Saturday, December 29, 2012

Les Miserables the Movie: Finally, the Big Show!

Finally the big day arrived.  On Christmas Day, I went with two companions to see the movie Les Miserables in a packed theatre.  It was the type of experience where even if you order your tickets in advance and arrive 45 minutes early, you still have to wait at the end of a long line.  Since I rarely go to the movies these days, I don't think I've had that experience since Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.

So was it worth it?  Of course!  Overall, I thought the movie version was great -- very much what I was hoping for.  I intend to see it again this weekend, and probably again after that, dragging as many friends as I can with me.

I will confess, though, that the journey to "This was great!" was not a smooth one.  In the first half hour, I found myself wincing and cringing quite a lot, wondering if maybe the critical naysayers had a point.  However, there was a point where the movie seemed to settle down, smooth out, and just flow better.  It was never perfect after that, but it was a lot better, and by the time the "barricade boys" arrived, it was sublime.

I've decided to format this review to mirror that experience.  I'll start with the bad and work my way to the awesome.  So bear with me.  Upfront, I will say that one of my fears -- that the movie would have a "been there, done that" quality after I watched so many clips -- was unfounded.  The viewing experience felt fresh, and the live singing worked extremely well for the most part.    


The Bad

About 80% of what I consider "bad" about the movie is linked to the editing, to Hooper's need to chop the movie down to under three hours of screen time.  Yet if 15-20 minutes had been permitted to remain, I think a lot of my criticisms would not exist.  I hope Universal decides to release an extended cut on DVD.

Too Much Dialogue.  The critics were right when they said that there was very little spoken dialogue.  The problem is that most of it is in the first 15 minutes.  When Javert tells Valjean to pick up the flag, when Valjean learns about the strings attached to his "freedom," when Valjean asks for work, and when the law enforcement officials return Valjean to the bishop's house.  From reading the screenplay, I knew that the singing parts would be sacrificed, but at least there seemed to be a purpose.  In the screenplay, there was an extended conversation between Valjean and the bishop that shed light on Valjean's history.  I didn't think it fit, but at least it made sense as dialogue.  But since that conversation was cut, the dialogue seems pointless.  It serves no purpose that the sung version did not, is a lot less elegant, and just makes it more jarring when the characters start to sing.

Characters Appear Without Context.  I don't mind Hooper's use of unedited close-ups when characters sing -- in fact, I frequently found it effective.  What I do mind is seeing everyone in close-up all the time with little sense of where they're standing or how they came to be in the scene.  I don't know if this is a quirk of Hooper's cinematography or the pressures of editing, but many scenes are missing establishing shots.  For instance, we cut from Marius and Eponine leaving the cafe for Cosette's house to a sudden close-up of Cosette sitting against her bedroom wall.  Would it have been so difficult to add an establishing shot of the house first, followed by a wide shot so that we know where Cosette is sitting?  Similarly, "The Attack on the Rue Plumet" does not have any build up.  One minute Eponine is standing there by herself; the next, we get a close-up of Monsieur Thenardier.  The close-ups in this context are jarring and took me out of scenes on multiple occasions.

The Marius-Cosette Romance Is Thinner Here Than Onstage.  While the movie did a nice job as a whole adding texture from the original novel, the one area that received no enhancement was the "meet and fall in love" phase of the Marius-Cosette romance.  In fact, it is even slighter here than in the stage version.  At least in the stage version, Marius and Cosette got to share the same space after Marius climbed over the wall.  Here, Marius and Cosette sing at each other through a gate and then Marius leaves.  It makes their "love at first sight" even more difficult to digest.

Significant Moments Are Not Given Time to Breathe.  After reading the screenplay, I was prepared for cuts to the songs.  Even though the songs have been cut down even further, for the most part, I was okay with it.  However, there are several places where a scene's significance is directly undercut because parts of the song have been removed.  For every "I Dreamed a Dream" that is allowed to luxuriate in its misery, there are two songs that end abruptly before we immediately cut to a new song.  For example, Fantine's death is a significant moment, and after the performance Anne Hathaway gives, her character deserves a good sendoff.  Yet the transition from "The Confrontation" to "Castle on a Cloud" is jarring: one moment, we see a shot of Fantine's dead body, and the next, we see Cosette sweeping.  That is because the last lines of "The Confrontation" -- "And this I swear to you tonight..." -- have been cut.  A real shame.    

The Silliness Factor.  
I mentioned a "silliness factor" in my The Phantom of the Opera critique, and regrettably, this movie is not immune.  Again, most of that is due to editing.  For instance, it was wise of Hooper and Nicholson to add a scene where Valjean and Javert meet in Montreuil-sur-Mer, and putting "The Runaway Cart" scene right after it makes sense.  However, the way it is edited makes the scenes too abrupt and goofy -- just seconds after they meet, Valjean is lifting the cart just like he lifted the flagpole earlier in the film (and even to the same music!).  Another "silliness factor" moment comes right after Valjean's pivotal scene where he tears up his ticket of leave.  One shred of paper floats around and floats around for an unnaturally long time in order to transition to the next scene, but it looks so fake and CGI and silly, like something you would see in a cartoon.  On the other hand, some would say that the "crack" when Javert dies is silly, but I think it makes it clear that Javert was going for instant death.  It solves a problem from previous productions: how does he just... stay down there?

Crowe Isn't Great, But He Isn't Butler Bad.  So Russell Crowe can sing.  It just turns out that he sings in a different style from most of the other actors -- more rock and roll than musical theatre.  Sometimes that difference is quite noticeable, such as in Javert's signature songs, while other times he blends in perfectly well with the rest of the cast.  Crowe is probably the most ill-served by the added dialogue: one moment, you're hearing his deliciously menacing speaking voice, and the next, you hear his higher-pitched singing voice.  Yet while he sticks out -- and usually not in a good way -- I still give him the edge over Gerard Butler in The Phantom of the Opera.  Butler was miscast in every conceivable way.  He couldn't sing, didn't look sexy, and he didn't add anything to the atmosphere.  Every time he came onscreen, I wanted to laugh.  Crowe, on the other hand, does embody the Javert role fairly well, certainly better than I expected.  He is a rigid, earnest "boy scout" who, when he thinks he has done wrong, demands to be fired.  In one scene, where the students learn he is a spy and try to take him prisoner, he illustrates rather effectively that he is not someone easily messed with.

Still, the limitations of his singing invite us to wonder who would have been better in the role.  Now there will be endless "Would Paul Bettany have been better?" debates, or Insert Your Chosen Favorite (Anthony Warlow?).  It doesn't help that the movie frequently covers over Javert's belting.  At one point, the thundering from the next song, "Look Down," is layered over Javert's final belt in "Stars."  Another time, the sounds of water rushing partially covers Javert's belt in his final soliloquy.  I see what you're trying to do, movie, and it doesn't work.          


The Good

Despite the weaknesses mentioned above, there are more aspects of the movie that are good, or downright awesome.  For starters:

It Honors the Stage Performers.  Notable West End performers pop up throughout the movie.  I'll start with Colm Wilkinson.  It was wonderful to see him as the bishop, and I think he did a really good job.  I wish the role had been tailored to showcase his gorgeous tenor voice a bit more, but as expected, he provides the warmth and gravitas that the bishop requires.  I also loved that we got to see and hear him at the end.

Frances Ruffelle is there as well, as one of the whores in Lovely Ladies.  It was often difficult to distinguish her -- or any of the other performers -- because the song moves so fast and the whores are so dolled up.  However, I could definitely hear her.  More West End performers show up at the very end, in "Turning," including Katie Hall, who performed the Cosette role at the 25th Anniversary Concert.  Unfortunately, "Turning" is one of the numbers so condensed that you only see Hall for a split second before we cut to Eddie Redmayne.

Then, of course, there are the "barricade boys," many of whom performed lead roles on the West End.  I'll save more discussion of them for later, but I will mention Hadley Fraser in the role of a soldier.  He has a huge moustache and is barely recognizable except for his pretty, pretty eyes and, of course, his voice.       

Some Creative Numbers.  
Les Miz is not a musical with a lot of choreography, but there are some musical numbers that call for a little extra effort.  One of them is "Lovely Ladies," and happily, Hooper more than rises to the occasion.  The sequence is very stylish, with the whores painted to look almost like creepy clowns, Dutch angles galore, and the camera spinning around Fantine as her teeth are yanked out.  I've never been fond of "Lovely Ladies," but Hooper made me look at it in a whole new light.  "Master of the House" isn't quite as inspired, but it does have its moments ("Oh, Santa!").

The Interlude After "Waltz of Treachery" Was Much Needed.  With "Suddenly" and the chase scene, Hooper managed to fix my biggest problem with the stage version -- that the transition from Valjean rescuing little Cosette to 1832 Paris is way too abrupt.  Hooper allows Valjean and Cosette more time together so that we can see their bond grow.  Little Cosette (a terrific Isabelle Allen) gets more to do than just look at Valjean with gratitude, and in the process, becomes more than just a means to an end.  Also, it is around this point, or maybe slightly earlier with "Master of the House," that the movie seems to settle down and the editing is less jerky.

All of the Novel Additions Work Well, Actually.  Just as Hooper took "Suddenly" from a section of the novel where Valjean describes his growing love for Cosette, he and Nicholson added other material from the novel to very good effect.  They even managed to work out several narrative kinks in the musical's storyline.  For instance, in the "Runaway Cart" scene, instead of Javert randomly mentioning: "You remind me of a convict I once knew.  By coincidence, he's getting sentenced today.  Buh-bye!", the movie has Javert report his suspicions to his superiors, where he then learns that "Valjean" has been apprehended and will be sentenced.  Just like in the novel.  By making the change, Hooper and Nicholson bring the musical closer to the novel and improve upon it.

Another terrific addition is Marius's background.  I never understood why the English-language version refrained from mentioning his grandfather, Monsieur Gillenormand, and thankfully the movie has fixed that.  True, his insertion is a little awkward -- wading through a crowd to yell at Marius for dishonoring the family -- but at least he's there.  And while Eponine fans might lament the changes to her role, I think the way she is shot in the movie is much more powerful.  More on that later.                   

The Thenardiers Actually Fit.  If you couldn't tell from my earlier critiques, I'm not overly invested in the Thenardiers.  I think that both characters and "Master of the House" are overrated.  Even so, when I saw the first photo of Helena Bonham Carter and Sasha Baron Cohen, I was a little concerned the Thenardiers in the movie would stick out like sore thumbs amongst all of the grim realism.  Never fear, for "Lovely Ladies" showed me that the movie would sometimes veer into the surreal.  Therefore, by the time we get to the Thenardiers' inn, they do not seem so out-of-place.  Bonham Carter and Baron Cohen work off of each other very well.  While theirs is not the best version of "Master of the House," it is still pretty funny.  In fact, I wanted to see more of them.  One thing that drew me to Baron Cohen was that it seemed like he could bring out the sinister aspect of Thenardier more than Geoffrey Rush.  That might be true, but every scene where Thenardier is most brutal and sinister -- "The Attack on the Rue Plumet," "Dog Eat Dog" -- has been cut to pieces, so it is hard to tell.              

