COMING TO JACKSONVILLE JAN 22
The responsibility of the set designer is creating an authentic world that engages the audience with imagination and authenticity and supports the narrative without competing with the action on stage. Few musical productions are as grand in scale as Les Misérables in every way.
Based on Victor Hugo’s epic novel set in post-revolutionary France, the story centers on themes of politics, justice, religion, moral philosophy, poverty and rebellion but it also relies heavily on the architecture and urban design of Paris to create a sense of place.
The original stage production employed a revolving platform to allow fluid movement between the scenes which traveled from prison work camp to factory in the French countryside to an inn in the Parisian ghetto. Renowned for his work crafting inspired sets for several beloved productions, designer Matt Kinley faced a Herculean task when he was invited to reimagine the set for the 25th anniversary of the touring production.
Les Miserables returns to the Jacksonville stage Jan 22 – 27 at the Times Union Center’s Moran Theatre (www.artistseriesjax.com). EU Jacksonville spoke with Kinley by phone from his London home. He shared the challenges of framing a story, the joy of building a theatre family and the intrinsic value of less is more.
“I think the most effective set design is as simple as possible. Sometimes when stuff is shouting at you, you’re not necessarily focused on what’s happening on stage. I think it’s most effective is actually very sparse and simple,” Kinley says. “I know that’s strange of me to say with these huge sets but in terms of the purpose of the design which is to support the narrative rather than try and fight it or overpower it. And that breeds more theatricality as well doing stuff with usually less budget, fewer resources, and less space. It’s more intimate than you might necessarily get with the big productions. Simplicity, like in many things, is the key to the most successful designs.”
Kinley is a virtuoso in his field, having designed the sets for such productions as Miss Saigon, Mary Poppins, and My Fair Lady. His work led to a lasting partnership with theatre impresario Cameron Mackintosh who approached Kinley in 2009 to redesign Les Misérables for its 25th-anniversary production as a UK tour.
“Cameron has been the most wonderful person in my life as far as supporting me and supporting my career by giving me work. I’ve worked with him for a very long time in very different faculties. He found me when I was at the National Theatre many years ago, I left over 16 years ago. I was working on a production of his there,” says Kinley. “It was a big show and he wanted to take it on tour a couple of years later, so I adapted that original design for touring. I think he could see that I had a good grasp of design and a good eye for looking at shows and finding other ways to simplify things and adapting things to tour for smaller venues. He started looking at alternative ways to do these big shows that had been around for a long time and that’s when he asked me what I could do with Les Miz.”
For Kinley, it was a challenge to find a way to simplify the design while also protecting the integrity of the original staging. To find the right balance that would advance the show in a new direction and still appeal to legions of fans, Kinley captured the essence of Hugo’s vision based on the author’s own paintings.
“It’s totally iconic and an absolute landmark of musical theatre. [Mackintosh] didn’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater but it’s not pushing it unless you go in a different way,” says Kinley. “It’s a real challenge because you don’t want to alienate the legions of fans by setting it in space or whatever crazy thing you would imagine a modern director of the show to do. He wanted to them a new way of looking at the same thing.”
Kinley was inspired by the dark, brooding quality of Hugo’s work. The paintings don’t depict a literal translation of Les Miz, but Kinley projected multimedia images that capture the haunting impressionistic quality of Hugo’s work to maintain the show’s pacing and appeal to a new generation of fans.
“He never painted things directly to Les Miz, they were quite fantastical and abstract, very much a mood. One could see a world that might illustrate where we were in time and place with this show,” says Kinley. “We couldn’t do that with scenery because there are so many scenes in this show there would just not be enough space in the theatre to describe everything with physical things. That’s why I felt projections were the way to go. You knew where you are without being explicit. One of the biggest worries, if it didn’t revolve, was how to keep the show’s fluidity going. [Projections] allowed us to give a location in an instant and that’s what we used to keep the pace of the show going.”
Eliminating the revolving platform also influenced the pacing of the music. The timing of the transition music was measured in the length of a revolution. Without it, some scenes were left with an overflow of music while others had not nearly enough.
“It all tied in with the original staging. We found that there always were cuts and add-ons we could use to make sure we hit the right note of the score at the right point,” says Kinley. “When we come to redo these shows, it’s tricky working with the music in a completely different way.”
Often with design, it’s easy to overthink an element. With Les Miz, Kinley agonized over the best approach to Javert’s suicide. “We spent three days locked in the studio with the director and Cameron coming in just throwing around ideas. We went through every permutation of how you could see a man jump into the River Thames. I think we did every version until we came up with what we have now,” he recalls. “It was quite intensive. Just before lunch, I was looking at the mechanism and I thought ‘this is never going to work’. I thought over lunch about what are we going to do, and it worked the first time and has ever since. It was like oh my God! It’s good to be proved wrong.”
Kinley nods to the similar path that inspired his passion for set design after his original plans for a graphic design career veered off course. “I was set on going to Brighton, but it didn’t happen. It all went wrong. I was always making lots of crazy, 3-D things and someone suggested I go to the theatre where they do all sorts of the hands-on making of costumes, wigs and masks and props and sets. I was always a pretty practical person, so I thought ‘well, I’ll give it a go’. And I got into it and I just loved it,” says Kinley.
“I’d never been to the theatre as a child apart from an English pantomime once a year for Christmas. I absolutely love the camaraderie of working with different groups of people all over the country and around the world putting on these crazy shows. We all feel this madness and the build-up for the first night opening a new show and seeing how audiences are going to react and the stress that we all had to go through for that to happen. It’s a collective and I think its wonderfully exciting being part of that group of people trying to make something happen. I stay behind the scenes and I’m quite happy there with a paintbrush out of sight.”