Saturday, October 27, 2012

Les Miserables the Movie: The Neon Lights of Broadway

In 1986, Les Miserables would premiere at the Kennedy Center's Opera House in Washington, D.C. for an eight-week run.  The production then moved to Broadway in March of 1987.  It's not clear to me exactly when they occurred, but by the time Les Miz arrived on Broadway, it had undergone several changes.

What would result would be the English-language version of Les Miz that we now consider "definitive" -- or at least we did until the 1998 changes came along that shortened things further, and then certain changes were made to the 2007 Broadway revival, and then the 25th Anniversary production made even more cuts to the songs and score.

The Production

As with London, I never had the privilege of seeing the original Broadway production live.  However, I did see the touring production a few years later, so I at least have a vague recollection of what that version of the musical was like.  The most obvious changes were the following:

1.  "Little People" was severely trimmed down to just a few lines that Gavroche sings here and there.

2.  "Stars" was moved so that it took place after the "Look Down" sequence.  Now the Thenardiers' "Waltz" led right into "Look Down."

3.  Key parts of the "Look Down" sequence were now sung by Marius and Enjolras, whereas before they were sung by others.

4.  "I Saw Him Once," Cosette's quasi-solo, was removed and lyrics were added to the beginning of "In My Life."  (Whether "In My Life" was lengthened beyond than that, I can't really tell.  The Original London Cast recording treated it almost as part of a medley.  It is much shorter than the Original Broadway Cast version.  However, that could just be a function of the recording.  Both anniversary concerts shorten "In My Life," yet we know that a full version exists.)

5.  The famous intro to the musical -- "Bum BUM! BUM BUM BUM!" -- was established.  It existed in the Original London Cast recording, but was proceeded by a soft, floating opening that would become the transition music between the Prologue and "At the End of the Day."  It was a throwback to the French concept album, which began with Fantine at the factory.

6.  Eponine's death was changed so that she died on her way back to the barricade, not by rescuing Marius.

7.  Certain lines were changed here and there.  Most changes were not especially notable (for instance, "Marius, what's wrong with you today?" being changed to "Marius, you're late!  What's wrong today?"), but there were some key changes.  For instance, Javert's "Keeping watch in the night" was changed to "This I swear by the stars!"  There were also significant changes and additions to songs like "Look Down" and the aforementioned "In My Life."

8.  There appear to have been some costume changes as well.  Nothing dramatic, unlike the difference between the "old school" costumes and the 25th Anniversary, but still worth noting.  Both Marius and Enjolras now wore their hair in ponytails, as if the producers got confused and thought that it was the French Revolution after all.  Michael Maguire's hair, at the very least, was a wig.  Also, neither Marius nor Enjolras sported their, um, puffy pirate shirts anymore.  Marius had a black string tie instead of a white cravat.  

9.  Finally, the tempo of the songs sped up noticeably.  Gone was the sleepy feeling, and in its place a sense of urgency.  The overall length of the musical was trimmed down.

So those were just some of the new changes.  There were no doubt others that I'm just not aware of.  In addition to these changes, new actors in certain roles would give them new life and direction, changing the way we think of the characters.

The Actors/Singers

Colm Wilkinson and Frances Ruffelle were the only members of the original London cast to join the Broadway cast.  According to one source, this almost didn't happen because the American Actors' Equity Association only wanted to hire American actors.  Fortunately Cameron Mackintosh refused to do the show without Wilkinson, and so Americans had the pleasure of seeing him and Ruffelle after all.

As it turned out, Americans would shine in other roles.  Terrence Mann, who made his Broadway debut five years earlier and would be a stalwart ever since, gave Javert a slightly angsty, tortured quality that Roger Allam's Javert did not possess, while losing none of the character's severity.  Although Judy Kuhn looked and sounded nothing like an 18-year old girl, she gave Cosette a rich soprano voice that hit the highest notes effortlessly.  And finally there was Michael Maguire, a 32-year old former stockbroker in the role of Enjolras.  He was the standout of the American performers, winning a Tony award for the role later that year.

A lot of people only know Maguire from the 10th Anniversary recording (where he sounds noticeably strained) and have the unfortunate tendency to compare his live singing with Anthony Warlow's studio-recorded tracks from the Complete Symphonic Recording.  They come away wondering why Maguire was one of the "Dream Cast" at all since Anthony Warlow was so CLEARLY superior.  First, I don't think Warlow was so obviously superior, but I'll get to that next time.  Second, one reason Maguire's performance was so well regarded was because he basically transformed the role of Enjolras.  In the London production, David Burt played the student leader; although he had a perfectly good voice, there was nothing very memorable about his performance.  Despite being just two years older than Maguire, Burt looks pudgy and old in televised footage, wearing a painfully bad black mullet that may or may not have been a wig.  That Enjolras was clearly a secondary character to Michael Ball's Marius.

Michael Maguire turned the character into a superstar.  He was dynamic and had a booming voice, and always seemed so certain.  Suddenly, you could see why students would want to follow him to their certain deaths.  It didn't hurt that Maguire seemed to be at least a foot taller than the rest of the cast.  This "cool" image of Enjolras would carry over into future productions, and not even Drew Sarich could ruin it.  (As a side note, look at the Tony Awards performance at the end, compare it to this, and tell me that Disney did not model Beauty and the Beast's Gaston at least partially on Maguire's Enjolras.)

An honorable mention goes to Anthony Crivello's Grantaire.  Grantaire is a secondary role that is too often forgotten, except for endless controversy about how to pronounce "Don Juan."  I don't remember too much about the London Grantaire, although I'm sure he sounded fine.  Part of the reason is because the Original London Cast version of "Drink With Me" lacked Grantaire's memorable solo: "Drink with me to days gone by.  Can it be you fear to die?"  That moment just gives you chills, and Crivello had a lovely, deep voice that gave the solo dignity and depth.  Little wonder he was chosen to be part of the 10th Anniversary "Dream Cast."

