May 18, the Broadway musical Les Miserables lowers its curtain for the last time, after 16 years and 6,680 peformances. More than nine million people saw the show, that the theater world affectionately calls "Les Miz."
The sounds of stagehands preparing "Les Miz's" elaborate set for one of the show's last New York performances fills the air. As actors begin to arrive, stage hands test the huge, mechanized turntable the actors march on during the show, and make sure the giant, three-ton barricades on either side of the stage will move fluidly into the center, and back out again.
Ron Fedeli, the show's head carpenter, spent more time with "Les Miz" than any other cast or crew member, joining shortly after it opened at the Broadway Theater on March 12, 1987. Some of his most vivid memories, he says, are of those rare occasions when something went wrong.
"Once, the stage right barricade, the larger of the two barricades, lost its ability to move off stage," he recalls. "Almost the entire cast who were on stage at the moment helped push it off, but it was pushed off so hard and fast that it jumped out of its tracks, started to move down stage toward the stage manager, and it was a frightening moment. It probably weighs three tons. Everyone stopped pushing, and it stopped. We lost about 20 or 25 minutes. We had to stop the show and bring the curtain in [down]."
Les Miserables, is a musical based on Victor Hugo's classic novel about Jean Valjean, a man condemned to 19 years of hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family. He escapes, but is pursued tirelessly over the years by the dark and stoic Inspector Javert.
Les Miserables' 16-year run falls just two years short of beating out Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats as the longest running show in Broadway history.
Les Miserables might have run longer, but broadway shows were hard hit by the abrupt decline of tourism in New York after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
Nick Wyman plays the role of Thenardier, the jolly, drunken innkeeper. He joined the cast six years ago, during the show's 10th anniversary re-casting and makeover. He says he thought the show's producer, Cameron Mackintosh, could save it.
"I was actually surprised," he admits. " I had thought that, if he has to stand out on 45th street with a whip and drive people into the theater, Cameron Macintosh will, come hell or high water, make this show pass "Cats" to become the longest running show of all time. But after 9-11, the audiences took a huge dip. Then they came back up, but never quite to the level they had previously come to. In late summer, early fall of 2002, it was fairly grim. We were playing to half-houses and sometimes not even half-houses. Although it's a wonderful show, it wasn't as much fun to be doing it for a small crowd."
Les Miz had been drawing up to 91 percent capacity in August 2001, but that number fell to as low as 29 percent in the weeks that followed the attacks.
Diana Kaarina plays the role of Eponine, the poor peasant girl who is killed in one of the show's many street battles. She says that the cast had heard rumors that the show would close, but were still unprepared for the end.
"It was more sort of shock. People were surprised that it had actually been announced, after all that time," she says. " People were kind of looking at each other saying, Well, … I guess that's it. That's the end of it. It didn't really set in, it hasn't really set in for the company, I think. I don't think it will until after it's closed. It's been such a part of our lives. To think of not coming to this theater on a regular basis is kind of hard to comprehend at this time. "
Fellow actor Nick Wyman says saddened cast members are far outnumbered by the many fans of the show who will mourn its passing.
"I've already met many tearful theater-goers outside the stage door who say, 'I can't believe we're never going to be able to see Les Miz again!' It's a show that's clearly touched a lot of people. It's a wonderful story of redemption, and it's moved many, many thousands and thousands of people. And it will be a loss not just for the cast, but for the theater-going public," he says.
As emotional as the New York closing is, chief carpenter Ron Fedeli says it's only an end for some.
"We stagehands have to come back at eight o'clock the next morning and start to take this all apart, and send it off to London," he says. " It's going to London to have some modifications to the set, and then it's going to be sent to Germany, to a company in Germany. "
Les Miserables is still playing in theaters around the world. To date, there have been 53 different productions, in 38 countries and 21 languages.