It Did Not Use the 1848 Ending.  As intrigued as I was by the ending as written in the screenplay, I'm glad the movie stuck with an ending closer to the stage version.  In the screenplay, we were supposed to fast forward and see people on the barricade, including older Marius and Cosette, after the fall of the French monarchy in 1848, to show that the students' fight for a republic was not in vain.  Great idea!  A lot of pivotal events happened in 1848 across Europe.  The problem was that just three years later, Louis-Napoleon declared himself Emperor Napoleon III of France.  His reign would last until 1870, when the French were defeated in the Franco-Prussian War.  Victor Hugo himself was so outraged by Napoleon III's coup d'etat that he went into exile for his entire reign.  Had the movie stuck with the 1848 ending, this would not have gone unnoticed.

Most of the Acting Is Really Good.  Crowe's performance is debatable, but everyone else brings more positives to the table than negatives.  For example, even though Amanda Seyfried has one of the weaker voices, her Cosette is an immensely appealing character.  She radiates light from every pore, yet still manages to have a personality.  Given that the stage show Cosette had next to no development, that is no small feat.  Plus, she can hit that high C.  Damn!    

Hugh Jackman's performance is extremely good, verging on awesome.  I refrained from grouping him with the most "awesome" aspects of the movie because I have a couple of problems with his performance.  The first is completely subjective: I don't like the sound of his voice.  I first realized this when I listened to clips of him singing in Oklahoma, so I came into the movie knowing that, as well as he could sing, I would not like what I heard.  There were many times I was impressed with his belting, and even found his talk-singing to be effective, but still found his voice harsh and unpleasant.  The second problem may have more to do with the editing demon: his performance is not given room to breath.  He's concerned about Javert; a split second later, he's concerned about Fantine; a split second later, he's just finished "Who Am I?".  This problem is not limited to the movie -- I also feel as though the stage version, as it exists now, moves way too fast.  Also, I think that the editing removed some of the darker aspects of Valjean's character.  There was a haunting still released sometime back showing Valjean/Madeleine crouched by a wall, in the shadows.  From the screenplay, I gather that was cut from "The Confrontation."  There was another moment in the screenplay where Valjean, for one moment, seemed to relish the idea of Marius dying: "And she will need me all the more/And we will go on as before/When he is gone."  Regrettably, those lines were cut.

What remains is an extremely earnest, moving performance.  My favorite part is the "What Have I Done?" sequence, where we see his full range of emotions, from weeping to raging.  While his singing voice could grate on my ears, there was never a time I did not believe him as Valjean, the emotional and moral backbone of the movie.        


The Awesome

While there was already a lot to like in the movie before we reached 1832, that was the point where, to me, the movie really took off.  Granted, the students have always been my favorite part of the musical, and I have a "Hell, yeah!" moment whenever "Look Down" starts playing.  But somehow, the student scenes just breath life into the movie that I didn't even realize was missing.  Part of it is because, as good as Jackman and Hathaway are, we finally get to hear some really good singing.  But there are other reasons as well, which I will get to in a moment.  First:

Yes, Anne Hathaway's Performance Is Worth It.  Hathaway's "I Dreamed a Dream" played in trailer clips for so long that I thought I would be completely numb to her performance by the time I saw it.  Instead, I could definitely feel the despair and rage emanating from within as she sang.  She is good in all of her other scenes, as well, particularly as a doe-eyed innocent at the factory.  However -- I'm sorry, I have to say this again -- I was so bothered by the jerky editing, I could not fully appreciate her performance.  When I see the movie again, I will try to take it all in.

Any Scene With the "Barricade Boys" Is Pure Gold.  That includes Daniel Huttlestone, who plays Gavroche.  So there are a few things that make scenes with the student revolutionaries truly great.  One is their singing; another is their general vibrancy; and the third -- and perhaps most important -- is that Hooper expands upon and opens up their scenes.  So instead of the rush-rush-cut-cut of the first half, we get barricade scenes that are actually bigger and more impressive than they are onstage.  That is not to say no songs are cut -- I still mourn the death of Grantaire's solo in "Drink With Me" -- just that the scenes as a whole are given room to breathe.

First, let's look at the students' singing, or rather, their entire performance.  The most notable of the secondary cast is Aaron Tveit as Enjolras.  He exceeded my highest expectations, both in voice and in acting.  I was already a fan of Tveit after hearing Next to Normal, but he has never sounded as good as he does in the Les Miz movie.  He is no Maguire or Warlow, but his voice still hits the Enjolras money notes.  Of course, some of those notes are now group-sung ("Before the barricades ariiiiiiiiiiiise!"; "They will come when we caaaaaaaaaaaaaaall!"), but I have no doubt Tveit would nail those, too, if he were singing solo.  Tveit embodies all of the qualities of Enjolras: attractive, intense, passionate about revolution, brave.  Oh that look on his face just before he gets killed!  Some dislike him because they think Enjolras should overshadow Marius, which Tveit fails to do.  However, that's nonsense -- Marius is much more of a main character than Enjolras.  That's how it's always been.  He isn't supposed to be overshadowed.  I'm sure during the original London production, David Burt did not even remotely overshadow Michael Ball.  The imbalance began with the Broadway production, when Michael Maguire literally towered over David Bryant.  After that, all of the productions seemed to think it necessary to cast a "hero" as Enjolras and a lovelorn lightweight as Marius.  Tveit doesn't need to overshadow the terrific Eddie Redmayne -- he stands well enough on his own.

The rest of the students do not have very well-defined roles, but they excel at what little we do see.  They all sound terrific, primarily because they come from the West End -- including Fra Fee as Courfeyrac, Killian Donnelly as Combeferre, and Alistair Brammer as Prouvaire.  Both Donnelly and Brammer were part of the 25th Anniversary Concert.  George Blagden, who plays Grantaire, is not from the West End, but he still has an excellent voice and charm to spare.  Besides providing excellent singing, the other students provide energy... and hope.  Yes, actual hope.  A refreshing change from so much darkness and cynicism.

The one who most embodies this hope is Gavroche, who manages to be both tough and adorable.  He carries the torch for a new world like no one else, other than Enjolras.  During one scene, he manages to rally the students' spirits at a time when literally all hope is lost.  That makes his death even more heartbreaking than in the stage version.

But until that point, the students are just bursting with enthusiasm that is well showcased in the expanded scenes.  One fantastic sequence involves them building the barricade.  Chairs rain down from above, and Grantaire even sweet-talks one woman out of hers.  The barricade is just tossed together the way children might build a fort, which I suspect is partly the point.  Another great sequence involves the students taking over General Lamarque's funeral.  They are so daring and brash, so young and stupid, the way they take over Lamarque's hearse, the way they scream: "To the barricades!"  As if they could never be killed, as if their energy alone could somehow will a new world into existence.  They may be rich young boys playing a game, but they play hard.  Like Gavroche, the youth and exuberance they display just makes it more heartbreaking when they die.  Even before they die, the heartbreaking moment comes when they attempt to flee the advancing soldiers and the people around them bar their doors to prevent them from coming in.  When the students die, you feel as though something is irretrievably lost, which makes Redmayne's "Empty Chairs At Empty Tables" that much more resonant.

Oh Eddie Redmayne...  What can I say?  Redmayne was everything I hoped he would be, and his "Empty Chairs At Empty Tables" affected me in the way I thought Hathaway's "I Dreamed a Dream" would.  His voice is rich and a joy to listen to (I didn't hear "Kermit the Frog" the way some others did), though it tends to overpower Seyfried's voice in their duets.  With his boyish face, he is believable as a naive, lovelorn student, yet the movie also allows him to be tougher than the stage Mariuses.  We see that he has chosen to defy his grandfather and live as a poor student.  During one intense scene, he repels soldiers by threatening to blow up the barricade.  He is Boyfriend Marius and Revolutionary Marius.  If everyone else in the movie were awful, it would be worth it just to see him.   

Samantha Barks Does a Beautiful Job.  Fortunately, everyone else isn't awful, including Barks.  Moviegoers might have had reason to dread her performance, since she was among the very few without previous movie experience.  We knew that she could sing the Eponine role, but could she adjust her style for the camera instead of the stage?  Yes she could -- and does.  Barks has a wonderfully expressive face that reveals every emotion, from joy to pain to despair.  Her Eponine has a sweetness that resonates in spite of whatever squalid life she is forced to endure.  And Barks deserves accolades for singing both of her major songs while it was raining (or in the case of "On My Own," pouring).  Fans of the musical may have problems with Eponine's role being reduced to correspond with her role in the novel, but at least the movie gives her a more dramatic death.  Instead of being shot while coming back from delivering a letter, Eponine puts herself in front of a soldier's gun to save Marius.  You see what she's doing, and suddenly you pull a Grantaire: "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!"  It says something about Bark's performance that despite her character's reduced screen time, she still stands out.            

The Live Singing Really Works.  The vocals aren't perfect.  Not everyone sounds good.  Yet the live singing is a resounding success.  It brings tension and emotion to scenes that I don't think even the best dubbed singing performances could provide.  At the same time, everyone's vocals are so clear, dubbed vocals could not have sounded better.  As for the constant close-ups of the actors singing, I didn't really mind them.  My biggest complaint is that Hooper sometimes leaves the camera on their faces too long -- did I really need to see Fantine's every eye roll as she died?  But otherwise, the close-ups provide more positives than negatives.  I should also praise the choice to score the movie in accordance with the vocals rather than the other way around.  The orchestrations flowed very nicely, and there was never that awkward moment where the performer and the orchestra are slightly out of sync, like you sometimes get with live performances.
       

A Final Observation

One interesting thing about this movie is how in many ways, it seems closer to the original French concept album and the Original London Cast recording than to the more current production.  As with the concept album, "I Dreamed a Dream" follows "Lovely Ladies," while Eponine's song of unrequited love comes before "One Day More."  As with the Original London Cast recording, "Stars" precedes "Look Down," which has the same slow, thundering beginning, rather than the BAM! beginning of the Original Broadway Cast and future cast recordings.  I almost expected Javert's death to be followed by the same eery chords as in the concept album.  Why it is like this, I don't know.  Coincidence?  Tacit acknowledgement that the earlier cast recordings followed the novel more closely?  A way of honoring the musical's original source material?  


Conclusion

Although you would not guess it from my retrospective, the last two times I watched Les Miserables onstage -- 1998 and 2011 -- I was not moved.  While I thought "Wow, what a great performer" or "Look at how he hit that high note!", the musical as a whole felt too rushed.  I had to content myself with the 10th and 25th Anniversary Concerts if I wanted to hear singing that gave me chills.

