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?


  1. Yes, Anthony Warlow is MUCH better than Michael Maguire!

    Find a copy of the Australia Day Domain Park concert.

    Here's a sample:

    I'll need to pull out my London 1986 stuff to see how many of the changes were already in place in London before the opening at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C.

  2. I'll definitely concede that Warlow is an excellent singer. I'll be viewing YouTube clips, etc. to determine the rest before my next post. However, for me, technically proficient singing doesn't tell you everything about the performer in the role. It's like saying that Alfie Boe is definitely a "better" Valjean than Colm Wilkinson just because his vocals are clearer and more operatic. To some people, that is the most important requirement, so Alfie Boe is their preferred Valjean, but to me, there are intangibles that make Colm Wilkinson (and John Owen-Jones, for that matter) the preferred choice.

  3. See I found Michael Maguire's performance was far too American. I really didn't feel that he was acting it right. Enjorlas is not suppose to be John Wayne.

    But if you watch what Anthony is doing with the role, I find it's a far more interesting take on the character. He uses stillness to command. And by the time you watch the whole of the Australia Day concert, he's so intense it freaks you out. He doesn't have to tell Grantaire to shut up in "Red and Black," he just *looks.* Grantaire shuts up.

    Oh, I think it was Frank Rich of the NY Times who called David Bryant "a narcissistic romantic lead." LOL

    1. It's interesting: the Enjolras role has evolved over the years, from a Superman (Maguire) or Master/Commander (Warlow) with black hair to a middle-class scrapper (at least as played by Jon Robyns) with blond hair.

      I might end up doing a more thorough examination of Maguire and Warlow in a separate post, maybe as a Part 2, since there's so much other stuff I want to discuss about the CSR. Will have to see.

      Re: Frank Rich: With lines like "Would you weep Cosette should Marius fall?", who wouldn't think that? ;)