Monday, November 26, 2012

Les Miserables the Movie: A New Tour and a New Look

Around 2010, Cameron Mackintosh and company decided to commemorate the 25th Anniversary of Les Miserables by updating the score, set design, and costumes and sending the musical back out on tour.

Then in late 2010, Mackintosh staged a concert at the O2 Arena in London, complete with the same types of speeches and performances that were a part of the 10th Anniversary Concert.  A CD of the Tour was issued, as was a DVD of the Concert.  The Tour and Concert were completely separate entities, but thanks to some poor promotion (at least on PBS in the United States), many fans thought that they were the same thing.  That is not so surprising, since the DVD and CD of the 10th Anniversary Concert contained the same cast and songs.  When fans bought the Tour CD thinking that it contained the Concert cast, they were outraged.  The result was several reviews that rather unfairly maligned the 25th Anniversary Tour for not being the 25th Anniversary Concert.  While the Tour CD is hardly flawless, it still has a lot of positives and deserves to be viewed on its own terms.  Since the 25th Anniversary Tour predates the concert, having launched in December 2009, I will look at it first.

In addition to looking at just the recording, I plan to consider the changes that were made to the staging of the musical.  I had the pleasure of seeing the 25th Anniversary Tour when it came to Los Angeles in 2011, so a lot of the changes are still fresh on my mind.  Some changes were for the better, some for the worse.  I will assume that the 25th Anniversary Tour in the United States is virtually the same as the one in the UK, which was recorded on the CD.

A Bit of Background

First, it should be mentioned that even before the 25th Anniversary Tour launched a "reboot," quite a few changes were made to the musical's lyrics and score between 1995 and 2010.  I have already mentioned that changes in 1998 removed, for instance, part of the sweet interlude between the Thenardiers' "Waltz of Treachery" and "Look Down."  As early as 1999, several lyrical changes were in place, as found in "Lovely Ladies" and "LaMarque is Dead."  More lyrical changes and cuts would take place over the years, including:

1.  Omitting the beginning of "Valjean's Confession": "You've spoken from the heart, and I must do the same..."

2.  Shortening songs like "Come to Me," "Turning," "Dog Eat Dog," the "Drink With Me" reprise, and the "Death of Gavroche."

3.  Cutting some of the customer singing before "Master of the House."

4.  Adding a small section between "Master of the House" and "Waltz of Treachery" where Valjean introduces himself to Cosette.

5.  Changing some of the lyrics to minor vocal sections, such as when Enjolras sings: "Courfeyrac you take the watch.  They won't attack until it's light.  Everybody keep the faith, for certain as the eagle flies, we are not alone.  The people too must rise."  This was changed from the original: "Courfeyrac you take the watch.  They won't attack until it's light.  Everybody stay awake.  We must be ready for the fight, for the final fight.  Let no one sleep tonight."    

6.  Cutting the instrumental portion before "I Dreamed a Dream"

7.  Cutting lyrics from "Wedding Chorale" that mentioned Eponine's death.

I am not in a position to know exactly what year these changes took place.  Some may have taken place before the 25th Anniversary Tour, while others were made for the 25th Anniversary Tour.  However, the bottom line is that if the changes in the 25th Anniversary Tour recording seem jarring compared to the Complete Symphonic Recording, they were not all made within the past few years.  The changes that were made for the musical's 25th Anniversary were significant enough.

The 25th Anniversary Tour

Before the 25th Anniversary Tour was launched, the only version of Les Miserables in existence was the one with a turntable and a mechanical barricade.  Even tours of the musical featured the turntable, at least when they played in major cities like San Francisco.  Props were few, and the lighting tended toward dingy, though it displayed some real creativity in scenes like the sewers and Javert's suicide.  The otherwise bare-bones presentation allowed for the turntable and the barricade to be the stars.  They created such memorable scenes and moments as Eponine running tearfully across the stage as the barricade forms around her, Gavroche getting shot to death while going through dead soldiers' pockets, and dead Enjolras splayed out over the revolutionary flag.

Those behind the 25th Anniversary Tour decided to take a different approach in order to make the musical easier to set up and move about so that it could play in multiple venues, sometimes for very short periods of time.  Away went the turntable and mechanical barricade, and in their place went a barricade that was highly detailed, but pushed into place through more old-fashioned (human) means.  The more stationary setting allowed for more detailed settings and props.  For instance, instead of Fantine and the factory women standing around "working," while not actually doing or touching anything, the 25th Anniversary Tour shows Fantine and the other women standing at a long table working with glass beads.  In another case, "Paris" is no longer the barricade twisted around to look like tenement homes, but is represented by two tall buildings, where various characters peer out.  

While some of the technical aspects of the show were removed, one new technical feature was a projection screen behind the stage.  It showed a variety of landscapes throughout the musical and at times could even be used to portray movement -- such as Valjean moving through the sewers or the students marching in "Do You Hear the People Sing?".

The projection screen was part of the revised musical's efforts to return to its novel roots, from settings to costume design.  The musical was already creeping in that direction, what with changes like making Enjolras blond, but the 25th Anniversary production would really embrace this approach.  So throughout the production, the projection screen would frequently display paintings by Victor Hugo as background landscapes, which had a certain bleak effectiveness.  The production also sought to stage events closer to how they were in the novel or would have been during that time period, sometimes with mixed results.

Significant changes were also made to the orchestrations.  The synthesizer would be completely removed in favor of more wood instruments.  Mackintosh and company would claim that changes were needed to make the orchestrations sound "brighter" and "more contemporary," but they were controversial to say the least.  Many fans did not understand why the orchestrations needed to be significantly redone, especially in light of the successful updating by the 10th Anniversary Concert, and complained that the new sound was too reedy and brassy.  I'll confess that most of the time, I can't tell the difference.  Some changes that I did notice, though, were that the opening orchestrations lacked the heaviness and import of the originals, and that there was vague "Jaws" music underscoring the final parts of Valjean's and Javert's soliloquies.

Finally, the new directors of the tour apparently had one mission for the performers: EMOTE!  Every emotional scene was dialed to 11.  This was apparent both when I saw the tour in Los Angeles and when I listened to the 25th Anniversary Tour recording.  Productions had already been moving in that direction -- in a 2008 London production, for instance, Eponine keeps flailing around in Marius's arms during "A Little Fall of Rain," and Marius practically punches Enjolras out in an effort to go collect bullets from the dead soldiers.  But the 25th Anniversary production would embrace the complete lack of subtlety and nuance to the fullest.

Other changes to the musical, in no particular order, include:

1.  Instead of the curtain featuring Cosette's face along with the show's title, the tour version just has the show's title.

2.  Unlike the original show, the tour does not have captions telling you where or when something is taking place.  This can get confusing even for people already familiar with the story.

3.  Rather than open with the prisoners breaking rocks, the production opens with the prisoners rowing a galley ship.  The change was meant to bring the setting closer to its novel roots -- Valjean was a convict in the Bagne of Toulon, a notorious prison on the Mediterranean.  While convicts there did row galley ships, as some fans have noted, they had stopped doing so by 1815, the opening of Les Miserables.  So in an effort to be more accurate, the musical actually made a significant mistake.  Ironically, given that Toulon convicts also dug ditches and did construction work, the original beginning would have sufficed.

4.  In addition to dialing every emotion to 11, the new version has some seriously intense physical scenes.  In the original version of "At the End of the Day," Fantine and the other factory worker get into a fight (as seen here starting at 2:48), but it is nothing compared to the brawl in the new version (seen below).  Likewise, whereas in the original, Bamatabois hit Fantine weakly with his cane after being spurned (as seen in the same clip around 13:20), in the new version, he hits her hard and then starts kicking her while she is on the ground, as the other whores cry out in dismay.

