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Thursday, April 11, 2013

Les Mis et nous 1

...which is to say, this is about a big movie, a stage production, and Tracey and me.
"It was magic. Just as well I came prepared – with tissues."

"I was bored out of my mind with it." 

"Fantastic! Wonderful casting." 

"Not a word of dialogue. All they did was sing." 

"That's three hours I will never get back." 

"The acting was wonderful. A pity they aren't singers." 

"Hey, it's a movie. It's not meant to look like a concert."

   And so it goes on. And on.

   Is Les Mis, the movie based on the stage musical, any good?

   Les Misérables. I'll just call it what most people do – Les Mis. That's what it should be called, because it bears little resemblance to the brooding film (1998) of the same name, much less the Victor Hugo tale.

   Let me nail my colours to the mast.

   In 2002, the Armidale Drama and Musical Society (ADMS) performed a production of the show. It was a tremendous hit and played to full houses every night of a three week season.

   It was the finest cast of singers and chorus ever assembled in Armidale up to that time for a musical, and, backed by a wonderful orchestra and crew, has got to rank with the best ever produced in the city.

   In 2002, I had barely come into the world of musical theatre. Only the fact that Tracey was a stage performer had given me an interest. Until then, for me, the songs just interrupted the story. If it were a choice between Pygmalion and My Fair Lady, I'd have spurned the latter and stuck to good old GBS.

   Tracey was still new to town and was happy to take a place in the Ensemble.

   I decided, out of curiosity, to go to the rehearsals and see what the attraction of this form of drama was. The first evening I was there, they started with a warmup; Do you hear the people sing?

   I can't describe the effect of hearing the melding of these beautiful voices from bass to soprano in this soul-stirring song, except for the thrill up and down my spine. 

   No, I wasn't hooked – not yet. The opening sequence didn't grab me, nor was I used to the concept that from start to finish, this had no straight dialogue. All singing! Was this opera or what?

   Of course it's not all about the music. The complexity of the elements that combine to create a stage production you can barely imagine if you didn't do Drama 101 (I didn't) or haven't watched them unfold before your eyes (I did). 

   It's easy enough to understand the Director's role, though direction's no easy task. I learned what a Producer actually does (you have to be special to do that well) – or a Stage Manager. The subtleties of Lighting. The agony of Sound. Sight lines. The critical role of a good crew toiling away out the back. How it all comes together.

   Laugh if you will at my ignorance. I don't mind. I can pan for gold and write backwards. Can you? Hmm?

   What fascinated me was to watch others involved in the show, no matter what their role, as the rehearsals went on, week after week. As I got to appreciate the beauty of the musical numbers and the lyrics, word for word, and to wince when a singer was a fraction sharp or flat or was straining for that high note, I came to understand their passion.

   Very often I'd see them in the wings, watching with great intensity as Eponine poured out her heart and soul with On My Own, tears and sniffles with the really soppy bits even though they'd heard them – maybe sung them – a hundred times. The sheer delight of the bawdy Thénardier establishment, the stirring Red and Black evoking images of the Marseillaise a half-century before, and the pathos of Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.

   Of all the shows I might have begun with, I'd stumbled on the very one that the performers love most of all, or so they've said to me many times over.

   So, what am I doing here? Establishing my creds, I guess. I'm just a nobody, with a blog. I'm not one of the scores of critics who write for influential newspapers, but I have my views about this 2012 film. I think I'm reasonably fair-minded. Unlike one critic, I didn't walk out 37 minutes from the end, but I do know this musical intimately. So here's what I think.

   Damn. I've run out of words before I got started. Next time it's all about this movie, I swear.

Scenes from ADMS production of Les Mis [2002]

Les Mis 1 | Les Mis 2


  1. 'Les Mis' was a really impressive production by the ADMS -all of us in Armidale could feel proud that 'our town' did that! Like many things, such productions must become more fascinating the more you are involved. I too would be more likely to love 'Pygmalion'as a straight play than the musical version (but I did love 'My Fair Lady' and many more musicals of that era).

    It's weird that though I often found all that breaking into song silly and annoying, I am now such an afficionado of Bollywood films. Here is a chance for me to bushranger your blog and announce that Bollywood is this year 100 years old:) and is the biggest film industry in the world. Westerners don't 'get' Bollywood but I always hope that someday they will realise its brilliance and pleasures. It's not so silly -it's another way of looking at the world. That's all. It's lonely as an Australian Bollywood fan without Indian heritage! Certainly no-one will rush to see any seminar papers I may give talking about its fascinations.

    Great work, Armidale Drama and Music Society! Very high quality stuff.

    Yours piratically, Julie M.

    1. Yes, the answer is in seeing them as two fundamentally different forms of entertainment, as I believe becomes evident in the second part. Now you can see, with your Bollywood romance, where the difference lies. As I said, I shared your sentiment. Nothing would annoy me more in the African Queen if they broke into some meaningful dirge when about to be strung up on the German ship near the end.

      But South Pacific? That's a different kettle of coconuts. Or Gilbert & Sullivan? What would we have if it were just Mr G. doing libretto elsewhere and Mr S. composing stuff for the jolly old Savoy chaps?

      The point is clearly made in the second part. Let actors act, and don't let them sing unless they can. Can you imagine Bollywood not making this distinction? If necessary, they'd dub in an instant. I daresay they often do.

  2. Agghh!!! Another multi part post!!. I'll just go curl up somewhere and hope the time until part 2 :)

    1. Your wish has been granted, and I really appreciate your interest. I hope you can now see why it became a two-part post and to venture to the second will be worth it for you. Some pieces fall naturally into several parts that each have their own integrity.

      I have been torn between breaking stories up and not doing so. I know I can't please everyone but it really is an issue for me. Some people like the fact that they can read a piece in newspaper-piece sized segments. Others who have more reading stamina may prefer the whole thing at once. The latter in one way is better for me, but in others it isn't. It's not as easy as it looks to segment it because internal links change every time and I have to go back and change each with every new part.

      I also have the special problem of physical limit, typing with one hand and half a brain. A small piece takes about 18 hours from start to finish. Doing it in pieces makes it easier in that respect for me and spurs me on to completion.

      But I am curious to know if there are more who favour the whole thing in one piece over smaller segments. I would be concerned to discover that most were annoyed by serialising.

      I have nothing to gain by making people return if they'd prefer not to. Unlike some sites, this carries no advertising and never will, so getting people to return multiple times has no advantage in that sense.

      Please let me know your views on this, other dear readers. I'm listening.

    2. Don't you dare ever shorten a post! I adore your multi part posts. I write long posts myself. And I enjoy the wait between parts, because I love the anticipation of knowing the next post will reveal itself soon, and be well worth the wait.

      Right, I'm off to read part 2 :)


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