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.


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