5.  Most of the costumes have been changed significantly, especially for the students and Cosette.  Cosette has undergone the most dramatic change, going from having shoulder-length dark brown hair and a dark blue dress to long blonde hair and a light green dress.  The effect is to make her seem younger and also more like the daughter of Fantine, who has the same long blonde hair.  Unfortunately, the new look also makes her look a bit like a Disney Princess, as one of my friends noted with distaste.  The other looks aren't as startling.  Before the students wore dark suit coats and vests, which were certainly 19th century, but more appropriate for the 1850s than the 1830s.  In the new version, the students wear suits and vests of various bright colors, which seems more in line with the fashions of the 1830s, at least going by the movie.  Gone are the anachronistic ponytails, which caused a generation of viewers to think it was the French Revolution.  The only character who keeps his is Javert, whose costume does not change.  Enjolras also looks the same, except for the hair.    

6.  While this new turntable-less version frequently makes creative use of set pieces, after a while, the limitations become too great to ignore.  The scene to suffer the most from having no turntable is the "Death of Gavroche."  Up until this time, Gavroche's role was trimmed little by little -- mainly due the reduction of "Little People" -- but he at least had his tear-jerker death scene.  In this version, Gavroche slips through the barricade to the other side and we never see him again.  Instead, we hear him singing jauntily like Tiny Tim at Christmas while the students look on in horror.  Then when Gavroche dies, all we see is Grantaire under a giant spotlight screaming "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!"  Later, instead of the barricade turning to reveal Enjolras splayed out over the flag and Gavroche lying dead on the ground, the new version has both of their dead corpses being carted off.

7.  Related to the above, one of the irritating things about the new version is what they did to Grantaire.  Grantaire was always a drunk with a sensitive side, but in the new version, they decided to "enhance" his character by also having him progressively lose it throughout the musical.  His meltdown over the death of Gavroche -- to whom he acted as a big brother sort -- is just icing on the cake.  We don't need the performers to scream in order to make us feel things.  Grantaire's scream is likely to provoke tears, but not the sad kind.      

8.  While the lack of turntable dampens some of the more iconic moments, the projection screen enhances others.  The most memorable use of the projection screen may be during Javert's death scene.  During his plunge into the water, the screen takes on underwater imagery.  Then the performer playing Javert is pulled backwards on some sort of lifting chair, so that it appears as though he is being flushed away by a current.

9.  I would be remiss if I didn't say anything about the new version's tempo.  Les Miz became a faster musical over the years, but the new tempo is practically like putting the performers on a treadmill.  Songs and scenes pass by much too quickly without being given room to breathe.  It makes you wonder at what point the Powers That Be will realize that a faster tempo and more cuts are counterproductive.  They do not make the musical better, and in fact take away quite a bit of its power.

In the UK, the original version of the musical would remain at the Queen's Theatre in London, while the new tour version travelled around the country.  In the United States, since the Broadway production had closed down, the tour version was the only one available.      



The 25th Anniversary Tour Recording

Not coincidentally, all of the performers on the 25th Anniversary Tour recording are featured in the trailer above.  The UK tour launched in December 2009 in Cardiff, Wales, and would travel to Manchester, Birmingham, Edinburgh, and several other well-known cities throughout the UK.  The original cast included John Owen-Jones as Jean Valjean, Earl Carpenter as Javert, Madalena Alberto as Fantine, Gareth Gates as Marius, Katie Hall as Cosette, Rosalind James as Eponine, and Jon Robyns as Enjolras.

This would be the most complete recording since the Complete Symphonic Recording.  Although it is the second live recording (after the 10th Anniversary) it is the first live recording of the musical.  As such, it has a quality that none of the other recordings has: it actually feels like you are listening to a musical rather than a set of songs.  You can hear people talking in the background, talking over each other, crying out, laughing, et cetera.  It feels as though a story is progressing.  All of this elevates the 25th Anniversary Tour recording quite a bit.  Without it, the Tour recording would fall significantly short of previous recordings.

Good Singing in Short Supply.  The weakest aspect of the 25th Anniversary Tour recording is the singing.  That is not true of one person, John Owen-Jones, possibly the best Valjean since Colm Wilkinson (and many fans would argue that he's even better).  Owen-Jones is a Welsh singer who first played the role of Valjean as early as 1999, and would perform in London and on Broadway.  He then reprised the role for the 25th Anniversary Tour.  If Colm Wilkinson's voice was rough, Owen-Jones's is as clear as a bell.  Yet unlike Gary Morris, who also had a clearer voice, Owen-Jones still manages to convey strength.  He does so not by attempting to imitate Wilkinson's powerful belt, but by singing the lines with feistiness and rage.  Owen-Jones also infuses a wider range of emotions into his singing, from tenderness to anger.  His one weakness is that he sounds too young to play a convict locked away for 19 years, who then ages another 20.  Still, if I don't quite believe him in that capacity, I still believe that he is someone I would not want to cross.

Earl Carpenter also puts on a very good performance.  Vocally, he sounds a lot like Philip Quast, and I often forget that it is not Quast on the recording.  However, Carpenter's voice is not quite as strong or as visceral, and thus he does not seem as intimidating.  Still, he is a worthy adversary for Owen-Jones's Valjean.

From there, the quality of the voices dips noticeably.  At the top of the heap is Katie Hall as Cosette.  If her voice is not quite as polished or powerful as Rebecca Caine's or Judy Kuhn's, it is sweeter and more youthful.  I will speak more of the youth aspect in a moment.  Meanwhile, Ashley Artus and Lynne Wilmot perform respectably as Monsieur and Madame Thenardier.  They are easier on the ears than the Thenardiers in the Complete Symphonic Recording, but less memorable than Alun Armstrong and Jenny Galloway.  Artus sings out of tune frequently, but I think that might be an acting decision, as if Thenardier were frequently intoxicated, or just too sleazy to bother staying in tune.  Rosalind James also puts on a respectable performance as Eponine, but one lacking in personality or uniqueness.

From there, things descend further.  Gareth Gates, who performs the role of Marius, became known in 2002 after being the runner-up in Pop Idol (the forerunner of American Idol and all the other Idols).  From what I have seen on You Tube, he does a decent job acting the role, but his voice is an acquired taste.  Unlike Michael Ball's, or even David Bryant's voice, Gates's voice is high and thin, and frequently lacks the first two performers' power.  This becomes very noticeable during his big number, "Empty Chairs At Empty Tables."  Ironically, his voice is closest to that of the original French Marius, but it is very different from what people are accustomed to hearing.  Yet the fact that I wish he had performed in the 25th Anniversary Concert instead of He Who Shall Not Be Named (until next time) tells you the extent of my contempt for He Who Shall Not Be Named.

Jon Robyns as Enjolras is easily the weakest of the recorded Enjolrases.  It is rather noteworthy that his name never comes up in the "Who Is Best?" debates.  His voice lacks the depth of Michael Maguire or Anthony Warlow and tends to squeak on the high notes at times when you would want Enjolras to sound the most in command.  On the plus side, Robyns sings with passion and can be quietly effective during small moments.  He also has a quality that was missing from previous Enjolrases: he actually sounds like a student.  Maybe making him a commanding presence was never the point.  Maybe in this version, what matters is that he sounds like a student who just happens to be leader of the group.  Maybe the other students are meant to be moved by his passion and aggression, not his ability to hold a high note.  If so, that is an interesting acting/directing choice, but it is not terribly pleasant listening.

