(musical) Review: Les Misérables

First, full disclosure. I am a 100% lifelong musical theater nerd. Decades before Glee (which is really show choir, a pseudo-genre in which I never deigned to participate), my sister and I were acting out, in our den, all the great mid-century classic movie musicals: West Side Story, The Music Man, Oklahoma!, etc. Our parents took us to stage shows as far back as I can remember. In 6th grade I was piano accompanist for our grade school musical and have played leading roles in high school, college, and semi-professional musical productions. My senior year of high school I would come home every day and listen to the soundtracks of Les Misérables and Phantom, in their entirety, before beginning my homework. My family, instead of playing I Spy on road trips, sang entire musical theater scores — in parts. You get my drift. So if I’m a bit picky about the vocal performances per se in my review here, you understand why.

Arguably, the stage production of Les Misérables ushered in the modern era of “sung-through” musicals — with all intervening dialogue sung in recitatif style. The melodies and leitmotifs are not musically complicated, but are memorable and skillfully woven together thoughout the entire score. As for the libretto, it hardly compares to the wit of Stephen Sondheim, but it does have moments of impeccable timing (“To love another person is to see the face of God” is, rightly so, the final and most memorable lyric of the show).

So why has this beloved musical endured to celebrate its 10th, then most recently 25th anniversary? First and foremost is the story. Victor Hugo’s behemoth of a novel is a classic for a reason, and the musical version has made it accessible to the modern masses (and people who just cannot sit down and read a book in its entirety, like your humble scribe). Sweeping themes like absolute justice vs mercy, radical idealism, and unrequited love… well, they just WORK.

I must admit that since the R&H era, the movie versions of present-day musicals have failed in comparison to their stage production counterparts. (Hairspray is a notable exception, with Sweeney Todd an honorable mention.) This might arise from my bias toward live stage productions, but I have found that many movie versions just — how should I say? — well, they try too hard, usually at the expense of solid vocal performances. Many movie adaptations of stage musicals are like overwrought dough producing a pastry that should be pleasant in texture, but instead is heavy & tough. On stage, an actor must understand and convey the essence of a character without the voice-overs, special effects, countless retakes, and other accoutrements available in the movie industry. This is both harder and easier than it sounds, and some actors “get it” and others don’t. That’s why there is little overlap between movie and stage actors; their craft is sufficiently different as to even warrant two separate actors unions. In general, most theater roles must be performed simply and honestly to satisfy a discriminating audience paying $120 a seat. They don’t pay that money to be titillated (that’s what movies are for), but to be ravished. And this takes a special kind of actor who understands both genres.

An actor like, say, Hugh Jackman. He is the quintessential crossover actor. And though I so would have loved to see Alfie Boe reprise his Valjean for the big screen (watch his beautiful rendition of “Bring Him Home”), I recognize that for star power and talent, Hugh Jackman was the best and only choice. While other people were watching him in the X-men movies, I was swooning over his performance in Oklahoma! as Curley — a performance that is happily (legally) captured on DVD for posterity. So in my mind Hugh Jackman is a fine stage actor who happens to do movies (I’ve never seen the X-men films). But most of the Les Misérables movie audience will feel conversely — “Wolverine can sing??”– which is why he is the best choice to satisfy both audiences.

Where was I? Oh yes, the movie. On the whole, I enjoyed it. Very much so. There were definite moments when my critical eye was sufficiently sated that it could rest and let me soak in the performances. It felt very much like a stage production, except for the cinematic action sequences for which I sorely needed some anti-vertigo medication. To the director’s credit, the individual numbers were shot very simply, with little if any use of the usual distractors we see in movies during musical numbers (montage, flashback, electronically altered sound, and the like) — the focus was on the vocal/acting performances solely. The quality of the singing overall was excellent, particularly with the ensemble and chorus numbers; The chorus produced a very clean, balanced sound with understandable lyrics (this latter quality is more elusive than one would think).

Hugh’s acting of the role of Jean Valjean was splendid throughout the movie, but particularly during his conversion scene in the chapel (after being exonerated by the kindly bishop) as well as during his deathbed scene. His vocal performance was not as nuanced as it had been for the filmed stage version of Oklahoma!, particularly for “Bring Him Home” — a number that most Les Miz groupies expect to hear delivered tenderly; but instead of floating the C’s and that final high-F, Jackman tossed them out like Tim Wakefield knuckleballs clunking into the dirt. But overall, as the one marquee name who is a legit musical stage actor in his own right, his performance was pretty much what I expected — solid.

Russell Crowe on the other hand, though he has a passable singing voice, saw his acting suffer as a result of having to sing. Note, this is not the same as saying that his singing voice was poor — it is pleasant enough — but it seemed that his best acting was done in those moments when he did not have to sing, and of course in a sung-through musical these moments are few and far between. Once he opened his mouth to sing, his face became mask-like and lost all the nuance he looked like he wanted to build behind his character (and which he surely could have done had this been a non-musical). For this reason “Stars” was the dullest number of the movie — ordinarily, with a really good stage Javert, this is a riveting number when he establishes pathos with the audience, showing us how his heart aches for absolute justice.