So those were the American actors who really shined in their roles, though there really was not a dud in the cast along the lines of, say, Nick Jonas.  The other actors in big roles tended to be more "controversial."  Many people didn't care for Randy Graff as Fantine, although really, could anyone be worse than Daphne Rubin Vega in the role?  Graff had the same rough quality in her voice as Patti LuPone's Fantine and the original French singer, but tended to sound shrill when she hit the high notes.  However, the one reason I prefer her to LuPone is because on the recording, Graff actually sounds desperate, like someone who actually feared for her child's future.

Then there is David Bryant as Marius.  He really wasn't bad, but has the misfortune of being frequently compared to the vocal powerhouse that was Michael Ball.  Bryant's performance was more like a return to Marius's French concept album roots.  He was soft and lovelorn, melodious and nonthreatening.  He was Boyfriend Marius rather than Revolutionary Marius.  While Bryant doesn't belt on the Original Broadway Cast recording, he still has a good trained voice and easily outshines both Gareth Gates and Nick Jonas.                  

Finally, ZOMG, why do the Thenardiers have American accents?  Aren't they supposed to be English or something?

As for Colm Wilkinson and Frances Ruffelle, they sound as strong as on the Original London Cast recording -- or in Ruffelle's case, even stronger.  I know that Wilkinson is not everyone's favorite Valjean, but I have yet to hear one -- live or on an English-language recording -- that comes close to projecting the level of gravitas that Wilkinson projected.  Others might sound prettier and even give better acting performances, but I feel as though Wilkinson embodied the Valjean role in a way that many other performers never fully do.  You could believe that he'd been in prison.  You could believe that he was capable of being a dangerous man.  You could also believe that he'd be a loving father.  Carry a man on his back and sing like an angel indeed.

The same is true of Ruffelle.  She was not a "pretty" Eponine, but she was the only Eponine on an English-language recording who actually seemed to be Eponine Thenardier, street rat, daughter of the loathsome Monsieur and Madame Thenardier.  Furthermore, she gave a very intense performance, with every word she sang packed with emotion.  Unlike the Original London Cast recording, Ruffelle does not sound tentative on the Broadway recording.  Instead, she belts everything out fully and with seemingly more confidence.  Sadly, with the exception of the "oldies" singalong of "One Day More" at the 25th Anniversary Concert, this would be her last recorded performance as Eponine.      

As I talk about these performers, it's possible that I'm being overly favorable.  I've mentioned that the Original Broadway Cast recording was my very first exposure to Les Miserables, and for a long time, my only exposure.  Therefore, for the longest time, I viewed every other Les Miz recording through its lens.  I still do that to some extent, though now I tend to cherry pick that songs I like from the various recordings.  Still, the Original Broadway Cast recording will always have a special place in my heart.

Take a look at the segment of the cast learning how to perform "One Day More" at 4:20 (and that hair... oh the humanity):



The Original Broadway Cast Album

I have already touched upon a lot of the specifics about this album, but here are a few more things that I haven't mentioned:

More Intensity = Good.  The faster pace of the musical definitely makes the scenes much punchier and, for the most part, more effective.  The characters seem to understand that they are actually Pushing Toward Revolution, as opposed to just hanging about.  Scenes that started softly on the London recording start with a bang here -- the Prologue, "Look Down," "Red and Black," et cetera.

The exchanges between Valjean and Javert are more suitably intense.  There is an awesome moment at the very beginning where Valjean sings "Yes, it means I'm free," and Javert responds "NO!".  In most English-language recordings, Javert sounds a little confused here, and his "No" is restrained, but not Terrence Mann's Javert.  "NO!"

The Evolution Toward Tiny Tim Has Begun.  You could argue that the "cuteification" of Gavroche began with the Original London Cast recording, with that song about worms rolling stones and fleas stinging bears.  However, it seems as though the Original Broadway Cast album was the one to give cute, spunky Gavroche his debut.  On this recording, he doesn't sound a day over 10 years old.  And he's got an American accent -- what's up with that?  I thought he was from London.

The Synthesizer Is Really Noticeable.  I dont' have a trained musical ear, so I can't always tell when synthesizers are/are not being used.  For some reason, it seems really prevalent here in a way that it didn't on the Original London Cast recording.  It never really bothered me until I heard later recordings without the synthesizer.

There Are More Barricade Scenes.  I mentioned in the previous post that there are more tracks on this album, with most of them for the barricade scenes.  For instance, this album has "Here upon these stones we will build our barricade!  In the heart of the city we claim as our own!"  There is also one extra battle scene that was not on the Original London Cast album.

Though It Has More Tracks, It Still Leaves a Lot Out.  Although the Broadway production was shorter than its London counterpart, and the Original Broadway Cast recording has more tracks, there is still a lot of musical missing from the recording.  No "Runaway Cart," "Javert's Intervention," "Night of Anguish," "Valjean's Confession," or the full gorgeous Epilogue.  When I saw the musical for the first time in years, having had nothing but the Original Broadway Cast recording to sustain me all that time, I was stunned by how much I had forgotten simply because it wasn't there.  It would not be until the Complete Symphonic Recording that the full musical was recorded.

Next Time: The Complete Symphonic Recording.  Is Anthony Warlow really better than Michael Maguire?


Friday, October 19, 2012

Les Miserables the Movie: Ugh! Ugh! Agh!

Since part of my intent with this Les Miserables retrospective/preview has been to review anything major released for the movie, I couldn't not mention the biggest bomb that dropped this week: the screenplay.

Somehow officials from Universal -- or a disgruntled studio intern -- decided to post the entire screenplay of the movie on Universal's website.  At present, its page is no longer loading, which suggests that the release was a mistake.  Still, if Universal wanted to keep the movie completely under wraps until the last minute, the damage has been done: thousands have read the script by now, including yours truly.

I was conflicted about whether to read it.  I'm the sort of person who readily consumes spoilers (part of my attraction to Game of Thrones and the A Song of Ice and Fire series, for instance, was that I knew where certain characters ended up), but I also know that there are cases where it just isn't as powerful if you aren't surprised.  This seemed to be the case with Les Miserables the movie.  However, I'm weak, so I did give in and read the screenplay as fast as I could so that I did not pick up every detail.  Now I'm trying to forget what I read so that when I see the movie, it still seems fresh.

Even though I've read the screenplay, I'm not going to review it, at least not until the movie comes out.  Otherwise, it would be like doing an early review of the movie.  I will probably just use it in a point-by-point comparison sense, to see what was left in or cut out.  