The weakest voice on the recording belongs to Madalena Alberto as Fantine.  While not all Fantines have sounded "pretty," all of the past recorded Fantines were able to bring some beauty to the songs they sang.  But Alberto's voice lacks any lovely quality, as well as any depth that would let us forgive what it lacks.  Alberto sings very angrily in order to convey how upset she is with life, but it just doesn't resonate except in one or two places.  Where her voice should reflect weight of her despair, it just sounds light and empty.

Youth and Authenticity Are Not Always Best.  Which brings me to a point I've been meaning to make.  The 25th Anniversary production has placed unprecedented emphasis on authenticity, which means that it was important to find actors who were roughly the same age as the characters they played.  So instead of finding a Fantine or Enjolras in their 30s, they opted for performers who were considerably younger.  That is understandable, and many performers sound fantastic in their 20s (Ruthie Henshall, for example).  However, it also increases the likelihood that the performer's voice will be less mature.  So instead of the deep, commanding tones of a Maguire or a Warlow, you get... Jon Robyns.

Going for authenticity probably works much better when the musical is seen and not just heard.  When you are seeing the musical in its totality, you might appreciate the production's willingness to "go ugly."  But when you are just listening to the singing, unless the full effect can be conveyed through the voices alone, the experience is not very satisfying.  Sometimes you just want good singing.  

...By a Rat!  The only time I like Alberto's "authenticity" is during the Bamatabois scene where she cries out: "Even a whore who has gone to the bad won't be had by a rat!"  This is one time when I think going for intense emotion really works.  She says it exactly the way someone just manhandled by a loathsome human being would say it.  The previous Fantines were much too restrained.               

Oh Noz, Eponine!  I mentioned in the last post that Marius's reaction to Eponine's death seemed to get more excessive as the years passed -- from Michael Ball's forlorn look into the middle distance to performers of the role giving in to their "desire" to kiss Eponine and then wailing like babies after she dies.  Gareth Gates's Marius is part of the newer tradition.  After Eponine dies, he spends a good minute sniffling and crying before Enjolras starts singing.  I know you like (love?) her, Marius, but get a grip!  Sadly, I think this is more of a directing choice than an acting choice because the Marius that I saw had a similar reaction.

Back to Tiny Tim.  The 10th Anniversary Concert Gavroche was a departure from the cutesy Gavroches of the English-language productions.  The 25th Anniversary Tour Gavroche would cuteify him all over again.  Every time he sings, it comes across as "Awww, isn't he the cutest?  I just want to pinch his widdle cheeks!"  The Gavroche I saw in Los Angeles was no different.  Sigh.

The Fast Tempo Is Sometimes Effective.  While overall I am not a fan of the fast tempo, it actually works for certain scenes, such as the chain gang singing in the Prologue.  The opening song always seemed a little slow and sleepy, so it was smart of the new version to infuse it with an edge.  Now the convicts sound vaguely dangerous, and the first meeting of Valjean and Javert really crackles.

Props to the American Tour Cast.  I can't end this review without giving some love to the American 25th Anniversary Tour cast.  I really wish that an American cast recording existed because the group I saw in Los Angeles 2011 was superb.  J. Mark McVey played Valjean, and while he probably would not top John Owen-Jones, he was one of the strongest Valjeans I've seen.  He made singing the role seem effortless.  But then, he had performed the role over 2,000 times.  It took me a little while to warm up to Andrew Varela as Javert, but once he sang "Stars," I was his.  He has great power, and yes, vocally he does remind me a little of Philip Quast.  He and Chasten Harmon (who played Eponine) are also responsible for this hilarious parody.  Another standout was Justin Scott Brown who played Marius.  So many actors play Marius as this dopey lovesick lightweight, but Brown played him more as a strong, serious man who just happened to be in love.

While those were the standouts, there was not really a weak cast member.  Chasten Harmon gave Eponine an incredibly powerful voice, while Jeremy Hays was a stoic Enjolras with a strong baritone.  Jenny Latimer was a good Cosette, giving her the youthful air that the production seemed to covet.  The only one I was cool toward was Betsy Morgan as Fantine, who seemed like another choice of "young and authentic" over good.  But given the raves she has received in reviews, I think I just caught her on an off day.  Overall, everyone gave their best effort and it showed.  In honor of the American cast, I've posted a video of them singing "Red and Black" and "Do You Hear the People Sing?".            

Conclusion

So did Les Miserables really need to be updated as much as the 25th Anniversary edition?  My instincts say no.  However, looking at You Tube clips of the original version, I do see how dingy the sets and costumes look, and how the actors frequently seemed to be going through the motions.  Therefore, some freshening up was a good idea.  Many are divided on the benefit of the projection screen, but overall, I think it's a positive.  I also think that the costumes received a much-needed updating and that props added a lot to the setting.  However, it just feels like something is missing without the turntable.  I understand that the production needed a way to move around without much difficulty, but the turntable was a character in and of itself.  Without it, moments that really make the production Les Miserables are lost.

Next Time: Last stop in the retrospective: the 25th Anniversary Concert at the O2 Arena.


Sunday, November 18, 2012

Les Miserables the Movie: The 10th Anniversary "Dream Cast"

So Les Miserables premiered all over the world and became an enormous hit.  Then all of a sudden, 10 years had passed.  Cameron Mackintosh simply could not let that anniversary go by unannounced, so in October 1995, a concert was held to honor the musical.

The concert would take place at the Royal Albert Hall in London.  The cast would consist of either performers who had originated their roles, or performers who were standouts.  A DVD of the performance would be released in 1998, possibly in conjunction with the CD.  This would be the first major cast recording of the musical to be done live.

The staging was different from the usual musical staging since, of course, this was a concert.  Therefore, the performers stood at microphones in costume while other performers sat behind them waiting for their turn.  There was minimal action to explain what was going on, except for spliced-in reenactments of certain parts of the musical (such as the runaway cart sequence).  The frills were pretty minimal as well.  The smoke and lights and other theatrics that would be found in the 25th Anniversary Concert were not as prevalent here.  The lighting was mostly a somber, dignified blue, and even the projection screens in back seemed modest.  And yet despite its limitations, the 10th Anniversary Concert, alternately known as the "Dream Cast," ranks as many people's favorite recording.

The Performers

The "Dream Cast" would consist of both no-brainers and performers who were slightly more controversial.  Colm Wilkinson was practically synonymous with the Jean Valjean role, and no one had yet arisen who could match him, so he was a no-brainer.  As was Michael Ball -- who had placed his individual stamp on Marius as well as he?  For the Javert role, while some might have wanted Roger Allam or Terrence Mann, Philip Quast had distinguished himself so well on past recordings (Complete Symphonic Recording, Manchester Highlights) that he was probably a no-brainer as well.

As for controversial, some Patti LuPone fans might have been livid that Ruthie Henshall was cast as Fantine, but that does not seem to be the case.  Besides, the talented Henshall, who first played Fantine in 1992 at the age of 25, would certainly prove that she was worthy of the role.  Likewise, there might have been some grumbling from Rebecca Caine fans that Judy Kuhn was cast in the role of adult Cosette.  While Kuhn's voice was flawless, there was nothing about her that made her inherently worthier than Caine, who originated the role.