Yet the movie moved me.  I don't tear up often, but I teared up a couple of times when I watched it.  Yes there are weaknesses in the filmmaking and weaknesses in the cast, but there are weaknesses in every cast.  For every Michael Ball, there's a David Burt; for every Philip Quast, there's a Gary Morris; for every Michael Maguire, there's a David Bryant; for every Ramin Karimloo, there's a Nick Jonas.  Every performance and every recording that I've ever heard has at least one weak link.  That was no reason to dismiss the musical then, and it's not a reason now.  The movie version of Les Miserables moved me, and therefore did its job. 


Next Time: The five worst cuts and the five best additions.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Movie Musicals That Got It Right (Mostly): Dreamgirls

Many were probably expecting that my next critique would be of RENT, the movie musical bomb of 2004.  I do intend to critique RENT, but have been slowed by the fact that I've never seen the movie, nor have much desire to see it.  Despite seeing the stage production in London with the original Mark and Roger, I have never been a fan.  Besides, why have negativity so close to the holidays?  I decided therefore to look at a movie musical that works pretty well: Dreamgirls.

I should state upfront that I have never seen the stage production, apart from the Tony Awards clip with Jennifer Holliday's legendary performance.  If I had, maybe I would view the movie as a terrible adaptation.  Since I haven't, I can say that the movie is entertaining and reasonably poignant, and a decent look at the history of Motown.

From what little I know of the stage production, it appears that the movie made the Motown connection much more overt, as well as the fact that the musical is about The Supremes.

Basic story of The Supremes: in Detroit in the late 1950s, Florence Ballard founded an all-girls singing group called The Primettes.  She recruited her best friend, Mary Wilson, to join, and Wilson recruited Diane Ross.  In 1961, they finally convinced Berry Gordy, record producer and founder of the Motown label, to sign them, but on the condition that they change their name.  Ballard chose The Supremes, and the all-female trio began releasing a string of songs, finally breaking through with "Where Did Our Love Go?" in 1964.  However, one year before that, Gordy chose Diane -- now Diana -- Ross to be the official lead singer, as her lighter voice made it more likely The Supremes could be a hit on the pop charts.  Gordy's prediction turned out to be accurate, as The Supremes went on to become international stars and the most successful all-female group.  Yet the change never sat well with Ballard, whose style was more "soulful" (read "black"), and in 1967, Gordy removed her from The Supremes.  She would be replaced by Cindy Birdsong.  Diana Ross continued to front the group until 1970 before finally going solo.

Change a few names, and you more of less have the film version of Dreamgirls (2006).  In the early 1960s, Effie White (Jennifer Hudson) is the lead singer of The Dreamettes, with her friends Lorrell Robinson (Anika Noni Ross) and Deena Jones (Beyonce Knowles) providing back-up vocals.  After failing to win a major competition, The Dreamettes get a break when Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx), a used car salesman and aspiring music mogul, offers to be their manager and gets them a gig backing up rhythm and blues star James "Jimmy" Thunder Early (Eddie Murphy).  In 1964, after determining that a group with just the girls might appeal best to white audiences, Curtis appoints the whiter, thinner, and lighter-sounding Deena to be the lead singer of The Dreams.  The Dreams become a worldwide sensation, recording hit after hit.  Although furious with the change, Effie would do back-up singer duty for the next few years, until her resentful behavior gets her replaced in 1967.  The group would continue on without her for the next several years.

Like Diana Ross with Berry Gordy, Deena would have a romantic relationship with Curtis, now the founder of the Motown-like Rainbow Records.  In the latter case, Deena and Curtis would eventually marry.  Like Florence Ballard, Effie would spend years in the wilderness trying to get back on her feet.  Effie also has to deal with the double-blow of being betrayed not only by her brother, C.C. (Keith Robinson), the group's songwriter, but also by Curtis, her former lover.  Unlike Ballard, whose comeback was cut tragically short, Effie's story would have a more triumphant conclusion.

What I've described is a heaping amount, and it doesn't even cover everything.  Certainly not Jimmy Early's tragic fall, as he learns that success comes at the price of losing his soul.  Dreamgirls has ample material for a hit, and for the most part uses that material well.  So what else about the musical makes it work where others have failed?


The Good

1.  Appealing Characters.  Dreamgirls is filled with characters whom you can cheer for or hate, but who rarely leave you indifferent.  Effie is brash and rude, but also heart breaking as she slowly realizes that she is being pushed aside.  Jimmy Early is cocky bordering on obnoxious, but is also a somewhat pathetic person who, ironically, grows more pathetic the more successful he becomes.  Curtis is snaky and ruthless, but his goal to make black artists commercially successful has our sympathy, at least early on.  Even blander characters like Deena have more going on than meets the eye.  At one point Deena attempts to control her own destiny by meeting secretly with film producers to make a movie that clashes with her "girl next door" image.

2.  Good Acting.  It helps that much of the acting is great.  Jennifer Hudson tends to get the most raves in her debut movie role, and for the most part, she earns them.  She is good at projecting Effie's brash confidence, yet can turn on a dime and show vulnerability.  This is especially well illustrated in the scene "Family," where Effie goes from anticipating being The Dreams' lead singer to realizing, with a thud, that Deena is taking her place.  Hudson has some weak moments here and there -- some line readings seem a little passive -- but overall, her Effie serves as the heart and soul of the movie.  Meanwhile, Eddie Murphy is a borderline caricature until the second half, when he begins to break down.  Yet even as a caricature, he has great intensity and commands the screen.  Both his and Hudson's performances are the highlight of the movie, but the rest of the cast is not bad, either.

Jamie Foxx's Curtis is cagey and hooded, as if he never met an honest emotion in his life.  Beyonce is surprisingly good as Deena.  She might not be the best actress in the group, but she can do far more than Madonna's one pinched-face expression.  Beyonce gives Deena an all-American Marilyn Monroe quality that makes it believable she would develop mass appeal.  Anika Noni Ross also deserves praise for not only giving some sharp edges to third-wheel Lorrell, but also for being (in my opinion) the best singer of the three Dreams.  Ross wasn't the voice of Tiana in The Princess and the Frog for nothing.

3.  Good Production Values.  The editing is crisp.  The sets are expansive, and both sets and costumes do an excellent job taking the viewer on journey from the early 1960s to the early 1970s.  The lighting and camera work are frequently great.  Overall, the production values are so good that even the lip-syncing isn't noticeable (see "It's All Over" at the bottom).  That is not a small thing, as you may recall, the very obvious lip-syncing in Evita made that movie quite painful to watch at times.

Billy Condon, the director, favors the frequent use of montages during songs.  His quick-cutting style is usually successful and frequently creative, except when it's not (see below).  One creative example is in "Steppin' to the Bad Side," where scenes of male performers in a backstage room are intercut with scenes of the song's increasing radio play.  It is not clear why the male performers are there until the very end, when we see them performing part of "Steppin' to the Bad Side" onstage before a large audience, highlighting Jimmy's remarkable ascent.

4.  Good Trajectory.  I am probably in the distinct minority of viewers who prefers the second half of Dreamgirls to its first half.  I think the first half takes a little too long to get going, and I like seeing the payoff in the second half.  Dreamgirls does Greek Tragedy very well: don't fly to close to the sun, or your wings will melt.  Condon does not shy from letting you see the characters' wings melt, especially Jimmy's.      


The Less Good

Since this is a pretty successful movie, there isn't much about it that is bad.  However, certain aspects of the movie are clunky and require a suspension of disbelief.

1.  Do They All Have 20-Year Contracts?  For much of the drama in the second half to work, you have to believe that Curtis somehow has absolute control over not just Deena, but also the other Dreams, C.C, and Jimmy.  With Deena, it makes sense because they are married, but really, the others never thought of letting their contracts expire and signing with another label?  Jimmy has been bored and frustrated for years, but he never looked for an out in his contract?  Lorrell has never thought of going solo with a different label?  Curtis is the only music mogul in existence?

2.  The Quick Cutting Does Not Always Convey What Billy Condon Wants It to Convey.  As mentioned above, Condon relies upon quick cutting back and forth to convey a lot of information.  Sometimes it works, and sometimes it really doesn't.  One example of the latter is the scene where Curtis gets the idea of turning the girls into their own group.  He is watching Jimmy's performance at a white-only club slowly devolve into a train wreck.  But lo and behold, Curtis sees one or two club members smiling in Deena's direction, so that gives him the idea to break the girls off into their own group?  That seems like an awfully risky move based on vague evidence that the girls would be better received.  It would have been better if the white club owner sitting with Curtis made a remark like: "Now those girls, they have appeal.  I would pay to see them."

Another example occurs at the very end, when Curtis sees Magic sitting with Effie's family at the Dreams' final performance and rushes down from his mezzanine seat to get a closer look.  This is probably more of a staging problem than anything else.  First, how could Curtis even see her from up there?  Second, what about her appearance at the performance would get him so alarmed so quickly?  "There's a strange little girl sitting with Effie's family.  Hmm, I was Effie's lover about 10 years ago, and from 200 feet away, this child looks roughly between the ages of eight and 12.  'Zounds!  It all adds up!  This child must be my never-before-mentioned daughter!  Must go take a closer look!"  Why couldn't he have just as easily concluded that she was a niece or a neighbor?  It would have been funny if the girl had responded: "If I knew a strange man would be staring at me the whole time, I never would have asked to come with the Whites to see Miss Effie perform!"      

3.  Heavy On the Moralizing.  This movie has a moral -- don't let business get in the way of true creativity -- which it pounds into the ground.  The most disconcerting example involves Jimmy.  Early on, Jimmy seeks to cross-over from the R&B charts to the pop charts with Curtis's help.  When Curtis tries to sell Jimmy's manager, Marty (Danny Glover), on the appeal of "Cadillac Car," Marty responds stubbornly: "Well Jimmy's fans like taking the bus."  When Jimmy finally decides to make Curtis his manager, Marty responds: "I love you, Jimmy, but you can't have it all."  And indeed, the movie shows that Jimmy can't have it all, as he is forced to give up his electric tunes in favor of staid, bland ballads.  (Again, this really only works if Jimmy has absolutely no ability to sign with another label.)  So what lesson can we draw from this?  Don't try to increase your appeal and commercial viability, Jimmy, because as a black man, you will never, ever be able to enjoy your success.  Know your place, which is on the bus, not in a Cadillac car (or a Mercedes Benz, going by a later number).

Yet if we embrace this message with respect to all of the characters, that means we should frown upon Curtis's efforts to make black performers commercially successful.  But in fact, there is a lot to admire about Curtis's vision, about his desire to prevent black performers' work from being co-opted by white performers.  You could argue that he takes it too far, but it was not wrong of him to try.  Same with Jimmy -- it was not wrong of him to aim for greater success, even if it took him places he never desired.        