The only thing I will say about the screenplay is that it gave me chills.  If the movie manages to do it justice, we have a winner.  That said, I've seen situations where something that really worked in the script did not work as well on screen.  Still, from what we've seen, Tom Hooper should be able to pull it off.        

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Les Miserables the Movie: London Calling

"Someone who looks like a convict, can carry a man on his back of 
about 120 pounds and can sing like an angel."
"You want Colm Wilkinson."

So said Tim Rice to Trevor Nunn, as they discussed whom to cast as Jean Valjean in the English-language version of Les Miserables.

Most Les Miz fans are already familiar with the story behind the musical's transition from the French stage to London's West End, so I won't provide more than basic details.  In 1982, Cameron Mackintosh first listened to the French concept album and was eager to produce an English language adaptation.  Trevor Nunn and John Caird would direct, while Herbert Kretzmer was brought in to rework the French lyrics and add new material, replacing poet James Fenton.  The entire Prologue was added, along with notable songs like "Bring Him Home," and although it retained the basic elements of the French adaptation, the story was substantially reworked.

The English-language version of Les Miserables opened at the RSC Barbican Theatre in 1985, then moved to the Palace Theatre a little more than two months later, where it would remain until 2004.  While the musical received tepid reviews, it was widely embraced by theatre goers, and the rest is musical juggernaut history.  

The Production

Regrettably, in 1985, I was in no position to catch the London production, so I have no idea how the musical looked before its Broadway premier in 1987.  However, I do know that the London production at the Palace Theatre was longer than any English-language version since.  It included moments like Eponine getting shot by throwing herself in front of Marius, a full version of Little People, and a Cosette almost-solo called "I Saw Him Once."

I can also say that from the Original London Cast album alone, the changes from the French concept album are substantial.  Most significant, of course, is the addition of the Prologue, which gives theatre goers a greater understanding of the Valjean character.  Meanwhile, some songs were removed in favor of new material -- the epilogue song, "La Lumiere," was replaced by a "Do You Hear the People Sing?" reprise, while Eponine's song, "L'Un Vers L'Autre," was replaced by "On My Own."  Other songs were left in the musical, but changed substantially -- Fantine's song "L'Air de la Misere" became "On My Own," while "Demain" became "One Day More."

The point at which the first act ends differs in the two versions.  By the time "Demain" appears on the French concept album, Eponine has sung her love song, and there has been more student activity ("La Nuit de L'Angoisse," as well as "Rouge et Noir," "Les Amis de l'ABC," and "A La Volonte du Peuple").  Almost immediately after "Demain," Eponine, Javert, and Gavroche die in separate sequences.  By contrast, on the Original London Cast album, the only student activity before "One Day More" is in "Red and Black" and "Do You Hear the People Sing?".  Most of the student activity is reserved for Act Two and is fleshed out further, including "Drink With Me" and Valjean's "Bring Him Home."  Eponine's first song in Act Two is "On My Own," not her death song.    

On the Original London Cast album, Javert's death song follows a sewer sequence ("Dog Eat Dog") that was considered too difficult to stage in the French production.  Javert's death might also, by this time, have been changed to follow Gavroche's, but it is difficult to know because Gavroche's death was not included on the Original London Cast album.

And, of course, I can't mention the London production without mentioning one of its most significant changes: the addition of a turntable and a mechanical barricade, designed by John Napier.  Without either, Les Miz would not have been able to stage some of its most iconic moments (as the 25th Anniversary production made painfully clear).   

The Actors/Singers

Of course, one of the biggest challenges of the English-language production was finding appropriate singers for the roles.  On the French concept album, there is not much evidence of the actors/singers stretching their voices, but that would not be the case in London.  After the conversation between Tim Rice and Trevor Nunn mentioned above, Colm Wilkinson was cast in the role of Jean Valjean.  Wilkinson was a rock singer in his native Ireland (sometimes going by the name "C.T. Wilkinson") and had made his debut in other musicals -- as Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar, as the Phantom in a Sydmonton workshop of Phantom of the Opera, and as Che on the Evita concept album.

Because Wilkinson was a tenor, the English-language production had to raise the key on several songs to suit his voice.  That said, it does not appear that the key changed on any of the Valjean songs transported from the French concept album, even though the French Valjean was a baritone.

Wilkinson is more like the French Valjean than one might suppose -- both have gruff singing voices, Wilkinson especially.  Overall, the London production did a good job finding singers who were similar to their French counterparts.  Frances Ruffelle's singing voice as Eponine sounds eerily similar to Marie's.  Patti LuPone's voice as Fantine is similarly harsh and nasal.  Rebecca Caine makes Cosette sound as soft and delicate as Fabienne Guyon did, but without the blase element.  The London Gavroche, like the French Gavroche, sounds like a grown-up kid, not yet like the cutesy little tyke that he would become on future recordings.  (That said, a couple of posts from now, I will completely reverse myself and declare Gavroche from the Complete Symphonic Recording to be the best of the English-language Gavroches.)  If Roger Allam does not sound much like the rocker Jacques Mercier, he still has some of the same flinty coldness in his voice.

The English Thenardiers diverge a little more from their French counterparts, with Alun Armstrong and Susan Jane Tanner giving a Cockney Dickensian flavor to Monsieur and Madame Thenardier.  However, the one with the biggest divergence from his French counterpart by far is Michael Ball as Marius.  Where Richard Dewitt was soft and vaguely feminine, Ball is loud and edgy.

I have to confess that it took me some time to warm to Michael Ball in the Marius role.  My first taste of Les Miserables was the Original Broadway Cast album, so believe it or not, I saw David Bryant as the definitive Marius.  It makes sense in some respects: he is much softer and closer in voice to the French Marius.  So when I first heard the Original London Cast recording, Ball repelled me.  His singing struck me as harsh, exaggerated, and a little whiny.  However, Ball grew on me during the 10th Anniversary concert.  I still find his voice to be too harsh, but I respect its power, as well as how Ball manages to give Marius some real presence, so that he is more than just Cosette's Lover.  He is the best of the recorded English-language Mariuses, but admittedly, that isn't saying much.  David Bryant comes second, Gareth Gates third, and Nick Jonas a distant, distant fourth.                        