More controversial was the casting of Michael Maguire as Enjolras.  Fans who had fallen in love with Anthony Warlow on the Complete Symphonic Recording were dismayed!  Then there was the choice to cast Lea Salonga as Eponine instead of Frances Ruffelle.  That might have been less controversial than imagined -- Salonga had distinguished herself in the Eponine role on Broadway and toted around a pretty hefty resume that included originating the role of Kim in Miss Saigon and singing in Disney's Aladdin.  Supposedly Ruffelle was invited to reprise the Eponine role first but declined.  However, an interview in 2010 suggests that Ruffelle was on Cameron Mackintosh's shit list well before then.

As for why Maguire, Kuhn, and Salonga were cast over other notables in their roles, it is possible that Cameron Mackintosh wanted (a) a more international cast, (b) a more American cast, and (c) performers with a little celebrity.  I have already mentioned Salonga.  The man who would cast Nick Jonas in the 25th Anniversary role of Marius could not have been blind to the fact that his cast had not just one Disney Princess, but two.  Kuhn had provided the singing voice for the title character in Disney's Pocahontas, which had come out that summer.

Alun Armstrong would reprise his role as Monsieur Thenardier, which he originated in London.  Most fans considered him second to none.  That is, until Matt Lucas came along, and suddenly he was the best Thenardier that ever lived.  Jenny Galloway was not the original Madame Thenardier, but she would become one of the most memorable -- the only performer to play the same major role in the 10th and 25th Anniversary Concerts.  

So that was the main cast.  The rest would be comprised of secondaries from previous productions, like Anthony Crivello, and up-and-comers (hello John Owen-Jones in the chain gang!).  Oh, and I have to say something about Adam Searles as Gavroche because I always need to say something about Gavroche.  During the first few recordings, I criticized the "cuteification" of the Gavroche character, so that he became ever further removed from his scrappy French roots.  Searles's Gavroche is a step back in the direction of the original Gavroche.  There is nothing cute about him.  He is tough to the point of surly.  Maybe even surlier than the Gavroche of the novel would have been.  

Overall, the vocals would be top-notch, especially from Ball, Quast, Henshall, and Salonga.  Only Wilkinson and Maguire sounded as if they were having a bit of an off night.  But even their B+ games were highly satisfying.  What is most satisfying for me, watching the concert, is how good the acting is, and how well the performers work off of each other, despite the limitations imposed by the concert staging.

The Concert

After the Complete Symphonic Recording, this would be the most complete recording of the musical until the 25th Anniversary Tour and Concert.  Yet despite including more songs -- such as the full Epilogue and the "Final Battle" -- the 10th Anniversary Concert seems to hold a lot of material back needlessly, the way the Original London and Broadway Cast recordings did.  There is no "Death of Gavroche" or "Eponine's Errand."  "Look Down" is not the complete version, but the version you would hear on the Original Broadway Cast recording.  A lot of in-between parts have been left out, such as Marius's "Eponine, what's wrong?  I feel there's something wet upon your hair," or Enjolras's "Everybody stay awake.  We must be ready for the fight, for the final fight.  Let no one sleep tonight."  With this cast, knowing the cuts yet to come in the songs and score, it is such a shame.

Best Orchestrations Since the Complete Symphonic Recording.  As far as I can tell, there is absolutely no use of synthesizer during the concert.  Instead, it is all full and lush orchestra.  Not as full as on the Complete Symphonic Recording, but not that far from it.

Colm Wilkinson + Philip Quast = Match Made in Heaven.  That seems silly, but in many respects it's true.  Philip Quast is better than ever here, and part of the reason is that he finally has a worthy adversary in Colm Wilkinson.  So instead of him singing into the silent abyss of a studio microphone and having his vocals mixed with Gary Morris's, Quast actually gets to spar not only with an actual Valjean, but one with some real weight.  On the Complete Symphonic Recording, the fight before "Javert's Suicide" sounds like a mismatch.  Morris sounds young and whiny and yells a lot, but he cannot touch Quast's implacable Javert.  By contrast, the fight between Wilkinson and Quast has the feel of each man forcing his will upon the other, trying to get the other to yield.  Listen starting at :45.


Ruthie Henshall... Happy Fantine?  Many people consider Henshall to be the very best Fantine, and I'm certainly willing to get on board.  However, they also frequently comment upon how sad she sounds as she sings the songs.  Huh?  If anything, my only complaint about Henshall is that she looks and sounds too happy when she sings.  Even when she's dying.  It's weird.

Listen to the Full "Come to Me" While You Can!  What is sad is that when she sings "Come to Me," that is the last time we get to hear the full version on a recording.  At some point afterward, some evil being would butcher the lyrics, so that instead of Fantine singing:

Come to me
Cosette, the light is fading.
Don't you see
The evening star appearing?
Come to me, and rest against my shoulder.
How fast the minutes fly away and every minute colder.

Hurry near
Another day is dying.
Don't you hear
The winter wind is crying?
There's a darkness that comes without a warning.
But I will give you lullabies and wake you in the morning.

Fantine sings:

Come to me
Cosette, the light is fading.
Don't you hear
The winter wind is crying?

What the fuck?  That doesn't even rhyme.

Lea Salonga is Fantastic, But She's Not Eponine.  If Francis Ruffelle was street rat Eponine and Kaho Shimada was a fragile Eponine, Lea Salonga is more of an angry Eponine.  That is a completely valid interpretation of the character.  What rings a little less true is that the daughter of Alun Armstrong's Thenardier and Jenny Galloway's Madame Thenardier would have such perfect diction.  Really, really perfect diction.  So that every "t" is crisply audible in lines such as "without a home, without a friend, without a face to say hello to."  Lea Salonga is a fantastic singer.  Her voice is as pure as a mountain stream, as clear as a bell, whatever cliches would adequately describe it.  But she is not the daughter of trash.  I would never believe her to be the daughter of trash, or someone who has been practically living on the street.  That is something that only Ruffelle managed to pull off in her portrayal.

I actually think that Salonga's voice is better suited to the Fantine role, which she would eventually take over in 2007 on Broadway and in the 25th Anniversary Concert.  Even though Salonga sounds more strained singing Fantine than Eponine, and even though the Fantine character is technically no better off than Eponine.  The reason is because Fantine has an angelic quality to which Salonga's voice seems much more suited.

That Said, She Does One Fantastic "Little Fall of Rain."  The duet between Salonga and Michael Ball is one of the best I've seen, partially due to their restrained performances.  Salonga's Eponine is resigned to her fate, while Ball's Marius is sad and comforting.  When Eponine dies, Marius hugs her and looks forlornly out into the middle distance.  There are none of the histrionics of more recent portrayals.  "Noooooooooooz, Eponine!!  Youz dead now!!!!  But I luv you!!!!!!!!!!!!"  Here, Eponine is Marius's friend, and he is sad his friend died, nothing more.                                   

Death Is Awkward in Concert Form.  If Eponine's death is sweet and poignant, some of the other deaths in the musical look a little odd.  For instance, to simulate Javert's suicide, Quast throws his head back and tosses an arm in the air.  To simulate the students' death, the performers stand still... while lights flash around them.  If not for the bits of the musical woven in, would someone who had never seen Les Miserables even know what was happening?  I guess it would have been far too awkward to attempt Gavroche's death.

But I Thought It Was Over.  The performers would spend two-plus hours singing their hearts out, and then hooray, the bittersweet finale!  The audience claps and the performers take their bows and then... it's still not over.  Then the cast basically has to make way for another performance -- 17 different Valjeans from all over the world singing "Do You Hear the People Sing?".  It is actually quite rousing, but it makes for a slightly awkward denouement.    