4.  The Songs... Hmm.  You'll note that even though this is a musical, until this point, I have not really gone into the songs.  The songs are basically good, including the signature song "And I Am Telling You."  They tell the story and get the job done.  Yet apart from "And I Am Telling You," "Dreamgirls," and a couple of others, I can't say they're very memorable.  For the film version, it appears that Condon removed some songs from the stage version and added some songs ("Love You I Do," "Patience," "Listen") in an effort to bolster the Effie-Curtis connection and give Deena's character more heft.  It was a wise decision to add those songs for those reasons, but one that did not fully work.  While "Love You I Do" establishes Effie's love for Curtis, I never believed that it was anything but one-sided.  Maybe that was the point, but that just makes "And I Am Telling You" harder to understand.  It is basically a lengthy number directed at Curtis, trying to make him remember how good it once was between them.  The lyrics imply a much deeper connection than we have, up to this point, seen between them.

We're part of the same place
We're part of the same time
We both have the same blood
We both share the same mind.

And time and time
We have so much to share
No, no, no, no, no, no
I'm not waking up tomorrow morning
And finding that there's nobody there.

What is the point of Effie singing this song to Curtis if she has nothing apart from her own delusions?  The musical already has a song that establishes how deluded and on-the-outs Effie is with everyone -- "It's All Over."  So I think we're supposed to believe that there was something between Curtis and Effie -- we just didn't see it.

Because we never see the connection, "And I Am Telling You" feels like the most out-of-place song in the movie.  Yes, I know that's heretical to say.  I still enjoy it for all of the reasons it should be enjoyed, and Jennifer Hudson does the song proud.  But besides the fact that it suggests a connection that we haven't seen, the song's style also seems out-of-place for that era -- which it is.

But at least "And I Am Telling You" is fairly unique, unlike too many other numbers.  After a while, the songs start to have a sameness about them.  "Listen" sounds a lot like "Patience"; "Love You I Do" sounds a little like "Move"; even "I Am Changing" sounds somewhat like "And I Am Telling You."  And maybe I don't have the best musical ear, but I don't see why pop-chart-friendly "Cadillac Car"'s hook is so much more memorable than the hook for R&B "Fake Your Way to the Top."  I find myself remembering "Fake Your Way to the Top" much better: "You can fake your way to the top, round and around!"

That said, I love both versions of "One Night Only."  I realize I'm supposed to be contemptuous of the soulless disco version performed by The Dreams; that would be a lot easier if it weren't so darn fun to watch.  Everyone seems to be getting into it.


Conclusion        

So while Dreamgirls is not a perfect movie musical, it does a lot right.  It has an interesting story, a lot of interesting characters, some really good singing, and strong production values.  If it's a little too strained in some places and a little to sleek in others, it is still quite successful on the whole.  That makes it one of my favorite recent movie musicals.

              



Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Movie Musicals That Got It Wrong: The Phantom of the Opera

There are actually quite a few things I like about this adaptation.  Even though Evita was the more successful of the two Andrew Lloyd Webber movie musicals, I find myself coming back to The Phantom of the Opera more often.

Not because I'm a huge fan of Phantom.  While I nearly wore out the CD when I was 15, I came to dislike the hackneyed lyrics, bombastic score, and incoherent ensemble numbers.  In total, there are maybe three songs I really like from the musical: "Masquerade," "The Point of No Return," and, of course, "The Phantom of the Opera."  "Music of the Night"?  Pretty, but bored me on subsequent listens.  The same with "All I Ask of You," a very similar song.

And it's not because the film version of Phantom is so ambitious or well executed.  Evita was the much more ambitious film, and in many ways it succeeded in its goals of being a grand epic.  Phantom, on the other hand, seemed to have no goals larger than transposing the musical onto the screen.  Any tinkering with the story or songs was very modest.  And while Evita was promoted for months as a potential Oscar contender, Phantom all but sneaked into the theatre.  At least that's how it felt to me at the time.  When I went to see the movie back in 2004, I could not recall any major promotion.

If I like the movie version of Phantom better than Evita, or at least find it easier to sit through, it is because of the characters.  With Evita, if you don't connect with Eva Peron, you're sunk. Who else is there to identify with?  Che the shape shifter or Peron the adoring spouse?  You're following Eva on her journey and if you don't like it, too bad.  Phantom imposes a similar requirement -- fear and pity the Phantom! -- but if you don't, you can at least care about Christine and Raoul.  And fortunately, whatever their shortcomings, I do.

I hardly need to provide background for Andrew Lloyd Webber's most famous musical, but just in case: The Phantom of the Opera first appeared in 1909 as a novel written by a French author Gaston Leroux.  Since then, it was adapted to the screen countless times, until in the mid-1980s, Andrew Lloyd Webber decided to adapt the story for a musical.  That musical premiered at Her Majesty's Theatre in London in 1986, starring Michael Crawford as the Phantom and Sarah Brightman as Christine.  It went on to be a huge smash, and starred many notables in the Phantom role, including Colm Wilkinson in the Toronto production.  (Bit of trivia: Wilkinson was the first to sing the Phantom role at the Sydmonton preview in 1985.)

The story starts with an orphaned chorus girl (Christine) at a celebrated Paris opera house being visited by a mysterious "teacher."  This teacher trains her how to use her voice to maximum effect, and soon she is blowing the competition away.  However, the teacher -- in reality, a deformed genius who hides beneath the opera house -- has fallen in love with her and is extremely possessive.  When Christine reunites with her childhood friend, Raoul, Vicomte de Chagny, all hell breaks loose.  Eventually Christine persuades the Phantom to let her and Raoul be together.  By the time the harried denizens of the opera house track the Phantom down to his lair, he has disappeared.

At least that is the story as told in the musical.  The novel is a bit more action oriented, with a lot more time spent explaining the various booby traps the Phantom set up in order to prevent people from finding him.  There is also a character known as the Persian, an old acquaintance of the Phantom's.  In the musical, his role is largely taken over by Madame Giry.  

So now that the introduction is over, let's start with what I liked about the Phantom movie.

The Good

First, I like many of the characters on a basic level, which is no small thing.  That doesn't necessarily mean that all of the actors performing the roles succeed, but there are some good performances as well.

On a basic level, I like Emmy Rossum as Christine.  Many might question whether she has the vocal chops to pull off the role of "ingenue that took the opera world by storm," and some might criticize her acting as bland, but I think she projects a basic sweetness and vulnerability.  It is easy to forget, as we watch the Sarah Brightmans and Rebecca Caines and Sierra Boggess(es?) belt to the rafters, that Christine is supposed to be a young girl.  I think her singing is decent enough, though apart from the final minutes of "The Phantom of the Opera," she doesn't get much opportunity to showcase it.  I always found "Think of Me" to be pretty bland as far as numbers go, and it is not staged with imagination in the movie.

I also like Patrick Wilson as Raoul.  In many productions I've seen, Raoul comes across as an arrogant fop until the point where he must track down the Phantom.  Yet except for the long-haired wig he is forced to wear, there is nothing silly or foppish about Wilson's Raoul.  He seems strong and perceptive, and he can sing well.  He is maybe a little bit bland, but he also has two important qualities: he can hold his own in scenes with the Phantom, and he acts like he actually cares about Christine.  The second may seem like a given, but is not always so.  In the 25th Anniversary Concert, Hadley Fraser's Raoul is so consumed by his desire to "get" the Phantom that half of the time, he doesn't even seem to like Christine.  

Miranda Richardson gives a good, understated performance as Madame Giry.  In the stage version, the character is pretty flat, but Richardson does a good job softening her harsh edges and making her more three-dimensional without losing her basic severity.  She even makes speaking in a French accent seem like an aspect of her personality, as opposed to a bizarre quirk in a musical where ninety percent of the characters are French, yet speak with British accents.  Richardson's Giry gives the movie more dignity than it deserves.

Likewise, Jennifer Ellison is sweet and irrepressible as Meg Giry.  Minnie Driver makes for an amusing Carlotta, though it bugs me that they turned Carlotta into such a laughingstock that even her singing is atrocious.  Carlotta should sound like someone that audiences have been coming to see.  If she were horrible, she would have been replaced a lot sooner, and there would have been no tension over Christine getting chosen.

Besides many of the characters and performances, I like some of the changes made to the musical, tentative though they are.  The opening scene is great, and builds up anticipation for what is to come.  I like that they extended the "Overture" to give us more scenes of life behind the stage of an opera house.

I also like that the scene order was changed around a little, which provides more clarity and better narrative flow.  In the musical, there are two major instances where the characters stand around and sing over each other -- "Notes/Prima Donna" and following the Phantom's appearance in "Masquerade."  While "Notes/Prima Donna" was (unfortunately) left untouched, the part after "Masquerade" was, thankfully, mostly cut.  In its place is a lengthier origin story for the Phantom.

I like that the movie version makes a passing attempt at showing that it was not a hop, skip, and a jump down to the Phantom's lair.  The way was marked with traps that one had to be clever to avoid.  One scene shows Raoul frantically trying to escape a watery trap while a ceiling of spikes comes down on him.

I even think that moving the chandelier scene near the end works well -- it always seemed awkward and anticlimactic right before the intermission.  In the stage show, the chandelier is supposed to be so menacing when it comes down, but once it does, it just sort of sits there before sheepishly sliding back up to the ceiling.

Really, the movie works very well, up to a point.  It has its light, amusing parts; gives you an extended backstage view of the opera world; and it builds tension nicely.  The movie works right up until the point where the candles in Christine's dressing room blow out... and we meet the title character.

The Bad


In the novel, the Phantom (Erik), did not have a nose.  Joseph Buquet, the opera house's scene shifter, describes it with little exaggeration: "His nose is so little worth talking about that you can't see it side-face; and THE ABSENCE of that nose is a horrible thing TO LOOK AT."  Christine describes his face as follows: "Raoul, you have seen death's heads, when they have been dried and withered by the centuries, and, perhaps, if you were not the victim of a nightmare, you saw HIS death's head at Perros.  And then you saw Red Death stalking about at the last masked ball.  But all those death's heads were motionless and their dumb horror not alive.  But imagine, if you can, Red Death's mask suddenly coming to life in order to express, with the four black holes of its eyes, its nose, and its mouth, the extreme anger, the mighty fury of a demon; AND NOT A RAY OF LIGHT FROM THE SOCKETS, for as I learned later, you cannot see his blazing eyes except in the dark."

Buquet describes Erik's body as: "He is extraordinarily thin and his dress-coat hangs on a skeleton frame," and "[h]is skin, which is stretched across his bones like a drumhead, is not white, but a nasty yellow."  Erik's mother was horrified by his appearance at birth.  He spent part of his life traveling in a freak show as "the living dead."  He was horrible and ugly.  One look at him could shrivel your soul.

So Andrew Lloyd Webber said: "I know!  Let's get Gerard Butler to play him."