The Original London Cast Album 

What strikes me, listening to this album again for the first time in years, is despite how different the London production was from every English-language production that followed, that really isn't reflected in the Original London Cast album.  Apart from a couple of songs, the offerings on this album are very close to the offerings on the Original Broadway Cast album.  In fact, even though the Broadway production was shorter in length, the Original Broadway Cast album has three more tracks, consisting mainly of barricade sequences.

So already with the Original London Cast album, the Les Miserables we know was mostly in place.  Mostly.  A few kinks still needed to be worked out.  Such as:

Pick Up the Pace.  Even if the London production weren't any longer than future productions, it would still feel that way due to the album's noticeably slower tempo.  The tempo is in line with the French concept album's, which also had a slightly sleepy feel.  That might have been all right for a concept album, but it does not work in the production's favor.  The tempo squeezes the tension out of scenes such as "The Confrontation," and steals the urgency from the singers' voices.  Fortunately, future recordings pick up the pace considerably, and the 25th Anniversary recording is practically racing.

"Stars" Belongs After "Look Down."  In line with the slower song tempo is the fact that the pacing is not quite there.  Maybe I'm just too wedded to the production as it currently exists, but I can't see how anyone ever thought that "Stars" worked before "Look Down."  Of course, we all know the current sequence: "The Thenardier Waltz of Treachery" ends triumphantly, with Valjean escorting Cosette to Paris, and then BAM! Time jump!  "Look down!  And see the beggars at your feet!  Look down!  And show some mercy if you can!"

On the Original London Cast album, the "Waltz of Treachery" sort of limps to a close.  It is then followed by "Stars," which ends with a pensive "Keeping watch in the night" instead of the declarative "This I swear by the stars!".  Then "Look Down" starts softly and builds throughout the song, though it never matches the intensity of future versions.  This, again, reflects its French concept album roots: "La Valse de la Fourberie" also quietly comes to a close, before "Donnez, Donnez" softly starts up (there is no Javert song between them).  Those involved with the English-language production were smart to see that "Stars" after the "Waltz" killed whatever narrative momentum was there, and to move it to where a quiet moment seemed more natural.

Don't Hold Back.  Maybe it was partly due to the tempo and pacing, and partly due to their getting used to their roles, but several of the cast members seem to be holding back.  Not talent -- they all, without exception, sound excellent.  More like passion, confidence, or connection.

Take, for instance, Patti LuPone as Fantine.  I'll confess that I'm not a fan of LuPone in general.  Though she's a technically excellent singer, she sings every song in every role the same way: powerfully, nasally, harsh, and monotone.  For that reason, she will never be my definitive Evita, and she is not my favorite Fantine.  While she does an impressive job hitting the high notes, she never modulates her voice, or acts as if she in any way understands Fantine's plight.

Roger Allam likewise has an impressive voice, and really nails the ruthless part of Javert's character.  However, for songs like "Stars" or "Javert's Suicide: Soliliquy," he cannot quite find the vulnerability he needs.  Meanwhile, Frances Ruffelle, who sounds fantastic on the Original Broadway Cast album, isn't quite as good here.  Since it's Ruffelle, she still sounds great, but she sounds more tentative and hesitant on this album.  In some ways it works, since Eponine is a fragile young teenage girl, but I still think she sounds in better voice on the Broadway album.

Even Colm Wilkinson has trouble projecting passion in certain scenes, like "The Confrontation."  I really think that has more to do with the song's tempo than Wilkinson himself.

Victor Hugo's rendering of Gavroche.  
Does this look like some cutesy kid to 
you?
That Song...  I told you last time that I much preferred "La Faute a Voltaire" to its English-language counterpart, "Little People."  Both are likely meant to be show stoppers.  In the case of "Little People," it is a show stopper, but not in a good way.  It's not that "La Faute a Voltaire" is my favorite song, but at least there is a point to it being there, because Gavroche in the novel actually sang most of those lyrics.  It's just sort of a fun tongue-in-cheek song, not a song about how Little People are Special, Too!

And for God's sake, these lyrics: "A worm can roll a stone!  A bee can sting a bear!  A fly can fly around Versailles 'cause flies don't care!  A sparrow in a hat can make a happy home!  A flea can bite the bottom of the Pope in Rome!"  What is this, a flippin' Disney song?  This song comes right after people have been singing about "beggars at your feet" and "crumbs of humble piety."  Can you in any way see these same people gathering to listen and laugh in merriment at Gavroche's song?  Because Little People can!      

By contrast, I would have preferred that "I Saw Him Once" stay in the musical, since it's the closest thing Cosette has to a solo.  Although even that isn't so great -- it's not really a window into her mind, other than "I saw a boy and he liked me and I had to run!"  I realize it would be revisionist to have Cosette constantly thinking about and remembering her abusive childhood -- even Victor Hugo didn't give her that -- but I kind of wish they had refashioned "I Saw Him Once" to address it.  "In My Life" does, but only a little, and then it is forgotten until the end of the musical.

Conclusion

So yes, there are kinks.  But even so, there are many things that I like about the Original London Cast album.  The cast is talented, with the standouts being Wilkinson, Ball, and Ruffelle.  If Ball didn't start suffering from performance anxiety around that time, I wonder if he would have joined Wilkinson and Ruffelle on Broadway.  Wilkinson is in prime vocal condition here, in contrast to his slightly weaker performance at the 10th Anniversary concert.  Yet strong or weak, the man can belt!  Ruffelle, for reasons that I will go into next time, really inhabits the character of Eponine in a way that none of the other recorded Eponines ever has, not even Samantha Barks in the 25th Anniversary concert.

Yet even though the London production was significantly different from its French source material, Mackintosh and company felt that Les Miserables needed to be tinkered with further before making its Broadway debut.

Next Time:  Les Miz goes across the pond.


Saturday, October 13, 2012

Les Miserables the Movie: In the Beginning, There Was a Concept Album

As the movie date draws ever closer, I thought that this would be a good time to look at the musical as a whole and how it developed.  My intent is to only focus on the English-language releases, but I can't ignore the French concept album by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg that started it all.

