Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Les Miz Is Coming! Les Miz Is Coming!

I am a huge Les Miserables nerd.  Or, I guess it's fair to say, a Les Miserables the musical nerd.  Though I've read the novel and seen a couple movie incarnations, the musical has always had a special place in my heart.  I saw it for the first time with my French class when I was 13 years old.  I've since seen it five more times, in San Francisco, London, and Los Angeles.  I've seen the "old school" turntable version and the 25th Anniversary projection screen version -- otherwise known as "the version where we actually get to see Gavroche die" versus "the version where we get to see Grantaire scream about it."  I've purchased both the 10th and 25th Anniversary DVDs.  I have weighed in on Michael Maguire versus Anthony Warlow, Francis Ruffelle versus Lea Salonga, Colm Wilkinson versus Alfie Boe, and Patty Lupone versus Ruthie Henshall.    

I am far from the only person obsessed with this musical.  Les Miserables, like the source material itself, has proven to be immensely popular and enduring all over the world.  Yet for years, it remained a mystery as to whether the musical could ever be made into a decent screen adaptation.  After several aborted attempts, it looks as though they have finally succeeded.  Les Miserables the musical will finally be hitting the big screen on Christmas Day 2012

Before I get into that, let me give an overview to those not entirely familiar with the story.  Jean Valjean is a French peasant who spent 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread.  He is finally released and discovers that he is unwelcome everywhere as a former criminal.  Finally a local bishop invites him to stay, and Valjean rewards his kindness by stealing his silver.  When Valjean is caught and turned in, the bishop pretends that he gave Valjean the silver as a gift and gives him a pair of silver candlesticks as well.  He then tells Valjean that he used the silver to buy Valjean's soul for God, and Valjean must be a good man from now on.  Valjean takes him seriously and assumes a new identity, eventually becoming the wealthy mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer.  However, his good intentions for the town are interrupted by the arrival of Inspector Javert, a man who worked as a guard at Valjean's prison.  Javert begins to suspect the mayor of being Valjean, who is wanted for committing a minor crime after his release (in the musical, he is wanted for breaking parole).  

To make matters worse, Valjean learns that Fantine, one of the workers at his factory, was unfairly fired and must resort to prostitution.  He agrees to take her in and care for her illegitimate daughter, Cosette, but quickly learns that Fantine is dying.  Valjean agrees to bring Cosette -- who is staying with another family, the Thenardiers -- back to her.  Before he does, Javert informs Valjean that the "real" Valjean has been caught and is awaiting trial.  After much soul-searching, Valjean reveals himself at trial.  He comes back to Fantine just in time to see her die (in the musical, she has a much kinder death than in the novel).  He then manages to escape Javert and go to the Thenardiers, where he learns that they have been abusing Cosette.  Valjean finally gets them to agree to "sell" Cosette to him, and he takes her away.  The Thenardiers realize that they could have gotten more for Cosette and decide that Valjean stole her from them.  Valjean and Cosette flee to Paris and manage to take refuge in a convent for nine years.  When they emerge, it is 1832, and a student uprising is brewing.  Cosette falls in love with one of the students, Marius Pontmercy.  Valjean becomes intensely jealous of Marius, and paranoid that Javert could still be after him (which he is).  He decides to take Cosette away to England before the fighting starts, but ends up changing his mind.  

Instead, Valjean sneaks behind the barricades wearing a National Guard uniform and fights alongside Marius.  The students manage to capture Javert, who was acting as a spy for the Paris police.  Valjean is given the honor of killing him, but sets Javert free instead.  The student uprising takes a turn for the worse, and just about every student dies except for Marius.  However, Marius is gravely wounded and in need of care.  Valjean escapes with him through the sewers just before the barricade is ambushed.  Valjean stumbles upon Thenardier, who recognizes him and thinks that Valjean is carrying a dead body.  Valjean later runs into Javert at the exit.  Javert is ready to arrest him for his past crimes, but unexpectedly lets Valjean take Marius to his grandfather's house instead.  Unable to face the reality that he lives in a morally gray world, Javert leaps to his death into the Seine.  Marius and Cosette marry, but after Valjean confesses about his past to Marius, Marius tries to keep Cosette away from him.  Valjean goes away on his own and loses his will to live.  Marius then learns inadvertently from Thenardier that Valjean saved his life the night the barricade fell.  He and Cosette rush to Valjean's side just in time to see him before he dies. 