Actually, first he thought of Antonio Banderas, which is equally disturbing.  Then again, it doesn't bother me so much that they wanted to restyle the Phantom as more of a Heathcliff than a ghoul.  It would have been an interesting interpretation to have a Phantom who thought he was hideous, but whom the rest of the world thought was okay.  The problem is that the movie never commits to that approach.  The lyrics remain unchanged, so all of the "Oh he's so hideous!" moments have been left alone.  Thus, we the viewers are supposed to believe that Christine and company are utterly repulsed -- repulsed! -- by a balding man with a bad skin rash.  There were probably worse-looking people walking the streets of Paris every day back then.  He even has a nose!

This might be forgivable if Butler as Phantom could actually sing.  He can sing passably, but the Phantom has to be able to sing.  There is little opportunity to showcase him as a "genius," otherwise.  Yes he lives in this elaborate underground world, but we never saw him build it.  He might as well have stumbled upon it during a chase through the sewers.  And the "opera" that he forces the cast to sing doesn't speak too well of his abilities.  There is no better way for the Phantom to display his amazing talent, as well as incredible hold over Christine, than through song.

Butler's Phantom brays and barks and strains his way through the songs, removing any soaring majesty from his character and any mystery from the setting.  Not that there was much mystery to begin with.  The Phantom leads Christine down a secret path to his lair that is about as mysterious as a car tunnel through a mountain.  The path is brightly lit in greens and golds, as opposed to the cool blue mist in the stage production.  Yes, you know something is wrong when the path to the Phantom's lair is more atmospheric on stage.

The whole sequence of the title song feels wrong.  Christine passes through the mirror in her dressing room into the Phantom's realm with this silly plastered smile on her face.  Then John Travolta -- I mean Butler's Phantom -- takes her by the hand.  Then he sings.  Oh dear God.  Ramin Karimloo has a brief cameo as Christine's father -- why couldn't they have substituted his voice?  They did that with Minny Driver's character and no one cared.  It's not as though it would ruin the authenticity, since everyone was miming to a pre-recorded track anyway.  And it's really obvious during this song that Christine is lip-syncing.  Then, the final blow?  They cut lyrics from the title song.  The title song.  They kept every boring note of "Prima Donna" intact, but shortened the title song.  And filled the gap with a hideous electric guitar.  What the fuck?  Ugh, I need to go watch something good now to dull the pain.

So the appearance of Butler's Phantom is when everything starts to go off the rails, but there are two major problems with the film.  Three, actually.  The first is Butler, the second is the production design, and the third is what I call "the silliness factor."

Regarding production design, the movie seems fine when it is in the world of pageantry and lights, but falls flat the minute the sets move underground.  The only time the movie manages to conjure up any darkness at all is during a flashback scene of the Phantom's youth, and that... see "the silliness factor."  Frequently when I watch the movie, I wonder what Phantom would have looked like with a director like Tim Burton behind it.  I know that Burton's Gothic noir sensibility has become a bit cliche, but I could see him turning the underground scenes into something truly special.  And, since he uses Johnny Depp almost reflexively, I think Depp would have brought a more ethereal quality to the Phantom role (and would probably have consented to be dubbed).

Then there is "the silliness factor."  This movie seems almost unable to contain moments of silliness in what should otherwise be serious scenes.  Or maybe it's more accurate to say that Joel Schumacher, the director, could not seem to recognize and discourage moments of silliness.  Christine's dopey expression as she crosses through the mirror looks silly.  Raoul singing with a rope around his neck during the climactic scene looks silly.  The child Phantom in the flashback runs around with a bag over his head like a Looney Toons character.  In each case, scenes meant to be intense are undermined.  Obviously there were some things -- such as Raoul and the rope -- that could not be changed, but Schumacher could have staged it differently.

The movie just gets so many small things wrong.  Even the editing frequently looks bad.  The music from "The Phantom of the Opera" plays as Christine approaches the cemetery.  Just as the music swells, you would expect to see a wide shot of her approaching the gates or her father's tomb.  Instead, the shot is slightly blurry and out of focus.  Maybe that's not the fault of the editing, but the cinematography.  Either way, it doesn't work.

I should give the movie credit for trying something different with the "future" scenes woven through, which are shot to look like an old silent film.  However, beyond the opening scene, they really don't do much, and even undermine the famous closing scene where Meg Giry finds only the Phantom mask.  Any "mystery" they provide was already sucked out of the movie by Butler's Phantom.

Conclusion

The Phantom of the Opera is proof of how important it is to cast every major role with the right actor.  Had the Phantom at least been good, a lot of the other problems I had with the movie would taken on much less importance.  But Gerard Butler is so, so bad.  Some people have said that his acting is good, but it is difficult to tell when he sings nearly every word.  Even if his acting is good, everything else about him is wrong, from his singing voice to his physical appearance.  I watch Phantom more frequently than Evita because of the things it gets right, but it always leaves me thinking about the movie that could have been.





Friday, December 14, 2012

Les Miserables the Movie: All I Want for Christmas Is...

I have tickets to see the movie Les Miserables on Christmas Day.  Barring some major storm, illness, or accident, I will see the movie.  So often I thought this day would never come.  Yet now that it's almost here, I have just one problem: so many clips are getting released, I feel as though I've already seen the movie!

Not only that, but reviews are getting released right and left.  Most of them are not the least bit shy about revealing spoilers.  I've read at least five depictions of the opening scene.  I've read that Anne Hathaway is destined to turn me into a soggy puddle.  I've seen clips of "The Work Song," "What Have I Done?", "At the End of the Day," "I Dreamed a Dream," "Who Am I?", "The Confrontation," "Master of the House," "Suddenly," "In My Life," "A Heart Full of Love," "On My Own," "Bring Him Home," and "Do You Hear the People Sing (Reprise)."  I've heard an audio clip of "One Day More" and had to strongly resist listening to "Do You Hear the People Sing?" and "LaMarque is Dead."

It's my own fault -- I'm just too weak.  "No, you need some surprise," I tell myself.  Then the next minute, I lose all self control.  At the same time, it's getting a lot harder to ignore the releases, given that the cast is everywhere promoting the movie, from Letterman to 60 Minutes.  I half-expect them to show up on The Daily Show before the promotion ends.  Some clips have left me excited, while others have left me uneasy.  But the biggest problem is that the combined information release has made it really difficult to make a "Ten Things I Really Want to See in the Les Miz Movie" list.  But here goes anyway. 

1.  No Flashbacks.  Evita was thick with them and the result was that it emphasized how weak the acting performances were.  By all accounts, Hooper has taken the opposite approach.

2.  No 3D.  What's that?  Hooper already decided long ago to make the movie 2D so no headache-inducing glasses would be necessary?  Thank God.

3.  Some Belting.  While I can appreciate the emphasis on acting over singing, that it is sometimes more appropriate to talk-sing than sing-sing, I do want to hear full-on singing at least some of the time.  And not just from the people we know can sing, like Samantha Barks or Aaron Tveit.  In the clips I've seen, Amanda Seyfried sings very softly.  I hope she belts it out on at least a couple of occasions, because while Cosette may be a thin character, she hits some pretty awesome notes.

4.  No Product Placement.  Actually, it would be rather amusing to see period-appropriate product placements, such as "Paris's Number One Horseshoe Outlet for 20 Years!"  But please no close ups of wine bottle labels, soldiers wearing Nike combat boots, or French flags subtly morphing into the Pepsi logo.

5.  No Made-up Characters.  I have no reason to expect any new characters -- that is, characters that did not exist in the novel.  However, I just got through watching the 1952 version of Les Miserables, which, for some unknown reason, gave Jean Valjean a BFF named Robert.  This Robert character followed Valjean from Montreuil-sur-Mer to Paris with more devotion than Javert.  What was the purpose of giving Valjean a best friend?  Valjean is supposed to be a solitary figure until he meets Cosette.  Was there some fear of having Valjean talk to himself on film?  If the 1952 film could deviate from the novel to this extent, why didn't it go all the way?  They could have turned Javert into Valjean's BFF who yearns to be more than a friend.  When Valjean spurns his advances, Javert becomes his enemy and vows to send him back to prison.  Mon Dieu!    

6.  No Characters Speaking With Random French Accents.  I'm not counting Sasha Baron Cohen's singing accent because it sounds like he uses it to underscore his character's silliness.  I'm referring to the situation where all of the characters are from the same country, but only one of them speaks with the national accent.  Examples include Lumiere in Disney's Beauty and the Beast, Madame Giry in The Phantom of the Opera, and Juan Peron in certain productions of Evita.  This never made sense to me.  If you're from the same country, you should have some variety of the national accent.  If one person has it, everyone should have it.  Fortunately, random French accents don't appear to be a problem in Les Miserables since all of the characters are apparently British.

7.  No Nudity for the Sake of Nudity.  If Fantine has to get partially naked, you could at least believe that it was appropriate for the character.  But I don't really need to see Valjean or Javert randomly strip and reveal full backside nudity in order to show how soulful or vulnerable they are, or Cosette randomly show her breasts to prove to us that she's a woman, or whatever.  It's just a cynical attempt to bring more viewers to the theatre.  One that would surely work, but would cheapen the movie in the process.

8.  No Anachronisms, Please.  No fist pumps followed by "Yesssssssss!" every time they shoot a soldier.  No Enjolras screaming: "I am a golden god!"  No peace signals, "Whatup"s, fist bumps, "I am not worthy" gestures, slo-mos of Cosette or Eponine shaking their long hair, or anything else that screams modern or recent movie convention.  I want to feel like I'm in the 1830s, and I don't need "modern" touches to make the musical more relatable.     

9.  No "It Was All a Dream."  There is no reason to believe this production of Les Miserables will be one where Valjean wakes up and says: "Man, that was messed up!" but some production at some point likely has, or will.  If a character dies, he should stay dead -- in the physical sense, at least.

10.  No "NOOOOOOOOOOO!"  I appreciate acting and emoting, but no overacting please!  It's a fine line between a moving emotional outburst and an eye roller.  A line that was unfortunately crossed by Grantaire in the 25th Anniversary Tour.  You don't want the audience snickering when it should be in tears.

So I guess this was more of a "Ten Things I Really Don't Want to See in the Les Miz Movie," most of which I don't expect will be there, thank God.  Which means that it is already well on its way to being a great movie.  Although I've seen more than I wanted to see, I still can't help thinking that by the time I see it in the theatre, it will feel like a whole new experience.  Let's hope.

   

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Movie Musicals That Got It Wrong: Evita

While I await my chance to see Les Miserables and hope that it's one of the movie musicals that "got it right," I thought it would be interesting to look at other musicals made in the last 15 years or so that didn't transfer so well to the big screen.

Back in 1996, I was absolutely foaming at the mouth in anticipation of the film version of Evita.  Somehow, I had fallen in love with the concept album and could not wait to see it up on the screen.  The massive crowd scenes and elaborate costumes convinced me that it would be EPIC.  And then there was Madonna, who was supposedly "born" for the role, being a charismatic pop star with a penchant for constantly changing her wardrobe.  What could go wrong?