The story behind the concept album is that in the mid to late 1970s, Boublil and Schonberg attended a production of Oliver! and, upon seeing the Artful Dodger, suddenly had an image of Gavroche.  From there, the story grew, and the initial result was a concept album (released wide in 1989, but developed in the late 1970s).

The concept album featured several tunes that are familiar to us today.  Some were so like their future versions that the English-language songs seem like mere translations; others were altered thematically and given to other characters; some were fleshed out, while others were dropped entirely.  The cast included Maurice Barrier as Valjean, Jacques Mercier as Javert, Rose Laurens as Fantine, Richard Dewitt as Marius, Fabienne Guyon as Cosette, and Marie as Eponine.

The first thing that strikes me upon listening to the songs is that none of the actors sounds "classically trained" in the musical theatre sense.  Meaning, they don't extend notes for incredible lengths of time or use vibretto.  Many of the singers sound as if they come from rock and roll backgrounds and, in fact, Jacques Mercier was supposedly a well-known rock singer in France.

Another thing worth noting is that the French Valjean is a baritone.  That doesn't make as much of a difference as one would think, but it is somewhat surprising when you are used to Valjean as a tenor.  Javert and Enjolras (Michel Sardou) both have rough, gritty voices, while Marius's is slightly feminine.  Fantine's voice sounds rough and anguished, like you would expect her to sound after so much hardship.  Cosette sounds pretty, but blase.  The Thenardiers sound almost like ordinary people, not like the vaudeville clowns they would become.  And Eponine sounds as soft and lovelorn as you would expect, and also eerily like the French version of Francis Ruffelle, which shows how spot-on the English production was in casting her.

With that aside, here are some other things worth noting about the French concept album:

A Lot of Content is Missing.  Meaning, a lot of content we associate with the English-language version is not there.  Most significantly, the Prologue where Valjean steals the silver.  Instead, the concept album -- and the French-language musical that followed -- launches right into Fantine at the factory.  Other notable songs and sequences don't yet exist, including "Bring Him Home" and "Empty Chairs At Empty Tables."  Then there are songs that exist in scraps, such as "Drink With Me" ("La Nuit de l'Angoisse") that would receive fuller treatment later.

And Yet a Lot of Content Will Get Cut.  The full English-language version of Gavroche's "La Faute a Voltaire" exists only in the initial London production.  From the time Les Miserables reached Broadway, it got cut and cut some more, until all that remains are fragments.  In addition, a song between Marius and his grandfather ("Marius et Monsieur Gillenormand") was cut during the journey from Paris to the London stage.  As was Eponine's love song, "L'Un Vers L'Autre," which would be replaced by a rewritten "L'Air de la Misere," a song originally meant for Fantine.

Some Songs Really Improved During the Transition.  The song that improved the most in the English-language version, without a doubt, was "Demain" -- or "One Day More."  When you listen to "Demain," at first it sounds almost identical to the build up in "One Day More."  But then they go off in completely different directions.  "One Day More" continues to build and add more and more voices, until it reaches a dramatic finish.  "Demain," by contrast, continues along at the same leisurely pace, adding a new voice here and there, acting as if it doesn't really know how to end.  Another song that improved in the English-language version is "Rouge et Noir," or "Red and Black."  "Rouge et Noir" did not improve as dramatically, since it is very close to the English-language version, but "Red and Black" sounds less dreamy and slow and more charged up, which seems appropriate given the circumstances.  And then, of course, "Drink With Me" improved quite a bit from "La Nuit de l'Angoisse," simply because it was now an actual song.

While "L'Air de la Misere" was a perfectly fine song for Fantine, I prefer the retooled version, "On My Own," to Eponine's original love song, "L'Un Vers L'Autre."  "L'Un Vers L'Autre" sounds like a generic, sappy 1970s love ballad, which it basically was.

Some Songs Didn't.  I am not a fan of "Little People."  In fact, I am an ardent foe.  "Little People" lacks everything that makes "La Faute a Voltaire" appealing.  Humor, cleverness, ties to the actual novel.  "La Faute a Voltaire" was sung by Gavroche in the novel as he collected bullets from dead soldiers.  The song displays a completely different Gavroche from the one in the English-language versions: cocky, tough, and brazen.  The Gavroches of the 25th Anniversary edition are pale shadows of what the character once was, and it's a shame.

Another song that faired poorly in the transition was Cosette's "Mon Prince Est en Chemin," or "Castle on a Cloud."  Not that "Castle on a Cloud" is a terrible song -- it's just that it sounds much nicer in the original version.  One thing that really makes the French version is a lovely musical interlude, consisting of a single flute.  It doesn't hurt that French Cosette sounds sweeter than many of the English-language Cosettes.

And while "Do You Hear the People Sing?" is one of my favorite songs, it is not quite as strong as the original, "A La Volonte du Peuple."  What makes the original stronger is that the lyrics actually quote passages from the Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Finally, this is a bit controversial, but I find myself wishing that the original epilogue song, "La Lumiere," had been left in.  While I really like the reprise of "Do You Hear the People Sing?" and understand the need for an uplifting ending, there is something so simple and tender about "La Lumiere."  "Cosette, aime-le.  Marius, aimez-la."  Sniffle!

Why Did They Leave This Out?  I guess "Marius et Monsieur Gillenormand" would have made an already lengthy musical too long, but it seems odd that there is nothing in the English-language version about Marius's grandfather, given his importance in the novel.

Overall Impressions.  While not without its flaws, the French concept album is definitely worth owning and listening to.  You will be surprised by how much survived the transition, and will find it interesting to note the origins of certain songs.  The sound, while not as rich, has a buoyant disco vibe in some places (see "Les Amis de l'ABC") that you will never hear anywhere else.

That said, I have no idea how much of the concept album made it to the French stage.  The original French version of Les Miserables ran for more than 100 performances in 1980.  You can see bits and pieces of it here.  As far as I know, there is no original French cast version (as opposed to the version from 1999 that is mainly a French translation of the English-language version).   

Next Time: Les Miserables goes to London! 

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Les Miserables the Movie, Part Two: But Can They Sing?!


