Les Miserables must be one of the most popular stage works of all time. Based on the classic novel by Victor Hugo, the musical takes us to a turbulent period of French history, the years that led to the June Rebellion of 1832, a massive French uprising that took place more than 40 years after the French Revolution itself.
The plot transports us into the lives of the people who abolished monarchy in 1789, establishing a republic only to fall back into the pit of a newly formed empire. Les Miserables is a dramatisation of the fate of the French people represented, among others, by Valjean, the protagonist. Newly released from prison where he spent almost 20 years for stealing bread, Valjean is now going through a spiritual transformation; a successful factory owner and a mayor, he understands the hardships of his compatriots.
But Les Miserables is not just a depiction of French history. It is also a story of love and hate, nobility and villainy, frivolity and poverty, solidarity and pettiness, a tale that raises questions about the essence of good and evil. It looks into the relationship between egotism and altruism, one’s own good and the public good, against the backdrop of the big question of justice or rather lack thereof.
No wonder, the show has always generated great interest, with audience appreciation and critical acclaim. Not only does the tale’s topic resonate with many nations and cultures, its musical form is also enveloped by the breathtaking music of Claude-Michel Schönberg, who is the composer behind other multi-award winning musicals such as Miss Saigon (1989) and Martin Guerre (1996).
Egypt’s connection with Les Miserables has to do with Fabrica, the independent Musical Theatre Company established and managed by soprano Neveen Allouba. The show’s English libretto by Herbert Kretzmer was translated to Egyptian Arabic by Sarah Enany, leading to many performances and the final, full-length, two-and-a-half hour show that was staged between 30 August and 2 September at the suburban Theatro Arkan, located in a mall in Sheikh Zayed.
“The first time we performed the show - in its much shorter, 45-minute version - was in 2013, at the American University in Cairo’s Malak Gabr theatre. It was the graduation project of students majoring in music performance,” Allouba says, mentioning Nesma Mahgoub, the first student to graduate with a music major from the AUC.
“I saw Les Miserables several times in London, and I always admired its music. Later, the 2011 revolution, the people and the whole atmosphere of the country, suffering from so many social frustrations, kept bringing it back to my mind. I found many layers of the play very relevant to what was going on around us. I also thought it was the perfect choice for students. We had to translate the libretto into Arabic though, a task that took Sarah Enany and me six months of work.”
With the libretto in hand, Allouba began working with her students at AUC. At the same time, the idea of Fabrica, a platform through which young talents might learn and grow, began to emerge. The successful staging of Les Miserables at AUC prompted Bassem Youssef to include some of its scenes in his El-Bernameg, the then phenomenally popular satirical news show, in June 2013.
That gave the play a strong push, leading to the American Embassy supporting the troupe’s tour to the USA, where they performed a slightly extended version in numerous cities. Throughout this whole journey the play was directed by Mohamed Abou Elkheir. In 2018, the play was re-staged at the Gomhoreya Theatre in Cairo, with a new cast.
“The 2018 performance was extended even more but it still lacked some segments from the original musical. Only with the recent production at Theatro Arkan can the audience enjoy a complete play. With that production, I wanted to celebrate ten years of Les Miserables in Egypt,” Allouba explains. She goes on to clarify that the cast performing in the recent play is a new generation of the Neveen Allouba Vocal Academy and Fabrica Musical Theatre. The latest version also has two new directors, Omar Warda and Ahmed Amr, who worked alongside set designer Ahmed Ismail, light designer Sayed El-Naggar, sound designer Mafdy Thabet, and countless other crew members.
The play was performed to recorded music with the cast singing live. The performance was led by Allouba as its musical director, who conducted the performers relying on cues given to her through the ear piece. This way the singers could sync perfectly with the recorded music.
Showcasing many stars from the new generation of Fabrica, the performance was also joined by some who witnessed the company’s earliest beginnings: Hany Mustafa, who sang the role of Jean Valjean on all four evenings (30 Aug-2 Sept), and Nesma Mahgoub in the role of Fantine (Cozette’s mother), performing on 30 August and 2 September. In fact, most roles saw double cast, allowing the singers to rest as well as providing a better showcase of Fabrica’s talents.
In Allouba’s teaching practice, hundreds of students, including those at her own Fabrica and Neveen Allouba Vocal Academy, have greatly benefitted from her guidance. Many have launched successful international careers. No wonder this performance of Les Miserables was such a showcase of talent, with numerous singers either carving out their names on the music scene or readying to do so in the near future.
I had an opportunity to attend the performance’s last day, on 2 September, and saw the cream of the crop.
Nesma Mahgoub needs no introduction; we all remember her winning the 8th Star Academy Arab World competition, which was but one step in her remarkable development. Today, the renowned singer returned to the stage with work that must be close to her heart as it was her graduation project so many years before. Due to her extensive studies of musical theatre and her great vocal talent, Mahgoub’s Fantine was as artistically pure as the innocent soul of this tragic heroine. In many ways, one felt that Mahgoub was at home in the performance, with her remarkably strong and versatile vocals and her impeccable understanding of the stage.