For those completely unfamiliar with the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, which launched in 1978 following a concept album that was released in 1976, here is a little background.  Eva Peron was the second wife of Juan Peron, president of Argentina from 1946 to 1955 (and also 1973 to 1974, but the musical doesn't include that time period).  The musical follows Eva Peron's rise from poor girl out in the sticks to a radio star in Buenos Aires, the "big apple."  There, she attracts the attention of the military, including Colonel Juan Peron.  The two become lovers, to the horror of the aristocracy and the military establishment, and then husband and wife.  Juan Peron, seemingly a man of the people, would become president with the help of the descamisados, or "shirtless ones."  However, instead of -- or perhaps in addition to -- helping the working class, the Perons embezzled money, sympathized with the Nazis, and brutally suppressed opposition.  Eva's European tour of good will was a bust, and then she became ill and died at the age of 33.

At least this is Eva Peron's life as told by the musical.  There is some controversy about its accuracy, as it was supposedly based on a book, Evita: The Woman With the Whip, which contained several exaggerations and false assertions.  Of course, what wasn't in the book was one of the musical's most distinctive characters, Che.  In early versions of Evita, Che was actually Che Guevara, the revolutionary best known for his role in the Cuban Revolution (and for adorning the walls of countless people who probably didn't know beans about his politics).  While in real life, we don't know what the Argentina-born Guevara really thought of Evita, in the musical, he stands in full khaki combat regalia, sneering at her from afar as a one-man Greek chorus.

After the Evita concept album, produced by the team Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, became a smashing success, Lloyd Webber created a stage version with Elaine Paige as Eva Peron and David Essex as Che.  The next year, in 1978, Evita moved to Broadway, where Patti LuPone performed the title role, Che was played by Mandy Patinkin, and Peron was played by Bob Gunton.  Many consider the Broadway cast album to be the "definitive" Evita because it is the first complete recording of the stage musical.  The London cast album contains just highlights, due to the fact that the full version of Evita was released on the concept album just a year earlier.

However, I never warmed to the Evita Broadway cast album.  Patti LuPone has power, but her voice is nasally and she always seems to slur the words together.  Most importantly, she has no subtly whatsoever.  Meanwhile, Mandy Patinkin is on the other end of the spectrum.  With a voice so clear and pure that he seems more suited for flowers in his hair than a combat beret, he is far removed from the gruff and grit of David Essex and the Che of the concept album, Colm Wilkinson.  And don't get me started on Bob Gunton.  Did the real Peron trill his r's?  I can't think of another performer before or since who did that, and for good reason -- it's damn annoying.

The concept album is also frequently referred 
to as the Evita "white" album.
It was the concept album that made me fall in love with Evita.  The title role was played by Julie Covington, who may not have had the best voice, but it sounds cold, clear, and expressive.  Her Evita could be coy one minute, then a ball of fury the next.  Her numbers are blasts of energy, particularly "Buenos Aires."  She also performs the best version of "Eva Beware of the City" that I have ever heard.

Covington is well-matched by Colm Wilkinson, who brings a rock and roll edge to the Che role.  It took me a few listens to recognize him (he is credited as "C.T. Wilkinson") -- in place of noble sincerity is a cutting sarcasm that laces every one of his songs.  The entire album is much more rock and roll than the stage show would be, and sounds a hell of a lot more fun to perform.  It also contains some tidbits that never made it to the stage -- specifically Che's "The Lady's Got Potential," where he compared Eva's rise to power to his creation of a new insecticide.  "Just one blast and the insects fall like flies!  Kapow, die!"  This little bit of acid trippery was derived from the real Che Guevara's scientific background.  Though it is a fun song, Lloyd Webber and company were wise to leave it out of the stage version, replacing it with the much more sedate "The Art of the Possible."  However, the song would receive new life -- rewritten -- in the film.

In fact, Lloyd Webber and Alan Parker, the director, would go back to the original concept album more than once when making the film.  If only they had stopped there.  Unfortunately, they also looked at the original source of the musical and decided to correct all of the unfair misconceptions of Eva Peron.  This led to a flawed musical with a singular vision being turned into a flawed movie with a muddled vision.

The Movie

1.  Acting

However, even very flawed pieces of work can be endearing, and grow more endearing with time, as long as there are other things about them that really work.  If the acting is fantastic, the emotions visceral, the problems relatable.  Unfortunately, very little of that is present in Evita.  It is very pretty... VERY pretty... but of the three principal cast members, only Jonathan Price as Juan Peron displays any sort of real acting ability.

What about Madonna, the one "born" for the role of Eva Peron?  She certainly makes a go at it... but her range of emotions seems to consist of one mildly pained expression.  Maybe it was the dark brown contact lenses.  Maybe it was the fact that she had to mime rather than sing the songs during the filming of a completely sung-through musical.  Or maybe it's because she's simply not an actress, no matter what her aspirations.  Though the moments where she is most effective are the ones where she sings live, such as "Eva's Final Broadcast."  There, she is able to coax at least some some emotion out of her face and voice.

Antonio Banderas has passion, but all he's really called upon to do is be sarcastic, bordering on angry.  One major problem is that the "Guevara" has been stripped from his name and his identity, leaving him as just Che the Everyman.  Unfortunately, no one bothers to make this clear within the movie.  So when Che follows around Eva, blasting her every decision, he comes across as an angry, stalking ex-boyfriend.  That lends a creepy air to a lot of their shared numbers, from "Goodnight and Thank You" to "A Waltz for Eva and Che."  And that misimpression is not pushed AT ALL in imagery like the DVD cover at the top.  Eva clinging to Che, as if to say: "I need you, Che!  I've been so bad!  Please tell me what to do!"  The biggest problem with Che the Everyman is it leaves him with no defining goals or interests.  At least when he was Che Guevara, we knew what he was about.  But Che the Everyman isn't simply a descamisado -- he is a shape shifter.  In one scene, he is dressed quite dapper at a garden party, while in another scene, he is dressed as a reporter.  I think that the production should have made Che an actual character, such as a reporter at a dissenting newspaper suppressed by the Perons.  That would explain his anger, and his "following her" through her life could actually be him researching her for a story.  But I digress.

Jonathan Price is a very understated Peron.  At first it seems like there is nothing there, but after an hour of Banderas's angry belting and Madonna's failed emoting, you come to appreciate Price's quiet looks of tenderness and appreciation.  Yet aside from this, there is very little real emotion in the movie.

Oh, but Alan Parker tries.  Oh how he tries to stuff as much emotion as possible into each frame.  Lots of close ups of teary, hopeful faces in the crowd.  Back when I first saw this movie, all ready to surrender myself to its splendor, my first inklings of doubt came during a flashback scene of Eva's father's funeral.  There, we got a close-up of little Eva's face, so innocent and devastated and OH MY GOD, I GET IT NOW!  EVA PERON IS A PERSON!  I DID NOT KNOW THAT, ALAN PARKER!!!

Another such "let me force you tell you what to feel" moment occurs during the big moment, "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina."  As Eva sings, the movie cuts away from her to flash back on earlier scenes of the movie.  Yes, Alan Parker actually thought that we would forget those stirring moments from a half-hour ago, so he decided to remind us what we should be feeling when we watch them again.  THANK YOU FOR TELLING ME WHAT TO FEEL, ALAN PARKER!!!  

I think the bottom line is that if you have to constantly manipulate the audience, if you can't trust the actors to convey what you want them to convey, then you have a problem.  Such was the case with Alan Parker and Evita.  It was a problem that, unfortunately, the singing could not overcome.

2.  Singing

Per the usual style, nearly all of the singing was recorded before filming began.  The only exceptions were scenes where the characters did not have to sound "pretty," such as Che falling down injured in the street, any scene where Eva is dying, or Peron defending Eva before a table of subordinates.  Otherwise, the prerecorded songs were piped in and the performers lip-synched... with frequently terrible results.

Perhaps the worst result can be heard in one of the early numbers, "Eva Beware of the City."  As I mentioned, it is one of my favorite songs from the concept album.  Julie Covington sings it with energy and gusto.  "I want to BE a part of B.A.  Buenos Aires, Big Apple!"  I was really looking forward to seeing the song play out on screen.  Alas, it doesn't come anywhere close.  Madonna's vocals have none of the energy and cattiness that made Covington's version so great, but that is not the worst part.  The worst part is the way her vocals, and the music, are delivered.  Evita's score is obviously not period-accurate, but from the music, you would have thought a spaceship was landing.  Meanwhile, the vocals are coming from everywhere but the performers' mouths.  It is especially painful and bad during the parts of the song that take place outside.  At one point Eva has to kneel down to put everything back in her suitcase and it is so obvious she is lip-synching and gahhhh.                     

Fortunately, that would be the lowest point with dubbed vocals.  It would look better in numbers like "Goodnight and Thank You" and "A New Argentina," if never completely natural.

As for Madonna's voice, it is clear that she worked with a coach to stretch her range, but that still leaves her very limited.  She is unable to belt in songs like "Rainbow High," and other songs have been drastically lowered to fit her range.  Her voice sounds blandly pleasant on the whole, no matter what the circumstances, except for a little welcome flint in songs like "A New Argentina" and "A Waltz for Eva and Che."

Banderas's singing harkens back to the roughness and grit of Colm Wilkinson rather than the soft, floating tones of Mandy Patinkin.  His voice has good range and power, and he sings his songs with verve.  Perhaps not coincidentally, he gets to sing the big rock-and-roll number, "The Lady's Got Potential," that only Wilkinson had ever before attempted.  That said, there is a flatness to Banderas's singing.  While Che is not well developed, there are places where Banderas might have sounded regretful or sympathetic.  Instead, it's all sarcasm and anger.

Meanwhile, Price's singing is passable.  Peron isn't called upon to do much heavy lifting, fortunately.  I do wonder what Raul Julia might have done with the role had he lived.

Auto-Tune was not used for vocal performances until 1997, the year after this film was released.  However, it would not surprise me if some form of proto-Auto-Tune were used for the soundtrack, because everything seems so polished and, dare I say, soulless.  People have criticized Evita for seeming like a two-hour long music video, and unfortunately, those criticisms are valid.  Everything is perfectly staged and set, but no emotion or deeper connection penetrates the musical numbers.  Some of that is the fault of the musical itself, which is rather lacking in introspection.  But if Julie Covington could infuse a range of emotions into the soundtrack, then so could others.

3.  The Focus

Of course, that might have been easier if they knew what the musical was trying to say.  In its earliest version, Evita was, well, a stone-cold calculating bitch.  But she had reasons for being a bitch.  SCREW the middle classes!  They kept her from seeing her father at his funeral, so she planned to trample their rotten values into the ground!  Eva's resentment of the upper classes fueled her rise.  She would do anything to climb to the top and eventually stick it to them!  At the same time, in later musical numbers, Eva showed awareness of how empty her goals were, how little satisfaction they brought her.  Despite her coldness, she managed to have pathos.      