Conclusion

Although I snark quite a bit, I really do hold the 10th Anniversary Concert high on my list of Les Miserables recordings.  It may even be my favorite recording.  Even if one just listens to the CD, it is obvious that the chemistry between the performers is so much better than on the previous recordings.  That can only be because the performances are live.  Studio settings may produce "prettier" vocals, but live vocals are more authentic.  So more authentic performances plus some of the best performers to ever sing the roles equals one of the best Les Miz recordings available.  No wonder they call it the "Dream Cast."  

Next Time: We jump ahead 15 years to the 25th Anniversary Tour.    





Saturday, November 10, 2012

Les Miserables the Movie: Maguire v. Warlow and the Role of Enjolras

Thinking about it, I could have done an X versus Y comparison for many of the roles in Les Miserables.  For instance, I could have done Colm Wilkinson versus John Owen-Jones, or Frances Ruffelle versus Lea Solanga.  Jean Valjean and Eponine are both characters upon whom, over time, actors have been able to place their unique stamp.  And to some extent, I do comparisons between the various performers in certain roles in each album post I do.  So why devote an entire post to the performers who played Enjolras, who isn't even a "main" character in the story per se?

Maybe it is just my bias at work.  Enjolras has always been a favorite character of mine.  He is the leader of the student revolution, dynamic, passionate, and romantic.  In the musical, his role is usually sung by someone with a distinctive baritone, and he is given endless opportunities to send notes soaring ("Before the barricades ariiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiise!"  "They will come when we caaaaaaaaaaaaall!").  Finally, he is given a romantic death, draped over the flag of the cause that he believed in.

So that is why I chose to focus on Enjolras.  It isn't surprising that over the years, a number of performers have placed their stamp on the role.  What is surprising is that comparisons always tend to focus on Michael Maguire and Anthony Warlow.  Not, for instance, Maguire versus Jon Robyns, or Warlow versus Ramin Karimloo, or Maguire versus David Thaxton.  Sure, there are various "comparison" videos showcasing about 12 different Enjolrases singing a specific part, but no major loyalties are expressed for any of the performers save maybe Karimloo and, of course, Maguire and Warlow.

How did this unofficial rivalry between Maguire and Warlow spring up?  Part of it could be because they were both a smash in the role, but you could say that about other performers as well.  (Such as David Thaxton.  How has he never been on an official recording?*)  It could also be because at the time Maguire and Warlow performed the role, the musical had not been around long enough for there to be a "definitive" Enjolras.  Since both Maguire and Warlow put their own powerful stamp on the Enjolras role, there are debates as to which one is the "definitive" Enjolras.  Then there is the fact that whatever stamp either placed on the role, both performers have strong similarities.  Both have booming baritones and a strong presence.  Both wear the distinctive black ponytailed wig of the early Enjolras period.  And both, ironically enough, set a mould for Enjolras that couldn't be more different from Victor Hugo's image of the character.

Enjolras about to be killed by French
soldiers (date/artist unknown).
In the novel Les Miserables, Hugo describes Enjolras as "angelically handsome."  "Already a man, he still seemed a child.  His two and twenty years appeared to be but seventeen."  Enjolras had "that face of a youth escaped from college, that page's mien, those long, golden lashes, those blue eyes, that hair billowing in the wind, those rosy cheeks, those fresh lips, those exquisite teeth."  At the same time, "it did not seem as though [Enjolras] were aware there was on earth a thing called woman.  He had but one passion -- the right."  Also "[h]e was severe in his enjoyments.  He chastely dropped his eyes before everything that was not the Republic.  He was the marble lover of liberty.  His speech was harshly inspired and had the thrill of a hymn.  He was subject to unexpected outbursts of soul."

As described by Hugo, Enjolras is intense and highly committed to his cause, but also very young.  Far from the mature man Maguire and Warlow would portray him to be.  Of course, the maturity of the performers couldn't be helped unless the producers started filling the role with kids just out of school.  Still, it is interesting to note how far the student element of Enjolras's character is removed from both Maguire and Warlow's portrayal.  Productions would try to bring the Enjolras role closer to its roots as time went on, with David Thaxton in 2008 possibly representing the first step.  He was still a manly man in control, but now blonde, like Enjolras in the novel.  By the 25th Anniversary Tour, Jon Robyns is not only blonde (like all other performers in the role), but could be just another young scrapper at the pub.  Even when productions did not try to bring Enjolras back to his novel roots, they seemed to let go of the idea that Enjolras had to be some superman/army commander.  For instance, in the Broadway revival, Drew Sarich as Enjolras is almost anti-charismatic.  Nerdy and peevish, he all but dares people to leave him.  Likewise, Aaron Lazar is the stern lecturer you might have had in a college biology class.

But Enough About That.  Despite the changes over the years, Maguire and Warlow both remain iconic in the role of Enjolras.  So which do I think is better?  That is a difficult question to answer.  The one I prefer is Michael Maguire, for reasons I will go into.  But is he better?



As I noted in the Complete Symphonic Recording post, it is more difficult to draw direct comparisons between the two than one might think, because only Warlow has been recorded singing the entire role -- in air-tight studio conditions ideal for producing good vocals, I might add.  When people compare Warlow with Maguire, they frequently compare Warlow's performance on the Complete Symphonic Recording with Maguire's live performance in the 10th Anniversary Concert.  That is a flawed comparison at best.  A live setting is not guaranteed to produce the best vocals -- for instance, Colm Wilkinson's vocals are not as strong in the 10th Anniversary Concert as they are on previous recordings.  That does not mean Colm Wilkinson is a bad singer, unless you just happen to dislike his way of singing.  In Maguire's case, the 10th Anniversary Concert took place after (a) he was reportedly getting over an illness and (b) he seemed to have retired from Broadway.  Listening to the 10th Anniversary Concert, it is evident that Maguire's vocals are strained during moments when he would have sounded smooth in the past: for instance, his lines in "One Day More."  So while it is valid to compare Warlow's vocals with Maguire's using those two examples, it should be noted that you are comparing the absolute best of Warlow's vocals to the worst of Maguire's.

But how do they sound under similar circumstances?  Comparing them under studio conditions is of limited use as well, since the Original Broadway Cast recording is so bare bones compared to the Complete Symphonic Recording.  The only songs they can be compared on are "Look Down," "Red and Black," "Do You Hear the People Sing?", and "One Day More."  So a quick run through:

Look Down:  Warlow.  I hate the way he yells in this song -- "Where are the SWELLS who run this show?" -- but he does belt quite nicely.  Maguire sounds good, but does not have as strong a belt.

Red and Black: This one is a wash.  Warlow has more of a belt, but Maguire's voice sounds richer.

Do You Hear the People Sing:  This one is also a wash.  Both Maguire and Warlow sound commanding and powerful.  I can't adequately judge the "LaMarque is Dead" section because it isn't included on the Original Broadway Cast recording. 

One Day More:  Maguire.  No Enjolras enters this song better than he does.  There is something about the way he sings "day" and "freedom" -- deep, rich, commanding.  By contrast, Warlow hits freedom -- "free-DOM" -- in a way that sounds discordant.  You may disagree, but just listen.

So what does this comparison reveal?  Warlow has a more powerful belt and Maguire has a richer voice.  On the whole, I would say that is correct.  Warlow's voice is quite powerful, but when he's not belting, I don't find it all that pleasant.  He sounds flinty and a bit cold, and he yells at times when I would prefer he just sing it straight.

