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! 


  1. What a fun idea to prep for the movie!

    The French stage show was slightly longer than the concept album. It included several songs that weren't on that album: early versions of "Lovely Ladies," "Fantine and Bamatabois," "The Runaway cart" and "Who Am I?" As well as some longer musical interludes and a "La Misère" reprise sung by Eponine and Marius. I think the barricade scenes were longer but I'd need to check that.

    Here's stage version of the Paris 1980 cast singing "Lovely Ladies" called "La Nuit": (that clip cuts off right at the beginning of IDAD)

    Here's one of the OFC musical interludes:

    1. Thanks for the info and for the links! Wow, the musical interlude before "Donnez" ("Look Down") is SO different from what it would become. Wonder if a variety of that music will make it into "Suddenly"?

    2. Digne, naw, the barricade scenes were about the same. But there were those fun other bits you mentioned, and a larger emphasis on the chorus. For example, at the end of "J'avais rêvé" the prostitutes themselves join in Fantine's song, showing that Fantine is just one of many women pushed to the extreme (and actually giving more humanity to the Lovely Ladies in the process). When the factory workers gang up on Fantine, we have a chorus of men AND women who join in berating her (and here, there is no Foreman, just Valjean, who misunderstands the situation and, giving Fantine 50 Francs, fires here). When Monsiuer Fauchlevent gets hit by the cart, we have the chorus (representing the whole town, and, by extension, the views of society) saying things like, "Back up, M le Maire, his sad life isn't worth giving up yours, no one on earth would miss him if he died!" I should really write a blogpost about this, I could go on forever.

      I am wondering if we'll hear some of that melody before "Donnez" (it's called "Paris, 1832" according to my information) in the new song "Suddenly." It's lovely, at any rate. It would be a fun little surprise for crazy folks like us who went all the way back to 1980 to study the musical's history!

      Also, what I wouldn't give to see the original 1980 version. The links in your post aren't working, K Wild, so I can't see the little bits you said are on that site. X/ But thanks for the post! Keep it up.

    3. Ryan, Don't the prostitutes join in on "J'avais rêvé" on the album version as well. I was just listing the difference between it and the stage show.

    4. Yeah, they certainly do! I address that here:

  2. TRIPLE COMMENT So those clips in the video are definitely not from the 1980 version. They're from a Cam Mac production with the 1980 soundboard laid over. You can tell cuz the original version didn't have a turntable. The hunt continues...

  3. Ryan: You're right. I found a longer YouTube version of that sequence, and it appears to be a London production with Nancy Sullivan as Eponine. Too bad. Maybe that means none of the original footage survived, or if it did, it is really difficult to access. I know there are Les Miz "how it was made" features -- does anyone know if some of the original French production was featured?

    1. If you can find the doc about Matt Lucas being Thénardier, there are some clips of it near the beginning...I had it once, long ago, but it's gone now, and the first part is the only part NOT put up on YouTube! X/ I believe that SOMEONE has a whole video of the 1980 production, likely either Boublil or Schönberg...wha wha.

    2. That Matt Lucas documentary is on the UK release of the 25th O2 concert (I think the special edition DVD of it, check the listing). And yes, it has footage of the OFC "At the end of the Day"