The movie version sort of goes in this direction.  It has the same origin story -- little Eva was prevented from seeing her father! -- and the same resentment as a result.  But because Parker also wants to show that Eva wasn't as "bad" as portrayed, instead of making her a fiery character bent on getting revenge, he makes her... kind of mildly frustrated and sad.  He seems to want us to take her to our bosom and feel sorry for her.  This is evident in the fact that he gives her "Another Suitcase in Another Hall" to sing instead of Peron's mistress.  But at the same time, Eva is also nasty and calculating.  See the way she uses and dumps men!  See the way she heartlessly throws out Peron's teenage mistress!

Is Eva Peron genuinely devoted to elevating the poor, or is she more about sticking it to the rich while enriching herself?  The truth may lie somewhere in between.  The duality presented in the movie is not impossible to pull off, but it would require a really good actress to do it.  And Madonna... well.  She is not helped by the fact that Parker does not seem to know how to view her.  Are we supposed to condemn Eva for everything she does, or feel sorry for her because she's never known real love?  But wait -- she seemed to be close to her brother and sisters in the beginning.  Wouldn't that count as knowing real l... oh never mind.  Madonna's Eva has a forlorn quality, which causes all of her "calculating" actions to seem half hearted.  That, in turn, causes Che to seem like even more of an abusive ex-boyfriend when he blasts her for every little thing that goes wrong.  At one point, I get the impression we're supposed to condemn Eva because the Argentine government is dysfunctional.  I thought her husband was the president?

Again, duality is fine, but the director needs to make a choice.  Are we supposed to be in Eva's corner, or are we supposed to condemn her?  Because Parker never seems to commit, the film has a fuzzy quality from beginning to end.

It does not help that Parker tries to jam in as much historical detail as possible.  That's not to say that historical detail isn't welcome -- any good historical epic should try to be as accurate as possible without sacrificing the story.  But so much new imagery is confusing without context or explanation.  For instance, during one montage, you see members of the legislature throwing papers around.  Why?  It is never explained.

If you do explain it, the best way would probably not be in a fast-moving rock song.  Yet that is Parker's vehicle of choice.  "The Lady's Got Potential" was lifted out of cold storage and rewritten to serve broader historical narrative.  The original version was fairly simple and easy to follow:

The lady's got potential
She ought to go far
She always knows exactly
Who her best friends are.
The greatest social climber since Cinderella.

...

But getting back to Eva
She just saw all those guys
As steps on the ladder to the ultimate prize
And he goes by the name of Colonel Peron.
He began his career in the army oversees
Teaching all the other soldiers
All he knew about skies.
When others took a tumble he would always stay on.

Sure Peron could ski, but who needs a snowman?
He said: "Great men don't grow on trees.
I'm one.  I ain't gonna freeze.
Dictators don't grow on skis."
Peron would be no Number Two to no man!

The original song was unquestionably silly, but at least you could follow.  In the new version, Parker and Rice tried to cram in every single coup that ever happened.  That includes at least two sequences of men being frog-marched downstairs by military figures.  Rationales fly by in a sentence or less.  Yet while the new version purports to be more serious and historically accurate, it contains lines like "knowing the right feller to be stellar" and "Peron was biding time out in the slow lane."  

So is Evita a fun, campy musical about a women you hate, but ultimately can't help rooting for, or a serious, respectable biopic about a flawed historical figure?  The movie tries to be both and does not quite manage either.

4.  The Good

Still, if the movie version of Evita is flawed, it has its good points as well.  Between Eva's numerous outfits and the panoramic settings, it is a feast for the eyes.  The crowds are as vast and as powerful as you would expect them to be -- as they would need to be -- in order to propel Eva and Juan Peron to power.  Directing the crowds was no doubt a difficult feat.  Parker also filmed several scenes at Argentine locations, most notably "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina" at the actual Casa Rosada, the presidential mansion.

Also, while a general soullessness pervades the movie, toward the end, Parker permits more live singing, and as a result, you finally start to feel something for Eva.  The "You Must Love Me" song is also a nice addition, showing Eva's realization that a man loves her for herself rather than what she can give him.  Too bad we had to go through the first 1.5 hours to get to this final 20 minutes.

Conclusion

So while Evita is not a bomb, it is also not the triumph that many expected it to be.  When I saw it back in 1996, I walked away generally satisfied, but after subsequent viewings, it has not fared as well.  I will still pull it out on occasion and give it a watch.  But I prefer to listen to the concept album.

      

  

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Upcoming Plans For This Blog

For the three people who don't read this blog for my Les Miserables posts, I want to let you know that the Les Miz monopoly is finally over.  While I will still post here and there about the movie and musical, I am now back to writing about other things as well.

So what is in store for this blog's future?  First, I intend to post more than once a week.  No!  It was always my plan to post at least two or three times a week, but that proved to be surprisingly difficult with my day job, my other (law-related) blogging, and writing the draft of my novel, which I will discuss more in the coming months.  Right now, the novel draft is about a month away from completion, provided there are no unforeseen problems.  Then there is the always-fun revision period...

Second, I will continue to write about various media, from TV to movies to music(als).  I will also write more about social/cultural things, by which I mean customs, habits, assumptions in today's world that... pretty much annoy the shit out of me.  I will do my best to steer these posts away from any political waters, but that is not guaranteed.

Around late December/early January, I plan to start looking at Downton Abbey.  A lot has already been written about the show already, but I'm less inclined to swoon over the big house and the clothes than many, having spent the last several years immersed in a very similar world set 50 years before the Season One.  Writing about the show should be a lot of fun, and I'm looking forward to it.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Les Miserables the Movie: The Concert That Launched a Thousand Careers!

Or at least one career.

For the 25th anniversary of Les Miserables, it was not enough for Cameron Mackintosh to give his musical a makeover and send it back out on tour.  He also needed to commemorate it with yet another major concert event.  Yet instead of choosing to reuse the Albert Hall as a venue, and a cast of current well-regarded Les Miz performers, Mackintosh decided that this concert should be larger than life.  This meant a much bigger venue and a little more star power.

Enter the O2 Arena.  The O2 began life as the Millennium Dome in the Greenwich Peninsula of London.  The Millennium Dome was meant to be a celebration of progress and forward thinking along the lines of the World's Fair, filled with exhibits showcasing Who We Are, What We Do, and Where We Live.  Unfortunately, the exhibits lacked content and visitors alike, and in 2000, the Dome closed down.  In the early 2000s, the giant Dome complex was redeveloped as an indoor sports and entertainment center, and would be rebranded the O2 in 2005.  The O2 Arena included in the new development would be the second-largest arena in the UK, capable of holding up to 20,000.  Which is to say, it would be just large enough for Cameron Mackintosh's ambitions.

Nearly everything about the 25th Anniversary Concert would be "larger" than its 10th Anniversary counterpart.  Whereas the 10th Anniversary Concert had a couple of tasteful projection screens in back, the 25th would have three giant projection screens.  Whereas the 10th Anniversary Concert was strictly a stand-at-the-microphone affair, with actual scenes from the musical woven in for context, the 25th Anniversary featured a sort of quasi-musical, with elements of both the musical (such as the mechanical barricade) and a concert in place.  (Note that it refrained from being a full-on recreation of the musical, as opposed to The Phantom of the Opera 25th Anniversary Concert.)  Whereas the 10th Anniversary Concert had tasteful blue lighting, the 25th Anniversary Concert lit everything up in bright gold.  There was a larger chorus, larger orchestra, more smoke and effects, more everything.

The only question was whether the 25th Anniversary Concert had more great performances.  There are those who swear that the performances are, on the whole, superior to those of the 10th Anniversary "Dream Cast," while others will claim that the 10th Anniversary performers are second to none.  I will come right out and say that I prefer the 10th Anniversary cast.  However, I do enjoy the 25th Anniversary performances for the most part, with one notable exception.

The 25th Anniversary Concert was meant to be "cinematic" from the start.  Instead of one concert, there were two, with the evening concert being aired in cinemas all over the world.  Those who attended the live event were part of a sellout crowd of 32,000.

The Performers

As with the 10th Anniversary "Dream Cast," most of the 25th Anniversary cast had already performed in Les Miserables.  Ramin Karimloo (Enjolras) had previously performed the roles of Enjolras and Marius; Norm Lewis (Javert) had performed the Javert role; Lea Salonga (Fantine), in addition to being celebrated as Eponine, had also played Fantine in the Broadway revival; Hadley Fraser (Grantaire) had played Marius; Katie Hall (Cosette) was currently performing her role on tour; Samantha Barks (Eponine) was currently performing her role at the Queen's Theatre; and Jenny Galloway (Madame Thenardier) had, of course, previously performed her role.  In addition, numerous West End stalwarts filled the rest of the cast, including Earl Carpenter (Bishop), Killian Donnelly (Courfeyrac), and Alistair Brammer (Jean Prouvaire).      

However, unlike the 10th, Cameron Mackintosh also cast people who had never been in the musical before, or had never been in a musical ever.  This included Alfie Boe (Jean Valjean), Matt Lucas (Monsieur Thenardier), and *cough* Nick Jonas (Marius).

Looking at the cast list, I sense that Mackintosh was less interested this time in finding the "definitive" performer of the role than in showcasing up-and-comers.  Ramin Karimloo, for instance, was probably a very good Enjolras, but did anyone think that he was more "definitive" in the role than David Thaxton or Aaron Lazar?  Yet by 2010, he was a rising star in the West End, having originated the Phantom role in Andrew Lloyd Weber's ill-fated Love Never Dies.  He would star as the Phantom in the 25th Anniversary Concert of The Phantom of the Opera and go on to perform the role of Jean Valjean in the West End.

Then there was Samantha Barks.  Prior to the 25th Anniversary Concert, she had only performed the Eponine role for a few months.  She came to Cameron Mackintosh's attention during a British reality show, I'd Do Anything, the purpose of which was to find a singer to star as Nancy in Mackintosh's revival of Oliver!.  Barks came in third, but would still get a starring role in Cabaret before landing the role of Eponine.

I have some issues with Mackintosh's priorities.  First, I think that they resulted in amazing West End performers being given the short end of the stick.  Alfie Boe may have a powerful opera voice, but could anyone really say that he was a better performer than John Owen-Jones?  Owen-Jones was one of the few to really place his mark on the Valjean role.  He deserved more than to just appear at the end as one of the "Four Valjeans."  Owen-Jones had performed the Valjean role during the BBC 21st Anniversary Concert, but that hardly had the same publicity as the 25th.  Second, in Mackintosh's effort to give this concert an "X factor," to inject it with "star power" intended to attract the next generation of fans, he nearly brought it down with a thundering clatter.