While the cast was slowly being assembled, Mackintosh and company -- although at this point, I think it's more accurate to say Hooper and company -- were working behind the scenes to develop something truly special.  The first hint of what was to come came from Hugh Jackman, who went to London for four weeks in the fall of 2011 so that Hooper could conduct some tests, including for 3D.  Jackman came away stating that he was "really pumped about doing this," something that he would repeat over Twitter shortly before movie rehearsals started.  He also mentioned that he hoped the singing would be performed live, as it allowed for a more spontaneous performance.  Jackman recalled having to lip-sync through a video for Oklahoma and hating it.

Live singing?  I did not realize it at the time, but that was something of a rarity.  Most of the time, actors in movie musicals record the entire soundtrack before filming the movie.  They then mime along to playback while performing their scenes.  I will confess that while sometimes, it is very obvious when the actors are just lip-syncing, usually I can't tell the difference.  Many fans dismissed the idea of live singing, claiming that it was too risky for such a massive production as Les Miz.  How would the actors possibly be able to maintain their voices for take after take?  And yet, an article about Sasha Baron Cohen stated that this was exactly what Les Miz intended to do.

So with that in mind, Les Miz entered the February 2012 rehearsal period with quite a tall order.  The actors would need to nail down their roles in rehearsal before entering a very tight three-month shooting schedule.  The movie would then be rushed to post production so that it could be finished by December of the same year.  That meant that, despite the use of ground-breaking techniques, there was no room for error.  One actor losing his or her voice could set back production for days or weeks.

Casting seemed to last right up to the very last minute.  The role of Gavroche was not even cast until after production had started.  Costumes, sets, extras... everything seemed to happen in a whirl.  And yet by late June, only a week behind schedule, production wrapped.

What were the results?  Obviously we won't really know until we see the finished product in December.  However, there is enough footage out there that we can at least hazard a few guesses.  First, let's consider:

The Cast

Hugh Jackman: Many thought he should be Javert, but apart from his natural baritone, I can't really understand why.  Jackman is usually in protagonist underdog roles.  His default persona seems to be sunny and charismatic, yet he is also capable of being dark, giving Valjean the edge that he needs.  Too often, actors in the Valjean role make him too nice, seeming to forget that he was in prison for 19 years and has been hunted for many years since.  Jackman has a long history of starring in musical theatre, including a one-man Broadway show prior to Les Miz rehearsals, and supposedly has a voice to kill for.  I'll confess that from what I've heard, his singing voice reminds me a little too much of Drew Sarich, a Broadway actor who starred in Les Miz at varying times as Valjean, Javert, Enjolras, and Grantaire.  I'm not exactly a fan of Drew Sarich.  However, I'm sure Jackman will impress me on the whole, and I can't imagine a better person for the role.


Unlike this Victorian depiction, there will be no 
mutton chops or top hat for Russell Crowe's Javert.
Russell Crowe: The bigger question mark is Crowe.  So far, no clips of his singing in Les Miz have been released, and past clips of him singing left many people underwhelmed.  Still, Crowe used to sing in a rock band and had a role in the Rocky Horror Picture Show musical.  There were reports that he hired a singing coach and spent many long hours getting into vocal shape.  While most of the effusive praise of singing has been reserved for Hugh Jackman, some people have praised Crowe's singing as well.  Besides concerns about Crowe's voice, some may question whether he has the right "look" for Javert.  Stills and footage have shown that his look will be very different from the one we usually associate with the character.  Since I'm sure the costume designers have done their homework, Crowe's look is almost certainly accurate for the time period.  It just takes some getting used to.  Furthermore, Crowe's acting ability should more than make up for any vocal shortcomings.

Anne Hathaway: I knew her primarily from The Devil Wears Prada and thus was uncertain whether she could channel the anguish central to Fantine's character.  Those who saw Rachel Getting Married swore that she could, and so far, from the film's lone trailer, it appears that she can.  Based on Hathaway's performance while hosting the Academy Awards, I knew that she could sing.  Hooper and company were apparently moved to tears by her rendition of I Dreamed a Dream... so much so, that they put unvarnished segments of it right in the first trailer.  So for those who had never seen Les Miserables, this was their first exposure to the musical.  Gutsy move.  Hathaway's vulnerable version clearly shows that she can sing, but is also much quieter and shakier -- by design -- than some of the more renowned versions.  It did not impress some people, but others were clearly moved.  Overall, I am okay with Hathaway as Fantine.  She wasn't my first choice -- I was more interested in Amy Adams or an unknown -- but I suspect she will end up giving one of the best performances, one that will resonate long after her character has left the screen.

Eddie Redmayne: I was quite excited about this choice when it was first announced.  Redmayne has a very distinctive look that is not for everyone, but one that I find rather attractive.  He is odd-looking, but it just works somehow.  What is more, he has incredible charisma, as shown by this scene in Tess of the D'Urbervilles where Angel Clare carries the women across the lake.  The only question mark about him was whether he could sing.  There was little evidence, apart from a clip of him singing "Ave Maria" in the Eton College Choir.  Based on that alone, holy shit, yes he could.  A brief clip of him singing "A Heart Full of Love" just confirms it.  I think Redmayne will give the surprise standout performance as Marius, maybe even be nominated for Best Supporting Actor.

Amanda Seyfried: She presents some big question marks, but not so many since clips of her as Cosette were released.  Since hers was the only role that was opened up to sopranos in the U.K. and the U.S., I think it is safe to say that Hooper and company had some question marks as well.  That is nothing against Seyfried specifically -- it merely speaks to how vocally demanding the role of adult Cosette is, and how important it was for Hooper and company to Get Her Right.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, one of the most unfortunate aspects of the musical is that it turns Cosette into a dowdy school marm with an "old person's" voice.  Not only does adult Cosette have a negligible role, but she is also constantly upstaged by Eponine, daughter of the people who abused her for five years!  Hooper and company seemed to remember that adult Cosette was, after all, the grown up version of the fragile little girl whom Valjean found in the woods.  She should be appealing -- to Valjean, to Marius, to us.  That is where I think the production did well by choosing Seyfried.  In pictures and clips, she just looks so gosh darn cute, and she and Eddie look adorable together.  With her in the role, it should make sense to the audience why Marius was attracted to her, enough so that it made him blind to Eponine.  Furthermore, from having watched her on Big Love, I know that Seyfried can provide the graven wise-beyond-her-years look of a girl troubled by family secrets, which is necessary for Cosette in "In My Life."  As for Seyfried's singing, she might not be the best Cosette ever, but in the clips, she doesn't sound bad.  She just might turn out okay.