The musical manages to retain most of the major elements of the novel, with a few key differences.  One is that Marius is much gentler in the musical than in the novel.  In the novel, he mistrusts Valjean and actively tries to keep Cosette away, which results in Valjean losing the will to live.  While it's true that Valjean almost dared Marius to react this way when he confessed his past crimes, Marius could have looked past his prejudices and realized what Valjean meant to Cosette, and vice-versa.  Another key difference is that Eponine Thenardier, rather than be just a slightly crazy, mildly annoying thorn in Marius's side, is his good friend and a normal, pretty person who secretly pines for him.  She gets to sing all of the great songs, like "On My Own" and "A Little Fall of Rain," while Cosette remains a prim school marm in the background.  I suppose the third key difference is that grown up Eponine takes center stage in the musical, whereas in the novel, she is much more marginalized than grown up Cosette.  It is frustrating to see what happens to Cosette in both the novel and musical, but in the novel she has more of a presence.  There is no love triangle involving Cosette, Marius, and Eponine in the novel. 

But I could see why these changes were made, and they mostly work.  The English-language version of Les Miserables premiered in London in 1985.  Colm Wilkinson originated the role of Jean Valjean, while Roger Allam played Javert, Michael Ball played Marius, and Francis Ruffelle played Eponine.  The musical was based on a French-language musical, for which the concept album is still available to purchase.  Besides translating the lyrics, the London version of Les Miz reworked certain parts of the story.  Instead of starting with Fantine at the factory, the London version included a prologue that portrayed Valjean's release from prison and rescue by the bishop.  It also included quite a few other pieces that were stripped from the English-language version of the musical once it made its debut on Broadway in 1987 (but would live on in non-English versions).   

Gone was the moment when Eponine saved Marius by throwing herself in front of a bullet.  The new version had Eponine getting shot on her way back from delivering Marius's letter to Valjean.  Also gone was the full-length version of Gavroche's "Little People," which was an English-language version of "La Faute a Voltaire," a much better song.  In its place were a few lyrics here and there, most notably during Gavroche's death scene.  The Broadway version of Les Miz kept Wilkinson and Ruffelle in their respective roles, while adding Terrence Mann as Javert, David Bryant as Marius, Judy Kuhn as Cosette, and -- most notably -- Michael Maguire as Enjolras, who played the role much more forcefully than his predecessor, David Burt.

From there, the English-language version of the musical did not change much.  Over the years, a few lines were snipped here, a musical sequence snipped there.  One revival version replaced "Little People" with "Ten Little Bullets" as Gavroche's death song.  Enjolras's hair went from black pompadour with a ponytail to blond, like in the novel.  However, other things remained the same.  One was Enjolras's "xylophone," the nickname for the elaborate vest he wears during the fighting.  Another was the turntable, which gave the audience multiple views of the stage.  One minute you would see the students at the barricade; the next, the turntable would show you what awaited on the other side.  Police?  Gavroche about to face death?  The turntable was wonderfully flexible and helped create some truly memorable scenes, including a view of the dead students in the aftermath of the fighting.  

Major changes would not affect the musical's staging until the 25th Anniversary tour version in 2010.  Away went the turntable, which made it possible for the production to finally have some standing sets and real  props.  However, it also took away some of the musical's more affecting moments.  Instead of seeing Gavroche on the other side of the barricade getting shot and dying, the audience stays with the students' point of view and merely hears Gavroche in the background.  When Gavroche dies, Grantaire lets out the most ridiculous "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!" you are likely to hear in a musical production.  Other than that, the changes were mostly effective.  The colors are brighter; the costumes seem more specific to the time period; and a projection screen in the background enhances certain scenes, such as Valjean's escape through the sewers.

At the same time, the line snipping and musical sequence cutting to keep Les Miz under three hours reached truly ridiculous proportions by the 25th Anniversary production.  To the point where the musical lead-in to "I Dreamed a Dream" was cut and the beautiful "Come to Me" had some of its lines stricken.  As I watched the 25th Anniversary production in Los Angeles, I could not help feeling like everyone was on a treadmill.  Scenes were not allowed to breathe.  Hopefully, the movie version will restore some balance.

What's that?  The movie version?  When will I get around to talking about it?  Well, I had to give some background about the musical first.  However, as the opening day approaches, I will be posting my thoughts, as well as my opinions about the English-language versions of the musical and the two concerts.  Stay tuned.

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