Now for Anne Hathaway as Fantine. Wow. I was stunned by her performance — ravished, even. Her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” was absolutely heartwrenching. It is the one and only time I’ve witnessed that number as a true window into Fantine’s character, and not just a perfunctory diva number before her death scene. She, unlike Russell Crowe, did a fine job melding her acting with her singing. Her singing served her acting, and this is the goal to which all musical theater actors ought to aspire. That she is a primarily ‘straight’ (non-musical) actor and able to do this so effectively was a most pleasant surprise. And while she doesn’t have the big voice for which most Fantines are cast, her voice had an honesty and simplicity about it that belied the fact that Fantine really was a child, and not a mature belt mezzo-soprano. And she died a consumptive’s death as well as any I’ve seen on stage or film.

As the cunning but feckless Thénardiers, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter nailed the physical pickpocket humor (often missed because of the Blair Witch Project-like cinematography), but their characters were a bit schizoid otherwise — particularly Cohen’s. He sang intermittently with an odd accent with Latino overtones that I found distracting. And for an actor who knows how to cut to the core of the comedy of any event, I expected a bit more depth to his character. But perhaps he intentionally wanted to play him mainly as a simpleton. Helena Bonham Carter has made a recent name for herself playing psycho bitches (Bellatrix Lestrange, Mrs. Nellie Lovett, and now Madame Thénardier), and she delivers here, helped by a singspiel-like approach to her performance. Though the vocal part is far less demanding than that of Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd (in which her voice sounded wan and insipid), her singing voice seems to have more ‘meat’ on it in her present role.

As for the non-marquee supporting actors, happily they seem to have been taken directly from stage productions — notably Colm Wilkinson (who originated the role of Jean Valjean in 1986) as the kindly bishop, and Samantha Barks, who also was given the honor of playing Eponine for the recent 25th anniversary concert performance. Eddie Redmayne, cast as student revolutionary Marius, was fantastic — handsome, with a classic Irish tenor voice (not often heard from most Marius’s (Marii?), who tend to have either a booming belt tenor or a boy band pop-like whine). The movie scenes helped to better establish his character as a true brave revolutionary, and not just a love-besotted boy reluctantly going along with the crowd.

I’m sure I’ll think of some other points on which to elaborate, but here are a few more quick bullet points of what I liked and didn’t like in this movie version.

First some of the ‘didn’t likes’ (they are mostly musical):

- Omission of the lovely third series counterpoint based on “Castle On A Cloud”, sung between Valjean and young Cosette as they wander through the wood — this series of “la” syllables establishes their nascent father-daughter relationship far more effectively than the mawkish composed-for-the-movie song intercalated into the original score. Sung by Valjean about his anticipated life as a father, my initial reaction to the new song was “Is this from a Hallmark movie?”.

- The editorial slash job on the student rebels’ initial ensemble number in the cafe (I call this the “Hotties Plan Mischief” number – it’s the banter that precedes “Red and Black”). Cutting this scene watered down the leadership role of Enjolras which, in the stage version, is much more prominent. It also minimized the role of Grantaire, whose constant drunkenness during the stage version of this ensemble number introducing the student revolutionaries makes his subsequent “Drink With Me” all the more poignant.

And some ‘likes’:

- I loved how no matter where he was on the lam, Valjean always kept the candlesticks ‘gifted’ to him by the kindly bishop. Whenever he packed in haste, the candlesticks were always the first item packed. Lovely cinematic touch.

- Whereas in the stage version Fantine and Eponine appear to Valjean on his deathbed, in the movie it is Fantine and the kindly bishop who greet him. Not only was this a nice touch, but it made more sense for the character of Valjean, bringing things full circle in his life.

In sum, nevermind my (mostly) picayune criticisms of the vocal performances — I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, and plan to watch it again to catch some details that I noted on the first viewing but could not recall for this review. For diehard Les Miz fans, it is well worth your time to watch this version, which is true to the original, largely untinkered. For casual fans and those not familiar with but curious about all the hubbub about Les Miz, it is worth the 2.5+ hour time investment. For those of you who just don’t ‘get’ musicals (“Why are they always singing?”), this one might have enough drama and plot to draw you in. I am most curious to see what LesMiz-naïve moviegoers think. What was your impression of the movie? Please leave your comments below…

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6 Responses to “(musical) Review: Les Misérables”

  1. Evan Simpkins Says:

    wow

  2. Evan Simpkins Says:

    chick flick?

  3. Evan Simpkins Says:

    first time ive seen your blog by the way, really like the format!

  4. Episode 30: On to 2013! « Two Women, a Movie, and a Microphone Says:

    [...] to any of the characters. If you love the play already, though, you will love the movie. (Here is a review of the movie from someone who loves it). Anna gives it a 1 and Kari gives it a 2- one point for [...]

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