Claude-Michael Shönberg and Alain Boublil are the fathers of French rock opera. No, seriously—they are. The musical La Révolution Française, written and composed by Schönberg and Boublil in 1973, is credited with bringing the genre to the European continent. While little known today outside of France, the work began a collaboration between the two playwrights that would last over 30 years and counting.
Since the 1970s, the pair have collaborated on works that have become part of the modern Broadway canon, namely Les Misérables (1985) and Miss Saigon (1990), as well as lesser-known The Pirate Queen (2006) and Martin Guerre (1996). The songs contained within these shows have launched hundreds of careers—from Broadway stars to internet sensations—and have helped guide the spectacle that is the modern Broadway megamusical.
In celebration of the work of Schönberg and Boublil, the Dallas Pops, in conjunction with the Turtle Creek Chorale and other organizations, presented "Do You Hear the People Sing," a show having its second U.S. performance on Friday, and its first in a sports arena: the American Airlines Center in Dallas (the tour contines in April and May in Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Canada. Joining the choir and orchestra was a children's choir of kids from Pink Elementary in Frisco and Woodrow Wilson High School in Dallas, as well as several established stars of the theater stage. According to an announcement at the show's opening, 7,000 tickets were sold; impressive for any one-night event with the words "musical theater" attached.
Drawing from five works penned by the pair, the material came from the well-known as well as songs that were "re-invented, re-arranged, or removed" by the creative team. The highlight of the night lay in the six performers brought in to headline the performance: Brian Stokes Mitchell (in his only performance on the tour, according to the website), Peter Lockyer, Terrence Mann, Marie Zamora, Stephanie J. Block and Lea Salonga.
Salonga was, far and away, the most engrossing of the performers onstage. There was a particular pleasure hearing her sing several numbers from Miss Saigon 23 years after originating the role of Kim in the original London production (she went on to perform the same role in the original Broadway cast as well as the closing performances of both venues); while Salonga was an immense talent as a 17 year old, hearing the same songs performed by a much more mature and experienced actress was an exiting benchmark on how far her talent and gravitas has grown on the stage. Her performance of "I'd Give My Life for You" was especially poignant in this regard.
Tenor Peter Lockyer was also able to hold his own with a strong sense of élan, though he did suffer from a weak start. He first joined Salonga onstage for "Last Night of the World," but seemed ill at ease, and as a result some of the harmonies suffered. His second appearance onstage, singing the title song from Martin Guerre was a completely different story; he was calm, composed, and gave a passionate and soulful reading of the number. His strongest moment came towards the end of the concert with his rendition of "Bring Him Home" from Les Misérables. The song sits in a high spot in just about any male's range, making the music very difficult to sing with any sense of sincerity. However, Lockyer brought the emotion in abundance, delivering a smooth, sweet sound that gave life to the character of the music and driving the prayer home.
Stephanie J. Block added to the performance a sweet-toned voice that had no lack of power when needed, but was also able to bring some laughs to the stage as well. Her first number was "Maybe" from Miss Saigon, which has an interesting tale in its own right, being recently added to the show for the upcoming tour (and should serve as an abject lesson on how to add new songs to old shows without them horribly sticking out). Block was elegant in her presentation, eschewing the opportunity to be overly dramatic or bombastic with the number. She must have been saving the drama up, because she released vocal fireworks with Salonga in the closing of the first act with a duet version of "I Dreamed a Dream." In the second act, she showed a bit of her bawdy side when performing "Master of the House" with Terrance Mann; though the song is fairly short, she was able to get the principal violist, conductor and concertmaster into her act to hilarious effect.
Terrence Mann is an actor's actor. Of the performers onstage, he was responsible for the most premieres as well as having the widest ranging of careers. He originated the role of Javert in the Broadway cast of Les Misérables, RumTum Tigger in Cats, the Beast in Disney's Beauty and the Beast, as well as starring in Richard Attenborough's adaptation of A Chorus Line. He moved from character to character effortlessly, moving from a sleazy club owner to the reformed convict Jean Valjean (albeit briefly) without batting an eyelash.
A welcome surprise to the evening was soprano Marie Zamora. The only female singer in the cast who was not a belter by nature, she used her softer, warmer tone to great effect in her performance, most notably in "Own My Own," which she sang in the original French. She also contributed the only song performed from La Révolution Française, "Au Petit Matin."
Last (but certainly not least) was Brian Stokes Mitchell. Little can be said about him that already hasn't been espoused a million times before—the New York Times famously called him one of the last true "leading men" of this generation. He opened the concert (and probably melted a few hearts) with his performance of "Bui Doi" from Miss Saigon. He later returned for a dramatic rendition of "Stars" from Les Misérables (and was introduced for the number by Mann, who as mentioned before originated the role on Broadway). The only downside to his performance was that he was not utilized more than he was.
The orchestra was ably led by conductor Kevin Stites, who also served as an emcee of sorts for the evening, giving some background and trivia on the shows in between numbers. He also personally accompanied Zamora on the piano during the opening of "Au Petit Matin". Overall, his gestures were minimal, but well focused and he kept everything running smoothly on the musical side of the concert.
There were some technical glitches, especially in the sound amplification of the orchestra that were an issue early on in the performance but improved as the music progressed (someday there will be a better way to amplify string instruments in a way that doesn't destroy their tone, but for now...). There were also several cameras at use that added a bit of a surreal feel to the evening when their picture was projected on the massive HD screens in the center of the arena, it was similar to watching television and live performance at the same time.
Concerts such as these will feed into the concept of spectacle, especially when the subject covered falls within the megamusical. However, the ride is often fun—and great music performances can be heard as a result.