But are there other circumstances under which we can compare the two performers?  There are always the various Enjolras comparisons on YouTube, such as this "LaMarque is Dead" comparison of Maguire and Warlow on the stage.  Listening to this, I honestly can't say that one is superior to the other.  Same with the "Final Battle" comparison.

Oh Come On, Get Off the Fence.  So which Enjolras is best?  Max Von Essen, of course.  My God, listen to him (on the LaMarque is Dead video, around 4:20).

Just kidding.  That's my way of saying that I just don't know.  It depends upon what you want in your Enjolras.  If you love power and a great belt, then Warlow is your man.  If you prefer your Enjolras to be a cool commander, Warlow is also your man.  It would not be out of step with Enjolras's characterization in the novel of being stern and intense.

That said, based on all of the evidence available, I prefer Maguire for the following reasons.  First is that I think he has a richer voice that is just nicer to listen to on the whole.  While his belt isn't as strong, it is still pretty good.  Second, while you would never mistake Maguire for a student, he does manage to project some of the enthusiasm you would expect a student to show for a cause -- a cause so beloved that he would recognize nothing else.  And if I am watching Enjolras on stage, I want to believe that he is not only truly excited/passionate about his cause, but that he can make others feel excited as well.  Otherwise, why would they be drawn to him?




That is what I see when I watch Michael Maguire's performance in the 10th Anniversary Concert and other scattered video evidence.  In the key "LaMarque is Dead" sequence, Maguire sings fast -- maybe too fast -- and sounds like he needs to take a breath before the final "Caaaaaaaaaaaaaaall!", but you can believe that he is genuinely excited by what he has heard.  I don't get that from Warlow, recorded or live.  That doesn't mean that people who prefer Warlow aren't justified in preferring him, just that this is the reason I prefer Michael Maguire in the role.



Next Time: Now that this diversion is over, it's off to the 10th Anniversary Concert!

* Oh never mind.  David Thaxton was on the 21st Anniversary recording of Les Miserables.  So he was on an official recording, just one to which the general public has no access.  Great.    

    

Friday, November 9, 2012

Les Miserables the Movie: And We Have Trailer!

We interrupt the ongoing Les Miserables retrospective to bring you the following news: a new trailer of the movie has finally been released!

Well, technically, it was released weeks ago.  First in Japan, then in Europe (in the UK, it was released with the James Bond Skyfall movie) and Australia, but nowhere in the United States or other parts of the world.  If we wanted to see the trailer, our only options were to watch a bootleg or to content ourselves with a 30-second television spot that is just one-fifth the length.  Then somehow the trailer got posted to multiple media sites, only for Universal to yank them down.  Then Universal gave in and said that due to the "unforeseen trailer leak," it would post the International trailer on an official site.  Um, thanks?  How long would we have had to wait otherwise?

Nonetheless, the trailer is up, and you can watch for yourself.  My thoughts are below.


Overall, I really liked it, and it's making me more excited to see the movie (if that were even possible).  This time, instead of just hearing "I Dreamed a Dream," it is nice to also hear bits of "Castle on a Cloud," "One Day More," and "Do You Hear the People Sing (Reprise)?".  This means that we get to hear from other members of the cast, most notably Russell Crowe.

How Does Crowe Sound?  Not bad, though all he does is sing his lines from "One Day More."  As we know, the true test will come with "Stars."  Crowe sings in a deep voice that is a bit higher-pitched than his normal speaking voice.  He sounds strong, not unlike Norm Lewis in the role.  He seems to pass the "Gerard Butler test" by managing not to embarrass himself.  Though to be fair, Butler isn't a horrible singer; he was just no match for the Phantom role.  

But Never Mind That, Because Redmayne and Barks Sound Fabulous!  I like how they have been showcasing more of Samantha Barks's role as time goes on.  As nice as it has been for the producers to acknowledge that Cosette is the heart of the story, not just a means to an end, they can't exactly get around the fact that Eponine is a big role.  So in this trailer, we see her sing her lines from "One Day More," look jealous as she tells Marius about Cosette, look teary-eyed and lovelorn as she watches Marius, and hastily hiding behind a stone wall.  Despite singing on set for hours, Barks sounds as flawless as she does on stage.  And each time I hear Eddie Redmayne's voice, I fall in love a little bit more.  He only sings a couple lines from "One Day More," but that's enough.  

Lots More Aaron Tveit as Enjolras.  Aaron Tveit was practically invisible throughout most of the promotional process.  Part of it was no doubt due to his lack of a big name, and the other due to his character's secondary status.  But in this trailer, even though we don't hear him sing, he's everywhere.  Mostly looking manly and resolved while facing off against a throng of French soldiers.  At one point we hear him scream: "To the barricades!"  Can't wait to hear him sing. 

And Lots More CGI.  It's clear that between the time the international trailer was first released and this current one (as well as the 30-second U.S. commercial), the CGI was added to certain scenes.  For instance, we now see convict Valjean pulling a massive ship (which looks sideways to me) to shore, and much more water whipping up around Javert than in earlier shots of the same scene.  Knowing how the scenes looked earlier, I can't help but think the ship looks a little fake, but that could just be because I saw it for one whole second in the trailer.  There is also a CGI shot of the city of Paris.  And from tweets during production, there should be other carefully placed uses of CGI.

And Finally the Thenardiers!  Because I first saw them in a bootleg of the Japanese trailer, then in some magazine photo spreads, what Helena Bonham Carter and Sasha Baron Cohen look like is no longer a mystery to me.  However, this (and the 30-second spot as well?) represents one of the first times we've seen them in a trailer.  Thank God they didn't try to squeeze Bonham Carter into a fat suit, or CGI her to make her look fat.  Instead, she just has a crazy hairdo and maybe a bit too much face makeup?  Looking at her, you wonder what Fantine was thinking when she left Cosette in her care.  (In the book, it seems logical, but in the stage show, you never understand.)  For some reason, her hair is a very bleached blonde, while Baron Cohen's hair is red.  An interesting color combination that somehow produced the brown-haired Eponine.

Other Observations.  First, even as long-haired Fantine at the factory, Anne Hathaway already looks thinner than I'm used to seeing her.  Maybe it's the dress?  Her expression after she is first let go is heart rending.  Second, even though the script prepared me for it, there is still more dialogue in this film than I expected.  I hope it doesn't create exactly the effect Hooper and company didn't want: characters unnaturally shift from speaking to singing and then back again.  We shall see.  Finally, cutest moment in the trailer: "Cosette?  Mademoiselle."                 

Negatives.  The negatives are more trailer-specific than movie-specific.  I felt that the overall presentation, while effective, was a bit corny in places.  For instance, the opening scene where live Cosette morphs into the famous image -- it feels a little forced and okay, we get it.  That little girl is the same girl on all the album covers.  It doesn't need to be spelled out to diehards like me, and at the same time, I think someone completely new to the musical would find it a bit off putting.  Another corny moment was the fast forward between young Cosette and adult Cosette.  Oh look, little Cosette is hiding behind... a man passing adult Cosette.  Hmm.  Also, some of Crowe's exclamations sound silly.  "Jean Valjean!" he screams at one point as he pursues on horseback, like any frustrated villain screaming the hero's name.

Also, while everyone basically sounds good, I'm a little worried that Seyfried and Redmayne have a little trouble syncing during their duet in "One Day More."  It sounds as though one ends before the other.  However, that could just be a misperception on my part, or a function of the trailer.