Hany Mustafa’s bari-tenor has the ability to give soft embellishments to the high range, while beautifully walking us through the lower tonalities embedded in Valjean’s score with great control. This is reinforced by his strong stage presence and convincing presentation of a man whose life we follow from his years marred by imprisonment through the fatherly care he offers Cossette (though his love seems even greater), to his old age.
His role is rich in emotions: love, fatherly tenderness, human compassion, boundless selflessness, paralleled with an evident strength of character. The sheer realism of his understanding of life and people fuels his altruistic actions at an extremely difficult historical and social moment. It’s no easy character to portray and it was a pleasure watching Mustafa as he captured Valjean’s many colours, creating a profound palette of a man’s character.
The remaining cast consisted of up-and-coming singers interspersed with some bigger names. Here, we raise a chapeau to George Gamal’s rich baritone and his exceptional control, making him one of the highlights of the evening. In the role of the zealous inspector Javert, a harsh but dedicated policeman who occasionally reveals a softer side, Gamal’s clear, warm voice took us through the many vocal intricacies that his role requires. One of Allouba’s former students, another Egyptian voice with the ability to conquer international stages, Gamal is currently pursuing his musical education in Germany.
It would be impractical to give credit to all the cast members, one by one, as all of them presented something unique and added a special flavour to their respective roles and the whole performance.
The melancholy coming with Cosette suited the silky soprano fabric of Arwa Hezzah, finding many parallels with the equally gentle voice of her suitor Marius performed by Shady Sherif. Following dark moments, the stage was always re-energised by the evil pair, Monsieur and Madame Thénardier, the burlesque dynamo of social conflict, wonderfully presented by Ali Ballout and Nardine Reda. Their occasional vocal coarseness added much needed spice to the structure of those two manipulators.
Other main characters such as Eponine (Laila Ashraf) and Enjorlas (Waleed Atef) offered an equally rewarding performance, yet a special mention should be made of the youngest members of the cast: Hussein Hawas who sang a role of the street boy Gavroche, and Nardine Bassem as young Cosette. The two young singers have obviously made a lot of effort to master their roles; with their angelic voices they created a very touching image of impoverished children.
The many vocal interactions between the characters were well executed, with challenging duets and trios becoming almost an apotheosis of the evening’s musical aspect. Even the recitatives - which in the hands of Schönberg are still very melodious - were a lively break from the profound richness of this pop opera.
It’s important to remind the reader that Les Miserables at Theatro Arkan had a double cast, hence many other names contributed to the play’s success equally. They include Serag Mahmoud (as Javert on chosen dates), Nouran Ali (Mme Thenardier), Laurette Lebbad (Eponine), Daniel Hany (Enjorlas), Fady Rafik (Gavroche).
More than 20 singers participated in the performance's ensemble section, representing mostly the people of 19th-century France, hungry and participating in or troubled by the events unfolding around them. The ensemble that often embarked on two, three and even four-voice performances, the precision of their execution, provided a strong backbone in many scenes.
The mise-en-scene by Omar Warda and Ahmed Amr, both of whom were working on Fabrica’s Les Miserables for the first time, helped further. The young directors’ work is a breath of fresh air. Operating with minimal scenography, the directors created powerful images relying on lights and some props but mostly creative imagination.
Les Miserable is a reservoir of ideas, art, music and human relations, and it remains a challenge for any company to include in its repertoire, a feat further emphasised by the melodies, many of which have already become pop standards. But Fabrica’s production lived up to the task, and even though this new generation of performers is still growing, what we saw was already a professional take on art of the musical. The standing ovation from a nearly full auditorium on the performance’s last day was definitely well-deserved. With such a beautiful production, what Fabrica needs now is the support of sponsors so it can reach a bigger audience.
The choice of Theatro Arkan in Sheikh Zayed to launch the full-length Les Miserables seems self-explanatory, since Allouba was appointed the theatre’s director earlier this year. The theatre staged Charlie in February 2023, another musical production that benefited from the state-of-the-art, 900-seat auditorium.
With Allouba’s entry to the theatre, it is very possible that Egypt’s creative movement will reach Cairo’s outskirts. She considers Les Miserables the opening of the new season, but “the theatre’s grand opening will take place in October,” she explains. “I was thinking about bringing back Les Miserables even prior to taking charge of the theatre. I wanted to mark 10 years of Les Miserables in a special way. The Theatro Arkan has helped us make this dream come true…”
Allouba explains that her presence in the theatre has actually facilitated work on the musical in its full format. “Any theatre company needs space for rehearsals on the stage they will perform on. This is not always provided by theatres such as those operating under the Cairo Opera. Charlie had many rehearsals which supported their company’s work. I hope to give similar opportunities to young independent theatre makers through Theatro Arkan.”
Allouba still prefers not to reveal details of the grand opening in October. “I aim to embrace many creative acts in the upcoming season, be they theatre, dance or music. We already had Massar Egbari on Theatro Arkan’s stage; the standup comedians proved very successful too… I’m sure the upcoming months will shed light on many great artists.”
* A version of this article appears in print in the 7 September, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly