, and for now, he’s happy concentrating on his own art work. He’s hoping that an exhibition about his career, which went on display in Eastbourne in 2015, will make its way to London and is also writing an autobiography — though as he’s dyslexic, he says this is proving harder than he thought.
None of this is to say that theatre work in the future is completely out of the question. And referring to his recent reworking of Starlight Express with Lloyd Webber, he wants to make something perfectly clear. “I am not past my sell-by date,â€ he says. “I guess that’s what I am trying to say.â€