Reel Life: Les Miserables
I’ve seen “Les Miserables” on Broadway probably a dozen times throughout its initial 16 year run and short revival. I was there the month when it opened, where I was privileged to hear Colm Wilkinson’s “Bring Him Home.” I saw country star Gary Morris later in the same Valjean role, singing with a precision, a depth and an ache I didn’t know he possessed (though I was a fan of his recorded work). I sat in awe as my prejudice evaporated when Ricky Martin took over the role of Marius, and sang the shit out of “Empty Chairs At Empty Tables” a few years later. I wept as Randy Graff performed “I Dreamed A Dream” from that original production (quaking my bones), and eight years after I first saw the show, I watched a young ingenue sing “Castle On A Cloud” as the child Cosette. Her name? Lea Michele. I was dismayed with that misbegotten revival a mere 3 years after the original closed. Though I was a fan of Daphne Rubin-Vega, her Fantine was a miscast, though the great Norm Lewis made a spellbinding Javert. Alas, the overall production lacked the original’s gravity. And of course, before all of this, I reveled, devoured, seeped myself in the Original London Cast Recording, with Wilkonson, Michael Ball and the legendary Patti LuPone as Fantine.
Although proven critic-proof, the critics were less than kind to the show when it opened on the West End and on Broadway. Most derision was aimed at its score. “Les Miserables” lives or dies by its score, and if the poignant, theatrical scope of the songs does not move you, then seeing it is a moot point. It defeats the purpose, for the music is the thread. An homage to the traditions of Grand Opera, luxurious melodies pervade its lush score enacted by a large scale cast, surrounded by lavish sets. There are scantly few spoken words in its nearly 3-hour running time, with repeated musical refrains echoing throughout.
It’s true that the music that transcends one’s heart and soul is innately personal – how one viscerally reacts to a refrain, a stanza, a melody is unique to the individual. I can’t remember the exact moment all those years ago, but “Les Miserables” bored inside me on an intrinsic, almost instinctual level, and tattooed onto my very soul. It moves me as so few musicals do. And as a man who has seen many hundreds of Broadway shows over three decades, that’s a grand statement.
But it is what it is, and I own it.
I know, I know…why am I meandering on about Broadway versions of “Les Miserables”?
Well, because it is with the heaviest of hearts that I must proclaim Tom Hooper’s film version left me cold.
For months I waited with breathless abandon; since they ‘leaked’ a snippet of Oscar front-runner Anne Hathaway’s “I Dreamed A Dream” to the masses, and with every successive sneak preview, my anticipation was tenfold of the preceding. I argued to those who loathed Russell Crowe’s singing voice or Anne Hathaway’s restraint (hey, she ain’t no Patti LuPone!) that pomposity wasn’t necessary for a movie musical to tell its story; in fact, often such overt theatrics suffocate any nuance, any emotional fortitude, when characterized on screen. And emotion is what “Les Miserables” is saturated with. On the stage, melodramatic histrionics are almost always a necessity. Depending on the material, reserved vocal chops usually don’t cut it. Could you imagine LuPone cooing “I Dreamed A Dream,” (or for that matter, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” from “Gypsy”), Betty Buckley mewing the killer cadence from “Memory” or Jennifer Holiday passively reflecting “And I Am Telling You” from “Dreamgirls”? Of course not. It needs to be exaggerated, the crescendo, the uprise, the build, the intestinal endurance to get the point across not only the first five rows, but to the rafters. (Of course, such bombast, in incapable hands, could also ruin a show, but I digress…)
As reported ad nauseum, Hooper had the actors sing their songs live during filming (as opposed to lip-reading to a previously recorded soundtrack) and added the orchestration later. I thought the idea, especially in the preview clips, was a stroke of genius. These are foremost, after all, actors – and what better way to showcase that craft than by allowing them to interpret the songs in the moment? Regrettably, the audaciousness of this “authenticity” mostly resulted in the exact opposite of its ideal – for the most part, each actor either felt too self-aware, too overtly concerned with hitting the notes (not that they were all hit) or actually becoming too showboaty – dissipating any realism that was desired.
Another distraction made the performances almost unbearable to watch – Hooper absurdly decided to shoot everyone in relentless nostril-flaring, nose-hair counting, snot-running close-ups; not only did this stultify any dramatic or comedic proclivity (asphyxiating, for example, the scope of “Master of the House” and relegating the building of the barricade to nothing but mere furniture tossing), it nullified the exquisiteness of the art design. When the camera does pan out during the final crescendos of any given ballad, you witness a gorgeous, expansive feat of visuals. Sumptuous, detailed, gruesome, extravagant – production designer Eve Stewart created, when you can see it, such beautiful squalor. She should sue.
The actors do the best they can in a medium outside (most of their) wheelhouses. Hugh Jackman is a gorgeous talent of a man, a brilliant, almost anachronistic showman, yet his voice sounded too helium-infused; if the score were transposed half a step lower, the results could’ve been mind-blowing – instead, we are begging for more resonance. The same detriments haunt the angelic-looking Amanda Seyfried, who’s proven to be an apt singer in the past but here displays a mostly grating, feigned soprano. Hathaway’s much-heralded Fantine is most effective in her performance (if not, at times teetering on affective) – during her barely 30 minutes of screen time she exhibits the desperation and pathos of her distraught grisette. (The awards for her show stopping number are already flowing in.) Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter provide needed, near-seditious comic relief as the innkeepers, the Thenardiers, though more colored with a darker speciousness than the stage.
The oddly attractive Eddie Redmayne was a curious choice of the traditionally handsome Marius, but his tenor possesses a sweet lucidity. I would have preferred the more vocally stellar and stunning Aaron Tveit (of “Next To Normal” and “Catch Me If You Can” fame), who here portrays Enjolras, to swap roles with Redmayne. Stage actress Samantha Barks as Eponine, is a powerhouse. And what a delight to see – and hear – the great Wilkinson (the original Valjean) as the bishop whose munificence transforms Jackman’s Valjean into a man of courage and dignity.
Then of course there’s Russell Crowe’s Inspector Javert. Crowe is one of our great actors, but I can’t recall seeing a performance so strikingly self-conscious to the point of visual stupefaction. Forget his non-voice (for someone whose fronted an, ahem, rock band for 20 years you’d think he could manage a modicum of ethos) – Crowe looks visibly distrait in a constant dear-in-the-headlights glaze, lumbering along in a dramatic, catatonic void. Such hindrances counterpoints, say, the needed sturdy defiance of “Stars.”
On some level I have to admire the temerity of “Les Miserables,” and perhaps a second viewing will warm me of it’s apparent charms (it’s making a fortune). I don’t know.
On stage, the three hour running time swept by in a tsunami of emotional, glorious – albeit, depressing – splendor. Watching the film, you feel every minute trudge by in a bloated daze. And that makes the film feels so anonymous. Which for any lavish, epic, grandiose musical, is a bigger crime that stealing a loaf of bread.