Nick Jonas:  Okay, so it's not true that Nick Jonas of the Jonas Brothers was completely new to Les Miserables.  He played the part of Gavroche in the 2003 Broadway production.  Say what you will about his singing, but the kid sure knew how to die.  He then played the Marius role on the West End for a month from June 21 to July 24, 2012.  At 17 and then barely 18 years old, he had to sing a vocally challenging role alongside veterans in their 30s.  Was he up to the task?  Hell no.

Really, I blame Cameron Mackintosh more than anyone.  He should have seen that someone whose most recent experience was singing pop tunes would not have the training, or possibly the talent, to do justice to the Marius role.  Moreover, he should have seen that Ramin Karimloo and Hadley Fraser would make mincemeat of him in the ensemble songs.  Or that everyone else would outshine him as well.  Or that even high school Mariuses could outshine him.  Jonas is not the worst thing ever, but he is pretty bad.  His voice is squeaky and lacking in power.  His expressions range from confused to constipated.  Because Marius is in a large chunk of the musical, despite all attempts to focus on his excellent co-stars, Jonas is very difficult to ignore, and he can't help but bring the Concert down.  I'm sure Jonas gave the role his all, but it was a huge mismatch from the very beginning.




Really Mackintosh, would it have killed you to cast a lesser-known person in the Marius role, like Gareth Gates?  Someone who had performed the role for more than one month and was not the beneficiary of stunt casting?  In your bid to appeal to a new generation of teenage girls, you placed a stain on the 25th Anniversary Concert that can never be wiped clean.

Now that that's off my chest, on to the other performers.

Alfie Boe: The 25th Anniversary Concert was Boe's first venture into musical theatre.  A trained opera singer, Boe would bring a level of precise and powerful singing to the Valjean role that others might never match.  His voice could not be further removed from Colm Wilkinson's gruff sound, and his powerful belts make Wilkinson's seem like whispers.  Many fans have declared Boe to be the definitive Valjean because of this, claiming that Boe's "Bring Him Home" was the first time that song ever made them cry.  Yet somehow, I've always found Boe lacking.  His voice, while undeniably powerful, is high and nasal.  While Boe shows a lot of ferocity in the opening scenes, his acting is flat through much of the second half.

It's possible that I'm just blinded by my devotion to Colm Wilkinson's portrayal -- gruff, dignified, and sincere.  But when I watched the 25th Anniversary Concert recently with a friend who had never seen Les Miz, she commented that there was a void in Boe's eyes, and that she just didn't feel him as a character.  So there you go.  While John Owen-Jones does not have as powerful a voice as Boe, I think he would have brought more acting to the role.

Norm Lewis: While not my favorite Javert, he has a rich voice and a dignified bearing.  The only thing I find fault with is his acting during his suicide song.  His voice goes all crazy as he says: "I'll escape now from the world, from the world of Jean Valjean!"  Then he does the awkward tossing an arm thing that Quast did, and it just seems so silly.  If Mackintosh ever stages a 30th Anniversary Concert, I hope they work this part out a bit better.      

Lea Salonga: Her crystal-clear voice is put to good use in "I Dreamed a Dream," and she displays the right amount of vulnerability.  She does struggle a bit in "Lovely Ladies," but overall, I like her better in the Fantine role than in the Eponine role.  Even though Fantine is technically of the same class level as Eponine (and started off even lower class), she comes across as an angel brought down by the evils of life.  As my friend noted, she is the only factory woman wearing white.  Salonga may not be the best Fantine, but she gives a strong performance nontheless.

Ramin Karimloo: Upon first viewing, I thought that his performance as Enjolras topped Maguire's performance in the 10th Anniversary Concert.  On repeated viewings, I still consider him to be very good, but no better than Maguire.  Karimloo has a great tenor voice and just the right amount of intensity.  He seems like a leader, but not so much that we couldn't believe him as a student.  He is also very easy on the eyes, a rather important quality for Enjolras to have.  What made me demote him on subsequent viewings was the feeling that Karimloo's voice does not rest easily in Enjolras's vocal range.  While he has no trouble hitting the money notes and hitting them well, I've noticed strain when he hits the low notes.  Often, instead of reaching down for the note and risking a guttural sound, Karimloo will sing it at a higher note so that he sounds out of key.  It is debatable which is the better option, but I find the out-of-key singing to be a bit jarring.  Still, Karimloo's performance is one of the highlights of the Concert.        

Matt Lucas: Lucas gives a funny, energetic, playful performance as Thenardier.  If you prefer the Thenardiers as comic relief, then you should find no fault with this.  If you prefer your Thenardiers to be darker and more sinister, as a reminder that they were the people who mistreated Cosette and drove Fantine to her death, then you will be left wanting.  Lucas's performance invites us to think that everything is merry, that it's so funny that he can't even remember Cosette's name!  All Thenardiers dare you to laugh at their misdeeds, but Lucas's sunny portrayal makes it almost irresistible.  He and Jenny Galloway -- who still has it even 15 years after her last concert appearance -- make quite the pair.  

Hadley Fraser: Normally Grantaire does not merit much more than a nod, but when Grantaire is played by up-and-comer Hadley Fraser, he gets a little more attention.  Soon after this concert, Fraser went on to play Raoul in the Phantom 25th Anniversary Concert and then took over the Javert role on the West End.  In the Les Miz 25th Anniversary Concert, Fraser probably gives the role more charisma than it needs.  He plays Grantaire with a dry sarcasm and many dramatic flourishes.  Many fans will be especially happy to know that he pronounces Don Juan "Don Wan" instead of "Don Joo-ahn."

Katie Hall: The Cosette role was originally supposed to be sung by Camila Kerslake, who ended up pulling out due to a throat infection.  From what little I can gather, Kerslake is roughly the same age as Hall and had played Cosette in the West End for a few months.  For those who like their alternate history, take a look at her webpage: apparently she starred with the other members of the cast prior to the Concert.  Anyway, she wasn't available, so Hall brought her bell-like voice and sweet irrepressible nature to the Concert.  She holds up very well against the rest of the cast, and even manages to avoid looking embarrassed by Nick Jonas.  The fact that Hall is young makes them seem like less of a mismatch (could you imagine Judy Kuhn in her place?).  But still, Cosette honey, you can do better.

Samantha Barks: Then, of course, there is Samantha Barks.  Of all the up-and-comers featured, her star seems the brightest.  She was the only one of the West End performers to land a major role in the movie.  And how fitting that the role was Eponine, the one that she performs here.  When I first saw Barks, I thought: "Wow, she is good!"  On subsequent viewings, I found her performance to be just good, not GOOD!  She does everything asked of her, nothing more, nothing less.  She is pretty, can sing well, and does a good job conveying her emotions.  Bonus points for managing to look as though she actually pines for Nick Jonas.  I don't consider Barks's Eponine to be especially memorable, but her performance is quite solid.  Between the Concert and filming the movie, she had 1.5 years to hone her craft, so it will be interesting to see how she has grown, especially under the direction of Tom Hooper.

The other West End performers are strong in supporting roles, especially the actors in the student roles.  I also really enjoyed Robert Madge as Gavroche.  He may not have been the Gavroche Victor Hugo envisioned, but he brings a little something of his own to the role.  A vaudeville sensibility, perhaps?  I had hoped that he would have a bit role as one of the peripheral students in the upcoming movie, but it was not to be.


The Concert

I don't have a lot to say about the Concert itself, since most of my praise/criticisms is reserved for the performers rather than the concert format.  But here are a few tidbits.

More Musical.  Besides being bigger than the 10th Anniversary Concert in just about every way, one specific plus of the 25th Anniversary Concert was that it included more musical.  Whereas the 10th Anniversary version hewed closer to the bare-bones Original London Cast or the Original Broadway Cast recording, the 25th Anniversary Concert includes nearly the entire musical.

Quasi-Musical Format Does Not Always Work.  As I mentioned, the 25th Anniversary Concert is a marriage of straight concert with some acting from the musical.  So instead of seeing the performers always at their microphones, you might see them running, dancing, or shooting guns.  Performers not in certain scenes would disappear through an archway to the "backstage" rather than sit behind the other performers.  It makes the 25th Anniversary Concert visually more exciting, but the marriage is not always successful.  In the 10th Anniversary Concert, bits of the musical were woven in so that you had context for the songs.  The 25th Anniversary Concert does not include these snippets, but instead relies upon the action on stage to tell the story.  Yet with the performers mostly standing before a microphone, unable to fully convey what is happening, it can sometimes be difficult to follow.  Or at least that was the case with my friend, the Les Miz novice.

Holy Laser Light Show, Batman!  The 25th Anniversary Concert could sometimes get a little effects crazy, with the smoke and the lights and all that.  Just sayin'.

The Four Valjeans.  For a production more focused on spectacle, it is ironic that its post-Concert performances are far more intimate than the ones in the 10th Anniversary.  Shortly after the rousing conclusion of the Concert, newcomer Boe would stand alongside Valjean veterans Colm Wilkinson, John Owen-Jones, and Simon Bowman to sing "Bring Him Home."  Colm Wilkinson starts, his voice sounding maybe the tiniest bit shaky, but still powerful.  Then John Owen-Jones chimes in, then Simon Bowman.  They all sing together, before Boe steps up and sings this really powerful high note.  Bowman, standing next to him, has this look on his face like: "Showoff.  I can hit that note, too, you know."  The full song is below.          

The Original London Cast Makes an Appearance!  After the conclusion of "Bring Him Home," the Original London Cast would reunite to sing "One Day More."  Everyone would appear, save David Burt, the original Enjolras, who allegedly didn't feel vocally up to the role anymore.  The other performers would show that they had not lost anything, with Frances Ruffelle, Rebecca Caine, Alun Armstrong, et al. sounding as good as ever.  Michael Ball's performances would remind everyone why he is considered to be the definitive Marius.  In David Burt's place, they had Ramin Karimloo sing Enjolras's lines.  That makes perfect sense, but part of me wishes they had flown in Michael Maguire, since he was the original Enjolras in one sense.  But then it all melds into a giant singalong anyway, with the Original Cast singing alongside the Next Generation, so I suppose it doesn't matter.

Conclusion

Whatever its weaknesses, the 25th Anniversary Concert is a lot of fun to watch.  Will it be the last anniversary concert that Cameron Mackintosh puts on, or will he do a fully staged musical for the 30th Anniversary?  Once the movie soundtrack is released, will there ever be any new English-language recordings?  What changes, if any, might the musical undergo in the future?

For now, let me say good luck to all of the talented West End performers.  For those in the upcoming movie, this includes Hadley Fraser, Killian Donnelly, Alistair Brammer, Katie Hall, and of course, Samantha Barks.

This ends the retrospective.  I hope you enjoyed it.  From now on, any new Les Miserables posts will be focused on the movie itself, now less than one month away.  Who would have ever believed it?