Aaron Tveit: Enjolras is one of my favorite roles, and to me, Michael Maguire will forever be the standard bearer.  Yet while Tveit's voice is a little lighter than a traditional Enjolras voice, everything else about Tveit works for the role.  Good-looking, charismatic, determined.  Oh yes, this guy could convince people to die with him on a barricade.  I should also add that in learning more about him, I became a fan of his breakout musical, Next to Normal.  Tveit can sing very well and is highly physical and dynamic.  I haven't seen many clips of him, but from what I have seen, he seems to carry himself quite well.

Samantha Barks: I'll admit that I was hoping Hooper would cast an Eponine who was charismatic, but not overly attractive.  That was why the idea of Taylor Swift in the role did not completely repel me.  However, Barks was a solid choice for a number of reasons.  First, there is no question that she can sing.  Second, she has acted the role, so despite it being her first movie role, she already has a degree of comfort and familiarity.  Third, from what we've seen, Barks has a natural appeal that comes through on screen.  Yet at the same time, she is not so appealing that she outshines Seyfried, making it ridiculous that Marius would choose Cosette over Eponine.  At least, I don't think so.  Her onscreen performance might blow us all away.

Helena Bonham Carter and Sasha Baron Cohen: I'm sure they'll be great as the Thenardiers, though aside from a crude bootleg of a trailer released in Japan, we haven't seen any evidence of how they look or sound.  Yet in all likelihood, Bonham Carter will be able to pull off hilarious and terrifying with a mere whisper, while Baron Cohen will be effectively sleezy and dark as Thenardier.

The Production

Before hearing any news about the movie production, I had a wish list containing just a few items.  One was that the musical should be gritty.  The book was gritty, so a movie with soft lighting and gloss would be a mistake.  Another was that the musical should feel authentic.  Hunger, death, and blood should be right there on the screen.  The actors should sound shattered if their characters were supposed to feel shattered.  Finally, Valjean should not just be a nice old man, but actually be somewhat edgy and dangerous.

So how did the production do?  So far, evidence suggests that the steps Hooper and company took will satisfy my expectations and then some.  First, regarding "edgy" Valjean: as noted above, Hugh Jackman will give Valjean the edge that he needs, though much will depend upon whether he decides to simply play the role as a "nice guy."

Next, it definitely seems as though Hooper strove for authentic over "pretty."  Anne Hathaway's singing in the trailer is typical, but also, as you can see in the First Look (below), Hugh Jackman sang different versions of familiar songs, with one sounding slow and contemplative.  Hooper has said that one benefit to live singing is that the actors can sing as if the words are just occurring to them.  Also authentic was the weight loss both Jackman and Hathaway had to undergo, each of which was extreme in its own way.  Jackman lost a dramatic amount of weight in order to achieve the look of a starved occupant of a prison camp.  Fortunately, after the early scenes, he was able to go back to regular eating.  Hathaway lost 16 pounds during filming, to go from normal Fantine to starved-and-dying Fantine.  Both actors' situations remind me a little too much of Christian Bale's, whose starved look in The Machinist served as an example -- maybe the ultimate example -- of an actor suffering for his craft.      

Finally, oh yes, there is gritty.  One typical example: for street scenes outside of the Thenardiers' inn, Hooper arranged for horse dung to be scattered about for the sake of realism.  Then there were the tweets about the "Barricade Boys" getting covered in blood and grime before every take, tweets about extended battle scenes, photos of prisoner Valjean with a bloody shaved head, footage of prisoners singing "look down" while pulling ropes in waist deep water, and so on.  I have no doubt we'll actually get to see Gavroche die in the movie, as opposed to having it hidden from us as in the 25th Anniversary version.

Most importantly, Hooper and company seemed to try to incorporate as much material from the novel as possible.  Details like the Napoleon elephant, pictured in the previous post, were included.  An entire song devoted to an important passage in the book -- Valjean's growing attachment to Cosette, barely touched upon in the stage version -- was added.  There are rumors that Enjolras and Grantaire will die the way they did in the book, rather than how they do in the musical.  Apparently it is not enough for Hooper to simply make a good-to-excellent movie of the musical; he also wants a movie that captures the spirit of the novel.  I think that the stage version always did a good job capturing the essence of the novel, and the movie seems poised to do even better.

Any dislikes I have about the production are minimal and based on very limited footage.  A lot of outside shots seem to have a grayish-blue hue, which can get tedious after a while.  "Paris" during the "Look Down" scenes doesn't look as crowded or as squalid as I always pictured it.  I'm not sure make-up did a good enough job aging Valjean and Javert nearly 20 years throughout the movie.  "Old" Valjean's hair makes me think of Gene Wilder.  It feels strange to me that some of Valjean's songs have been lowered to suit Jackman's vocal range; I hope that's not the case for all of them.  Eddie Redmayne and Amanda Seyfried don't look as exuberant as I expected them to look in "A Heart Full of Love."  Do they sing through that fence the whole time?  Finally, not sure how it will work to have "On My Own" moved to a different point in the musical.

But these are quibbles.  Otherwise, I am eagerly awaiting what Hooper and company have to show us.  What do you think?





          

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Les Miserables the Movie, Part One: Rumors

It was in 2007 that I first realized that a Les Miserables movie was possible.  Before then, I was convinced that it was just one of those musicals that could never be translated to the screen, for all sorts of unfair reasons.  While it is true that another staple of the British Mega Musicals, Phantom of the Opera, premiered in 2004, its failure at the box office just made me less inclined to believe that Les Miz would ever reach the big screen.

