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?







2 comments:

  1. I loved you posting!(Even though I still believe that no one can ever top Ramin Karimloo's charisma and charm that he showed during the musical). I loved Alfie Boe's performance as I have never seen JOJ singing live as JVJ or seeing him through a couple of youtube clips didn't strike me as much. I am totally on the same page with you on Marius. I cannot believe that Mackintosh decided to ruin(or even risk) this eff planned-to-be-larger-than-ever 25th anniversary celebration just to draw some teenager fangirls into this. This is eff Les Miz; aren't he supposed to have some self-esteem on this masterpiece that he created? How can he dare to do this to all les miserables fans?

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    1. Thanks! I'm a big fan of Ramin Karimloo... he's certainly in my top 5 of people to play Enjolras. As for JOJ, I would recommend listening to the 25th Anniversary Tour. I don't know how he would stack up against every singer who has played Valjean, but it struck me that he was a good alternative to Wilkinson.

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