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Les Miserables: From Page to Stage to Film

I read the abridged version of Les Miserables about a month ago. I saw the musical a week ago. And the first movie trailer was released earlier today. Sounds like a good opportunity for a Les Mis post!

I’ll admit up front that I’m new to all this. Les Miserables is a musical that was a hit years before I was born, and I’ve only just discovered it…

…last Thursday (May 24) at the Queen’s Theatre in London, to be exact.

But it all started a while ago. Have you ever heard of something and thought, I think I want to be a fan of that? It sounds premature, but sometimes it’s easy to have a pretty good idea of what you might like. I saw Phantom of the Opera on Broadway last July (yes, it’s been a great year for me and theatre), and it largely shares its fanbase with Les Mis. A great yet tragic story? Epic music? Memorable characters? Sad French people? Count me in. When I found out I’d be going to the United Kingdom in May on a school trip, I seized my chance to see Les Mis live and booked my ticket.

Book or Brick?

I wanted to be prepared for the musical by reading the book (typical English major), but I didn’t quite understand what I was getting into when I got the free download of the novel for my Kindle. Even though I’ve read my fair share of long books, I didn’t make it past the bishop’s background. Instead, I then opted for an abridged version from a little used bookstore in my university’s city. Although at times I felt I was “missing something” from the story, for the most part I really enjoyed the book. I got emotionally involved enough to rage against the unfairness of the characters’ lives, share in their few sweet triumphs, and mourn their losses.

Do You Hear the People Sing?

The musical surprised me by sticking closer to the book than I thought it would.  And I certainly didn’t expect to see some of the more complex bits of the book, such as the runaway cart and the journey through the sewers, retained for the stage. Clearly I had already forgotten what a little theatre magic and imagination could do. I didn’t know about the rotating set, so it was a great surprise to see it come alive onstage. The barricade scenes were fantastic. It was especially exciting to be sitting in the Upper Circle when Valjean started shooting at the “sniper.” Although I was indeed “spoiled” of all the dramatic deaths and plot twists, I’d glad I had an idea of the story to begin with. I feel I would have had a more difficult time keeping track of all the characters if I were totally new to them. Sometimes key lines can be hard to catch the first time.

Since the stage production itself is very familiar to most people, let’s talk about the cast. Having never seen the show before, I didn’t have much of a basis of comparison, but I did have in idea of the characters’ personalities from the book. I wasn’t crazy  about David Shannon’s voice at the start of the play. However, it soon grew on me once I realized what he was doing. It sounded rough and manic at the start when he is still “24601,” yet grows more refined after Valjean turns his life around. Still, the old desperate sound peeks out again at key points. I figure that a lot of actors playing the role do this, but I still thought it was neat and very effective.

About Javert: I saw the 25th Anniversary Royal Albert Hall production of Phantom of the Opera in the movie theatre with friends last October. I had no clue who this Hadley Fraser person was, but I really couldn’t stand the way he played Raoul. I am very happy to say that the role of Javert fits Fraser’s voice and demeanor much better. He sang wonderfully and had a very memorable performance.

As for the rest: Caroline Sheen as Fantine was fittingly heartbreaking. Marius in the book could be pretty dense at times, causing me much frustration. He was slightly less so in the musical, and Craig Mather’s performance had some good moments. I found adult Cosette bland as a character, but her high notes were chill-inducing. I believe Helen Owen was the understudy for Eponine that night, and she was fantastic! One of her key scenes was definitely the most emotional for me (and considering what all happens in this musical, that’s saying something). We also had an understudy for one of the Thernadiers…I don’t recall which…but their cringe-worthy yet often humorous antics were spot-on. Scott Garnham was the understudy for Enjolras, and he and the other revolutionaries brought the appropriate fire and energy. I don’t know which Gavroche I saw, but he totally stole every scene he was in, as well as the audience’s hearts! The applause he received for one of his scenes almost rivaled Javert’s!

Naturally, the music was terrific. I got actual goosebumps down my arms during “One Day More,” which is significant since I was quite warm and toasty. I sat in row A of the Upper Circle, having bought a £25 “under 25” discount seat. Unfortunately, my particular seat made watching Les Miserables a bit of a miserable experience in itself. The row was pretty cramped, and the row in front of us had to lean forward to be able to see over the large balcony wall and lighting rigs. This meant the head of the person in front of me was directly in my way unless I sat on the edge of my seat and also leaned forward. Add to that the fact that London had been unseasonably warm of late. There was no air conditioning up there, and my friends and I were dripping with sweat by intermission. So…if I ever get the chance to see Les Mis live again, hopefully it will be in more comfortable conditions!

…Singing the Song of Happy Fans?

Compared to the terrific stage version, the 2004 Phantom of the Opera movie was a disappointment to many hardcore fans (though it did bring new phans, like me, into the fold). The good news is that it looks like the filmmakers of Les Miserables are attempting to learn some valuable lessons from the Phantom film and avoid its mistakes.

First, the cast. It’s got a big slew of box office stars, but more than that, the majority of them are known to be able to sing!  Yes, they are actors first, but at least they can carry a tune in a bucket to begin with…unlike Gerard Butler. (Gerry fans, don’t get mad at me. He’s a good actor and he worked very hard on his vocals, but he was just miscast as an “Angel of Music” type character.) To digress, I remember the days when I was ten and listened to Anne Hathaway’s cover of “Somebody to Love” ad naseum.

Second, the supporting cast. The diehards will certainly have fun with all the West End cast member cameos in the background. I might be missing others, but from what I know at the moment, two of the key roles are even played by West End vets: Colm Wilkinson plays the Bishop and Samantha Barks plays Eponine. Wilkinson of course was the original Valjean, so it’s totally fitting that he play the character who sets Valjean on his way within the story. I’ve seen part of Barks’ performance at the 25th anniversary concert and found her rendition of “On My Own” incredibly moving.  I’m looking forward to seeing them both in the film.

Third, the fact that the actors are recording their vocals live onset and not prerecording them in a studio. I imagine this will do wonders to capture the immediacy of a live stage performance.

The trailer gave us our first taste of Anne Hathaway’s rendition of the musical’s closest thing to a theme song, “I Dreamed a Dream.” It was different than I expected. I’m not sure Hathaway has the vocal power of some of the West End/Broadway Fantines, and she doesn’t even attempt that route. Instead of a strong belting performance, hers is intimate, broken, and wavering. It’s a different approach from the stage version, but it’s clearly what the director is aiming for. It has the potential to be very effective onscreen… just different from the stage musical.

This brings us to the fourth thing in favor of the film: the director.  Tom Hooper known for The King’s Speech, a wonderful character study where you really got inside people’s heads. Isn’t that a huge part of Les Mis? In addition, musicals always require some suspension of disbelief, but the sets, costumes, locations and makeup we’ve seen in the trailer and released stills look nice and gritty. The sight of the barricade also made me super excited…

Twenty Years to Go?

More like 6 months. While I wait, I plan to

1)acquire the Original London Cast recording

2)watch the 25th Anniversary performance at the O2 (recorded on my DVR)

3) most importantly, figure out how in the world you pronounce Enjolras!

See you at the theater in December!

(It seems that this is my longest post yet. I would apologize but it seems somewhat appropriate given the original source material!)


3 comments on “Les Miserables: From Page to Stage to Film

  1. Pingback: Movie Review: Les Miserables « Back to the Bookshelf!

  2. Pingback: Top 7 of ’13: Best Books I’ve Read This Year | Back to the Bookshelf!

  3. Pingback: Kate’s Top 12 Favorite Fictional Characters | Back to the Bookshelf!

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