A funny thing happened on the way to this second (and final!) part of this posting. You may remember I mentioned that a reviewer (Emma Gosnell) walked out of the movie 37 minutes before the end.
The reason I knew that was a google search had shown there were many reviews, and I'd vowed not to read any before writing this, but the first few lines said this:
There were only 37 minutes to go. Surely we could make it to the end? But having spent the last two hours hoping vainly that things must get better, I gave in. “Let’s get out of here,” I said.That was where I stopped. I didn't want to know why. All I did was use the amazing little Push-to-Kindle app on Firefox to send the article to my little Kindle Reader, so I could read it in bed after I'd written this part of the piece.
But in the warmth of my bed next morning, there it was, tormenting me. No, I hadn't written this part.
I read the review. And once I had, I couldn't un-read it. She's fiercer than I am by far, but then, she's a real live critic with some real arrows to fire. I'm just me.
I was thrown into a quandary, because the criticisms she made were so nearly mine – except that hers is better written by far, her emphases were different and there's no way I'd walk out at the end-minus-37th minute and miss the final numbers, because on stage they're very powerful.
Yet it would almost look like plagiarism – as if I hadn't come up with these things myself. I wished momentarily that I hadn't succumbed, but figured it might yet look a bit like it anyway. I have other things to say, but still....
Then I realised she'd done me a favour. All I needed to do was talk about the things that mattered to me in the light of her published comments, and people could read her review up to the minute she stomped out. It wasn't how I planned it, but it's better than an accusation of unoriginal thought.
It was, she said, "...a melodrama with a grand, historical sweep, in which people would be doing – and doing it with incredible passion and grit – the thing I love most of all: singing."
And that's the nub of it. The singing. That's what has to be right or it fails. Or if it doesn't fail, it surely detracts in direct proportion to how unsatisfying the songs are for the audience.
Les Misérables is about poverty, pain, isolation, frustration, suffering. The songs are, in every way, “big”. And that’s where, for me, it fell so woefully short. Where Hugh Jackman, as the long-suffering central character Jean Valjean, imprisoned for 17 years for stealing a loaf of bread, should have soared in moments of anger or pain, his vocals died. Instead of following through on the long, sustained notes – of which there are many in Les Mis – he cut them off with a weak, nasal vibrato. It was as if Jackman was afraid to go for it.It was a bit like that, but I didn't feel unkindly towards Jackman. The songs should have sounded a bit bigger, but they weren't. He had to stay within his competence.
But that's it. This show, the music, is too big for that. Way too big. It's operatic.
So why cast actors who can sing a bit, and not singers who can act?
Box office, that's why. Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Russell Crowe, and Helena Bonham Carter will bring in a hundred million people, unlike Colm Wilkinson, Philip Quast, Michael Ball and Jenny Galloway, whose names mean nothing to the average movie audience. Yet they sing the songs the way they were meant to be sung. Real singers. But – they're an unknown brand to an unfamiliar audience – even though they've all done Broadway, NY and the West End, London.
It was the same with Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter in the film version of Sweeney Todd. That was a disappointment for exactly the same reason: beautiful in just about every other way except for gratuitous bloodletting, but some pitifully massacred songs. Sondheim must have hated it.
Let me not get on to that.
Hathaway sang her anguished soul out in I Dreamed a Dream. I loved Eddie Redmayne’s performance as Marius, the earnest revolutionary. And the long-suffering Éponine, played by Samantha Barks, was not just technically adept but completely credible. You felt her pain.She gives much-deserved credit to the female singers. In the movie, they wisely cast Samantha Barks as Éponine. They chose her, and Eddie Redmayne as Marius, because they needed real singers to give quality to the leads. They were great. Full marks.
Yes, some brand recognition there. And let's give full recognition to the excellent but comparatively unknown singers who played the revolutionaries and their lady friends.
And what about Russell Crowe, much maligned, even ridiculed? Look, he did his best, okay? He's playing a plodder cop (Javert) with a sad background and a determination to uphold the law no matter what. It's what gives all meaning to his life and he rather die than fail. In the end that failure ends his life in a pitiful suicide – but with a magnificent song.
Now, the great disappointment – the Thénadiers in the comic song and scene that should have brought the house down: Master of the House. It fell flat. It had little fire. Helena Bonham Carter was too pretty. Still too Goth – to use Tracey's words, which hit the nail on the head – from her dangerously-close-to-typecasting after Harry Potter and Sweeney Todd; nastiness aplenty but too classy-looking. If you want to see a genuine Mme Thénadier, then look at this (at the 42 min 40 mark – yes, you get the whole deal!) Even though it's just a concert version, the audience has the impact it's supposed to.
That's the critical difference between a movie version of a story and a stage one. There's no audience for the cast to react to. No-one's out there, cheering and weeping and whistling. They may be doing that at times in the movie theatre if they know the musical well (many who have gone to see just Hugh and Anne won't) but the performance of stage actors feeds off the audience response.
Look at that concert on youtube and you'll see how a live audience changes everything. Les Mis and Sweeney Todd need that. We need to hear the audience response, and we don't get it.
Would I see it again if it came to town? Sure, if I were able. I can forgive its failings and appreciate the many good things about it.
One thing's for sure, I wouldn't be walking out with 37 minutes to go, though I am probably one of the minority who saw the movie who can understand why Gosnell did.
Our ADMS stage production was richer and more vibrant – in the ways that count.
“If you’re making a musical, you should hire singers,” she tells me. “Singers who can act. In a musical, you want singing that’s technically good. It’s cruel to make people who can’t sing, sing.” [Marni Nixon, speaking to Emma Gosnell]And if you're making a film about a stage show with the presence of Les Mis, then film it on stage, with an audience, using all the genius that modern video-making can offer a stage production.
It would be remiss of me not to acknowledge the contribution by Tracey to our long discussion of Les Mis after coming home. We agreed on every point, but if there are changes of emphasis you don't like, they're probably mine.