Overall.  This trailer gives a much wider impression of what the story is about.  It is about Fantine's downfall, yes, but also about so much more.  And after many months of wondering, we finally get to see what that is.  Less than 50 days to go.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Les Miserables the Movie: The Most Complete Recording, But the Best?

I'm embarrassed to say that for years, I ignored the Les Miserables Complete Symphonic Recording based on the mistaken belief that it was just the orchestrations.  The orchestrations are lovely, but I wanted to hear singing.  Fortunately, a few years ago, I realized the error of my ways and downloaded the Complete Symphonic Recording onto my iTunes.

Unlike the past two English-language recordings, the Complete Symphonic Recording is not of a specific cast.  Cameron Mackintosh had originally intended to do the recording using the Australian cast, but ended up recording the album in three different locations around the world, using an international cast.  As a result, actors from diverse locations as Japan, Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States were brought together seamlessly, more or less.

As the title states, this is the first album to contain the entire musical, at least the musical as it existed in 1989, following its debut on Broadway.  Parts of the musical that had heretofore been missing from the recordings were now included, almost too numerous to count.  They include the full Prologue, "The Runaway Cart," the lead-up to "Master of the House," the full "Look Down," "Javert's Intervention," "Eponine's Errand," "The Death of Gavroche," and much more.  It is only after listening to this recording, which fills three CDs, that one realizes how bare-bones the previous recordings were.  Future recordings, while not as complete, would contain more material.

Overall, the Complete Symphonic Recording is a bit of a mixed bag.  The bag contains mostly treats, but now and then, you come across a lump of coal.  Most of this is due to the singers cast in the roles.

The Singers

The singers on the Complete Symphonic Recording range from those who would become iconic in their roles to those who sound weak and are borderline disasters.  On the one hand, you have Michael Ball, Philip Quast, and Anthony Warlow.  On the other hand, you have Kaho Shimada, Gay Soper, Barry James, and Gary Morris.

Gary Morris: The Complete Symphonic Recording would mark the first time someone other than Colm Wilkinson played Jean Valjean on an album.  Wilkinson was originally approached to sing on this album as well, but he was unavailable.  He recommended Gary Morris in his place.  Morris was an American country singer whose first significant acting role was playing Jean Valjean on Broadway after Wilkinson's departure.  In that sense, it was quite natural that he would be asked to lend his voice to a Les Miz recording.

Many who have seen Morris act in the role swear that he is among the best Valjeans ever.  On this recording, however, about the only thing I can recommend about Morris is that his vocals are clean.  Otherwise, he seems weaker than Wilkinson in just about every way.  His voice has a slightly whiny tinge and he lacks Wilkinson's ability to belt, which is very noticeable in songs like "One Day More."  He also tends to OVER-EMPHASIZE every OTHER word in ORDER to sound DRAMATIC.  (For instance, the part where he sings: "My God, Cosette!  I heard a cry in the dark!".)  However, that could simply be a directing problem that weighs down the entire production, something that I will discuss later.  Morris does occasionally have some effective moments and some moving scenes, such as in the Thenardiers' "Waltz."  But Morris's greatest weakness may be that he simply sounds too light, too young.  He couldn't threaten a kitten, let alone Philip Quast's Javert.  In scenes where they are together, I don't get the remote sense that Valjean is Javert's match, capable of overpowering him if need be.  This does not make Morris a "borderline disaster," unless you like your Valjeans to sound powerful, but it does make him a disappointment.

Philip Quast: Quast is Morris's opposite, one of the standout performances on the album.  He played Javert in the UK and his native Australia before lending his voice to the Complete Symphonic Recording.  If Roger Allam's Javert was cold and ruthless and Terrence Mann's was a little angsty, Quast's Javert meets them somewhere in between.  His voice is cold as a mountain stream, and sharp, yet allows vulnerability to creep in at just the right times.  He also sounds pompous, imposing, and certain.  You could believe that he has made the law his life, and that he would hunt his opponent for years without a qualm.  And this was before we even got to see what he looked like at the 10th Anniversary Concert.  No wonder many consider him to be the definitive Javert.

Michael Ball: Ball is back!  And this time we hear his entire performance.  His voice is as passionate and strong as on the Original London Cast recording, but is also subtle and effective where it needs to be.  I particularly like his exchange with the Thenardiers in "Wedding Chorale/Beggars at the Feast": "Go away Thenardier.  Do you think I don't know who you are?!".  Somehow, I could not see David Bryant singing these lines -- and later punching out Thenardier -- believably.  Ball gives the Marius character a strength that is too often missing.  He is Boyfriend Marius AND Revolutionary Marius.

Kaho Shimada: Kaho Shimada played Eponine in the Tokyo production of Les Miserables and is the only non-native English speaker on the album.  Supposedly she learned to sing the role phonetically for the Complete Symphonic Recording.  If so, that was quite an undertaking, and she deserves praise for her dedication.  However, as with Morris, she suffers in comparison to the first person who sang her role, Frances Ruffelle.

One point in Shimada's favor is that she gives Eponine a frailty that Ruffelle's performance lacked.  You could certainly see a child of the Thenardiers growing up to be so frail.  Yet she also manages to show flickers of toughness.  That said, Shimada never embodies the role of Eponine the way Ruffelle did, and her voice does not have as much power, which is noticeable during her part in "One Day More."  Shimada's diction can also get quite garbled sometimes, such as this line in "Javert's Intervention": "It's the police!  Disappear!  Run for it!  It's Javert!".  Shimada is not a bad singer, but it seems as though another singer would have been stronger in the role.

Gay Soper and Barry James:  The ones in the main roles who approach "borderline disaster" are Gay Soper and Barry James as Madame and Monsieur Thenardier.  After listening to them, for the first and only time, I hated the Thenardiers.  Maybe that was the intent -- after all, the Thenardiers are pretty horrible people.  However, I don't think we're meant to find them as completely repellant as I find these Thenardiers to be.  In an Amazon review a few years back, I referred to Soper as a "debauched Smurfette," which I still think sums her up well.  Her voice is screechy and higher pitched than most Madame Thenardiers'.  Meanwhile, James brays his lines like a donkey and tends to overact even more than your average Thenardier ("But first, you paaaaaaaaaaaaaaay!").  On this recording, I always skip past "Master of the House."  

Anthony Warlow: I'm going to save most of my Warlow versus Maguire comparisons for a separate post following this one.  First, let me say that Warlow's Enjolras is, without a doubt, a standout on the Complete Symphonic Recording.  He began his career in opera and has been in several musical/operatic roles in his native Australia.  In fact, when I was in Sydney a couple of years ago, I nearly went to see him in The Pirates of Penzance.  Back when it seemed as though the movie version of Les Miserables might cast unknowns in the lead roles, I thought that he would make a good choice for Javert.

Like Michael Maguire, who blew the lid off of the Enjolras role in the Broadway production, Warlow has a booming baritone voice and projects authority and certainty.  Other than these basic observations, direct comparisons of their performances are difficult because only Warlow was recorded singing the entire role.  There are YouTube comparison videos to fill in the gaps, but nothing like a side-by-side comparison of two singers singing under the same conditions.  Direct comparisons would become easier once Maguire recorded more of the role in the 10th Anniversary Concert, but even that has problems, which I will get into in the future.  What I will say about Warlow on this album versus Maguire on the Original Broadway Cast recording is that Warlow seems to have more power than Maguire, but that Maguire's voice sounds richer.

