(photo credit: GERHARD ALON)
Nearly three decades after the show first came to Habima Theater in Tel Aviv, Aluvei Hahayim, the Hebrew adaptation of the blockbuster musical Les Miserables, is back through March 22. On Thursday night the house was packed, with older couples and families comprising most of the audience.
The cast, made up not only of career actors but also of recording artists trying their hand at musical theater, didn’t have a single weak link. Harel Skaat as Marius and Amir Dadon as Jean Valjean, his father-in-law by the musical’s end, steal the show, and it’s hard to look at anyone else while they’re on the stage.
This writer was likely the only person sitting in the audience who had seen the English rendition of the musical at Queen’s Theater in London, where it’s been running continuously since 1985, just a few weeks ago. And while the staging and props of the London production may have been more spectacular, there is something unique about seeing the show in Israel.
For instance, in the second act, Valjean sings the show-stopper “Bring Him Home.” The song is a plea to God to return his daughter’s soon-to-be husband safe from battle, offering up himself to the Lord instead. Here, the song hit harder then it would in a peaceful country like Spain (where a Spanish version of the show is also currently playing), where sons and daughters of audience members are not conscripted into the army at 18.
Later in the second act, when the nefarious comic foil character Thenardier sneaks through the sewers of Paris searching for rings, pocket-watches and plucks gold teeth from the dead, an Israeli audience needs no reminder that in Jewish history, characters far more sinister than Thenardier once took gold from the fillings of corpses.
In the same scene, Thenardier sings, “God in his heaven, he don’t interfere, cause he’s dead! As the stiffs at my feet...”
which is bound to make some in any Les Miserables audience uncomfortable, but in Israel, it becomes a visible phenomenon when he sings the lines, with kippa-clad attendees shifting restlessly in their seats.
Watching Aluvei Hahayim forces you to appreciate the enormity of its translation.
Putting aside for a moment that the original was written in French, and that the Les Miserables which the English-speaking world knows and loves is also a translation, Aluvei Hahayim does a stunning job of keeping both the meaning and the rhymes, while adding an Israeli flair to some of the lyrics.
For those whose Hebrew isn’t good enough to catch every line, the lyrics flash on a screen above the stage, and if you’re really at “kita alef” (grade one) Hebrew level, brush up on the story in English beforehand and think of the experience as you would an opera by Puccini or Mozart: beautiful arias sung in a foreign language.