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." 


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