Taking Warlow on his own terms, I can say that although he sounds technically impressive on the Complete Symphonic Recording, he doesn't inspire me.  The part where he rallies the students to fight and face their deaths, the "LaMarque Is Dead" sequence, sounds very nice and strong, but lacks true passion.  Part of the problem may be what plagued the Original London Cast recording -- a very slow tempo.  The tempo of "LaMarque Is Dead" causes Warlow to sing slower, which gives him enough breath to hit the final "Caaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaall!" note, but also prevents him from sounding as though he is (a) really excited about the possibilities that just arose, and (b) trying to excite students to fight and face their death.  And that is what Warlow misses: Enjolras is not an army captain or a ship commander, but a student trying to excite other students.  Maguire misses this to some extent as well, which I will get into next time.    

Ross McCall: Ross McCall is hardly a household name, but he may just be the best of the English-language Gavroches.  Like Anthony Warlow, he benefits from getting to sing the entire role, rather than just bits and pieces.  While McCall is a "cutesy" Gavroche, if you have to have a cutesy Gavroche, he is the one to have.  He is cute, but also appropriately feisty.  He sounds good whether he is singing "Look Down," exclaiming "General LaMarque is dead!", or outing Javert.  The only place where he sounds a little over the top is his death scene (one Amazon reviewer stated that she "cringed" when she listened to his song).  But wouldn't you if you were hit by, say, three bullets?  As numerous YouTube examples demonstrate, pulling off a convincing Gavroche death scene is something of an art.  Unfortunately, we can't compare Ross McCall's death scene with any of the other recorded Gavroches because no other recording had one, not even the two anniversary concerts.  (As I typed this last sentence, I found a YouTube recording of the Broadway Gavroche death scene.  Not bad -- he's less blubbery than Ross McCall, though he goes a little over the top as well.)

And the Borderline Disaster Award Goes to… Most everyone else sounds fine on the Complete Symphonic Recording, though hardly great.  Debra Byrne sounds perfectly good as Fantine, though her vibrato can be a bit distracting.  Tracy Shayne sounds fine, if a bit chirpy, as adult Cosette.  However, the disaster of the Complete Symphonic Recording just might be the singer who plays Grantaire.  Unlike the melodious Anthony Crivello, the Complete Symphonic Recording Grantaire growls his lines more than he sings them.  I know that Grantaire is supposed to be drunk and something of a joke (at least until "Drink With Me"), but does he really have to sound like a wino who stumbled into the recording studio by mistake?

The Album

While not all of the singers were up to par, there is little to complain of regarding the album itself.  The orchestrations would be the fullest they have ever been on a recording, and would probably not be matched or surpassed until the 25th Anniversary Concert.  Listening to the album is a bittersweet experience because it includes pieces of the musical that I love, that I remember seeing on stage, that are now no more.

Longer Musical Interlude Between the "Waltz" and "Look Down".  I remember seeing a production of Les Miserables in London in early 1998 and being upset that the Valjean and Cosette scene between the Thenardiers' "Waltz" and "Look Down" had been cut severely.  That was one of my favorite moments of the musical, and in retrospect, removing it still looks like a mistake.  (One that Hooper and company seem intent on correcting in the movie version.)  In the musical as it existed in 1989, after Valjean sings "There's a castle just waiting for you!", there is sweeping music, and then Valjean and Cosette happily "Lalala" for a good 30 seconds before the more ominous music that leads into "Look Down."  I feel as though this interlude is important because it shows, however briefly, that Cosette is finally happy and Valjean has finally found someone to love.  In the post 1998 versions, there is no extended "Lalala" sequence; the sweeping music leads straight into "Look Down."  No sooner has Valjean started to lead Cosette away from the hated Thenardiers than he has to pull her out of the way of a piece of scenery that represents Ten Years Later.  It's as if the post-1998 productions are saying: "You're no more than a means to an end, Cosette!  Away with you!".  It's nice to have the Complete Symphonic Recording remind us that this wasn't always so. 

And Yet Other Parts of the Musical Should Have Remained On the Cutting Room Floor.  Having the complete musical in its pre-1998 form also allows us to hear the parts that were superfluous.  Some parts, for instance, are relics of the French concept album and sound plain awkward in English.  One example is the very beginning of Valjean's confession to Marius.  "You've spoken from the heart and I must do the same.  There is a story, sir, of slavery and shame, that you alone must know."  It is delivered in a rushed manner that sounds forced.  Fortunately future productions have cut this part out and proceed straight to "There lived a man whose name was Jean Valjean…".  

Likewise, the part where Madame Thenardier starts singing to Eponine (before "Master of the House") sounds terribly awkward.  Again, in the French version it sounds better -- maybe because I don't understand all of the words, or maybe because Madame Thenardier is singing to both Eponine and Azelma (the forgotten Thenardier, who was not included in the English-language musical), so it makes sense that she sounds a little rushed?  But the English-language version sounds awful: "Eponine, come my dear, Eponine, let me see you.  You look very well in that little blue hat.  There's some little girls who know how to behave and they know what to wear and I'm saying thank heaven for that!"  Again, it is delivered in this very rushed, overstuffed manner.  There is a term for this that applies to English dubbing of Japanese anime, where the Japanese to English translation is very simple, but the English dub must contain a mess of words to match the lips of the Japanese characters.  I don't know if Good Bad Translation is that term, but it seems to fit.  At least in the sense that it would have been so easy to change that part so that Madame Thenardier's praise of Eponine sounded slower and more natural, but for some bizarre reason, production after production has kept the part as is. 

In Some Places, the Album Suffers From Not Being Live.  While the album sounds strong overall, there are some parts where the atmosphere sounds so studio air-tight that the scene suffers.  For instance, I'm sure Anthony Warlow would have sounded more passionate if he were actually singing to someone.  The "studio effect" is most notable in the student group scenes, and especially in the "Final Battle" sequence.  Whereas in later recordings, you can hear the cannons smashing into the barricade, enhancing the sense of the students' doom, on the Complete Symphonic Recording, all you hear is the discordant music.  As if to say: Oh come on.  Use your imagination.  Um, okay, everyone's dead now. 

New Director Needed?  To the extent that the singers received any direction, I wonder if it did more harm than good.  It seems as if they were repeatedly told to SCREAM when they wanted to show emotion or otherwise ham it up as much as possible.  The ones who seemed to suffer the most from this approach were Gary Morris and the Thenardiers.  Unfortunately, "scream to show emotion!" would become a feature of many future productions.  

Conclusion

Really, there is not much more to say about the Complete Symphonic Recording, except that it is a joy to be able to listen to the full musical.  So does that mean the Complete Symphonic Recording the best English-language recording of Les Miserables?  If you care about completeness it is, since no other recording would contain the entire musical.  In terms of the quality of singing and acting, though, I tend to think it's a toss up between this album and the 10th Anniversary Concert recording.  My Les Miz play list contains a mixture of both.

A Final Note About the Manchester Company Highlights Recording: I just want to state in advance that I won't be reviewing the Manchester Company Highlights in my next album post, but will instead jump ahead to the 10th Anniversary Concert.  The main reasons are that the Manchester Company Highlights has only five tracks, that not all of these tracks are available on YouTube, that it is too expensive to purchase the album given the number of songs, and that the Manchester tour in 1992 does not offer anything new in terms of how the show was staged or sung.  I did manage to listen to Jeff Leyton (who plays Champmathieu in the movie) as Jean Valjean.  He has a nice, strong presence, and his voice is, if anything, gruffer than Colm Wilkinson's.

Next Time: More Warlow versus Maguire and the evolving role of Enjolras.  Then, the 10th Anniversary "Dream Cast."