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.    


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.    

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