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.


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