Napoleon's Bastille elephant will become
a familiar image in the movie.
Then, by chance, I happened to look at the Les Miserables (the musical) Wikipedia page, which stated that in 2005, there was "renewed interest" in turning the musical into a movie.  I checked around the Internet to see what had come of this interest.  Over the next few years, I would check periodically, but never found anything.  It was as if I had dreamed the article.  The in 2010, I was vaguely aware that Cameron Mackintosh was holding a 25th Anniversary concert at the O2 in London that would be aired in certain cinemas.  Stubbornly loyal to the 10th Anniversary concert, I did not think the 25th would be anything that exciting.  I did not pay attention until I learned that at the end of the British DVD set (available a few months before the U.S. version), there was a message stating that a movie version would be coming soon that would be produced by Working Title Films.  It had my attention now!       

Still, I'm a skeptic.  I worked in a studio art department for a short while, and knew that too many movies never get off the ground.  They were dreams deferred, dried up like raisins in the sun.  Just stating that a movie will happen doesn't make it so.  Witness a previous "promise" by Cameron Mackintosh and company.  They would need to earn my trust.

And so they did.  It began with the hiring of Tom Hooper as director, who was just coming off of a glowing OSCAR night for his 2011 movie, The King's Speech.  The King's Speech was not my favorite movie ever, but it catapulted Hooper to the top of the A-list of film directors.  Just about any project was his if he chose.  That Mackintosh and company were able to woo and hire him showed how serious they were about making Les Miz into a successful feature.  Compare this to Andrew Lloyd Webber's decision to tap Joel Schumacher as director of Phantom.  Schumacher's track record should have foretold what a mistake this would be.  Schumacher made the Phantom's lair as bright as a hair salon, for heaven's sake.    

Mackintosh and company (now including Hooper) continued to earn my trust as the months of 2011 ticked by and the grueling work of planning and casting the movie began.  William Nicholson, who wrote the screenplay for Gladiator, was hired to write the screenplay for Les Miz.  In an early interview, Nicholson stated that all of the songs would remain, but he was also trying to incorporate more material from the novel.  Excellent! 

Rumors began to circulate as to who would be cast in the lead roles.  Cameron Mackintosh pushed for Alfie Boe to be Jean Valjean, but Hooper wisely steered clear of that choice.  (Don't get me wrong, Boe has a lovely singing voice, but his acting in the 25th Anniversary concert left much to be desired.)  Instead, fairly early on, it was confirmed that Hugh Jackman would play Valjean.  The Internet was divided, with some delighted and others aghast.  Many of the "aghast" were big Alfie Boe fans who saw Boe in the Valjean role and Hugh Jackman as Javert.  However, Hooper (and likely Universal Pictures, the major financier) realized that a bigger name, with greater star power and acting ability, was needed.  That left fans wondering who would fill the Javert role.  For a short time, two names were batted around: Paul Bettany and Russell Crowe.  

Paul Bettany I could see.  But Russell Crowe?  He'd always played protagonist roles.  Could he even sing?  Mackintosh and company must have thought so, because he won the part.  Several Internet fans immediately criticized this choice, claiming that Crowe seemed better suited for Valjean than Javert.

With the two major roles taken care of, that just left the other roles to be filled.  Many believed that this would be the opportunity to showcase talented unknowns.  Instead, Anne Hathaway won the role of Fantine, dividing fans once again.  Eddie Redmayne was less well known, so his winning the role of Marius was a nice surprise, to me anyway.  Helena Bonham Carter and Geoffrey Rush were rumored to be in negotiations to play the Thenardiers, but nothing was confirmed and negotiations seemed to drag on into eternity.  (In fact, I believe Bonham Carter was the very last of the major cast to be confirmed.)  Finally, an actual unknown, Aaron Tveit, was cast in the role of Enjolras.  His casting prompted a "Who?" from me, but Broadway fans went wild.  The role of adult Cosette was opened up to thousands of unknowns before Mackintosh and company decided to give it to Amanda Seyfried.  Finally, Geoffrey Rush was out (if he was ever in) and Sasha Baron Cohen won the role of Thenardier.    

That left the all important role of adult Eponine.  Pre-production rehearsals were a month away, and still no confirmation as to who would be playing her.  The rumors were fast and furious.  One media site claimed that it was down to a "final four" of Evan Rachel Wood, Lea Michele, Scarlett Johansson, and Taylor Swift.  Apart from Wood, none of those women appealed to me, Swift least of all.  And yet that was who initially appeared to win the role.

"Mayday!  Mayday!  Movie going down!" the fans cried.  Something had gone horribly wrong.  Swift couldn't sing and she certainly couldn't act.  How could she have won over Mackintosh and Hooper?  Some fans tried to reassure the others, stating that Hooper seemed to be going for gritty, which Swift could certainly do.  Moreover, her latest single, "Safe and Sound," showed that she was capable of sounding vulnerable.  Fans tried to reconcile themselves to this, but still, there was too much other evidence out there that this decision was All Wrong.  The criticism was relentless, and included more than a few clever parodies.  "I WAS looking forward to this movie" was a frequent lament.

I didn't know what to think.  The media sites acted like it was a done deal, but they had been wrong -- really wrong -- before.  Still, it was hard not to think that it was time to give in and accept the inevitable when pictures of Taylor Swift outside of Cameron Mackintosh's office surfaced.  "She could be all right," I said to myself, not very convincingly.

Then suddenly the clouds parted and the sun came out.  Cameron Mackintosh himself confirmed that Samantha Barks would be playing the role of Eponine.  As if his statement weren't enough, he even posted a YouTube video of the moment when he broke the news to Barks -- onstage, after she and the cast had performed Oliver!.  After so many months of uncertainty, this evidence was met with cheers from across the Les Miz fanbase.  Now everyone was really excited to see the movie!

To this day, it's not really clear what happened with Taylor Swift.  Was she really offered the role, but had to turn it down for some reason?  Was she never really offered the role to begin with?  If so, why was she visiting Cameron Mackintosh?  Was she coming for a "final audition" to prove that she had developed the chops for Eponine, as one fan speculated?  Was Samantha Barks just a last-minute replacement because the production was running out of time and needed an Eponine?  The thing is, Samantha Barks has already played the role of Eponine -- most notably in the 25th Anniversary concert.  I am quite partial to her "Little Fall of Rain" duet with Gareth Gates.  Barks is cute, charming, and can actually sing.  But was she just a last-minute replacement?  The world may never know.    

With the main cast in place, film production could finally begin!