The WHAT'S NEW! page contains the latest medical updates. If you're wondering how I'm going as far as health is concerned, this is the place to start. Latest: Wed 27 Nov 2013. 7.20AM

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Les Mis et nous 2

   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. 

   That's the problem. Russell is an accidental metaphor for Javert, giving it his all but not quite making it. I have a soft spot for him for that reason – the unintended parody of the character he played. But oh! We deserved for our tolerance the full force of that last splendid painful song, and we didn't get it. Still, he tried.

   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.

Les Mis 1 | Les Mis 2  


  1. (deleted comment above was me, but I forgot to say who was commenting)

    I wrote:

    Happy sigh.

    Thank you. That was worth waiting for. I'm off to check out your links :)

    1. Jeni – I deleted it so it doesn't appear at all now. My response to it, which automatically disappears as well, looked slightly snarky when I read it later. It wasn't meant to be; just explanatory and raising the general question, which has been in my mind, about multi-part posts. I might make that a separate query of my own because others might have views on the matter.

      Thanks, Jeni!

    2. As I replied on part 1, I love your long posts. My "aggh!!" re waiting for part 2 was truly only made as a joking response because we'd had a similar dialogue a couple of months back.

      Please, Denis: never shorten a post. All of us out here enjoy every word :)

    3. :) Thanks, Jeni. Save me time and please tell me your Twitter ID. Was trying to find it but gave up.

    4. Not on Twitter (shudder) but our blog has a Facebook page here:

      Re comments below I find I agree with zmkc. For example, in my own profession (museum curator) I would never review an art exhibition I'd only half seen. I might walk out because it's a poor exhibit, but if I did that I would never publish. In fact I often give extra time and repeat viewings to poor exhibits because if I'm publishing anything negative I want to get all the details absolutely right.

    5. Exactly re reviewing. It's very presumptuous to say or imply 'I know so much about this music and all these people that the last quarter of this film is utterly predictable' – so I can review it for an international audience of hundreds of thousands anyway.

      I smile at your Twitter shudder because it makes me wonder what you imagine Twitter to do or be. For those who don't get it, it may look like some sort of giant chatroom of whiners and exchangers of ephemera. But for those who know how to use it and choose well who they associate with, it is a pointer to an extraordinary library [and global museum!] and to meet exceptionally talented people you have no chance of interacting with otherwise.

      But yes, it's somewhat arcane to begin with. 'OK, I've joined up – nothing happens! – until you make it.

    6. I think if I had 24 hour mobile coverage Twitter would be a lot more fun, but sadly it really doesn't work when you are offline and out of mobile range for days on end. When there is finally a mobile that works at home, I'll give it another go :)

    7. Ahah! Very good point. Twitter is something that is much better with unfettered access to the internet cup. I guess it's all compromise, isn't it? You exchange the benefit of that access for your extended access to the beauties of your natural surroundings.

  2. Well, I pretty well could have written this review myself, it is so in line with my own thoughts about the film. I so loved the 10th (especially) and the 25th anniversary specials and while I realise that the great Colm Wilkinson is no longer up to singing Valjean, and that the wonderfully impassioned Aussie Phillip Quast is perhaps also too old to sing Javert, they have given us the pattern. Hugh Jackman laboured manfully but it takes a tenor of operatic stature to sing Bring Him Home and Jackman (a fine Curly in Oklahoma long ago) just ain't one! As for poor Russell, looking so desperately uncomfortable as Javert, 'nuff said. It's the old Julie Andrews/Audrey Hepburn/My Fair Lady thing over again; Alfie Boe, with his wonderful voice, auditioned for the role he'd made his own on stage and lost out to Jackman. Hollywood just doesn't learn. The Thenadiers WERE dreadful too, not a patch on Jenny Gallagher and either Alun Armstrong or (surprisingly!) Matt Lucas. I didn't walk out because I wanted my money's worth, but I WAS very disappointed. The girls were fine, though, and while Eddie R is no Michael Ball he made a reasonable fist of things. And having written that I shall now go and YouTube Michael Ball in the 10th anniversary Les Mis singing Empty Chairs and Empty Tables the way it SHOULD be sung!

    1. Thanks, Julie. I'm a softie, you see, so I tend to sympathise with those who try. Nevertheless, your criticisms are valid. But in one respect you're wrong. Hollywood has learned very well that the only thing that matters for success, or at least, doesn't guarantee financial failure – is to hire the biggest drawcard movie star names.

      I think Audrey Hepburn might have taught them that if they don't already know it. It didn't matter that she failed at Cockney 102 and couldn't sing terribly well - she had the most graceful American neck in movie history, worth millions, and Julie's was… well… a neck. :)

      Theatre management can be just as tough. After all, who else could give legend Patti LuPone the sack for not being good enough to play Evita? Wonderful interview with her here. I thought zmkc might have mentioned that interview ref on her blog, but may be wrong.

  3. I think it is a failure of duty to walk out before the end of a show that you're reviewing, without a very, very good reason. I also think Eddie Redmayne was a fluke - he had no reputation as a singer, as far as I know, until he appeared in that film. But Eton provides a very well-rounded education, covering every angle. I wonder if Boris Johnson sings well?

    1. I didn't think enough about that, but you are right about seeing it right through if you're going to publish your review. Walk out if you must, but yes, you do negate your right to publish.

      Eddie Redmayne I saw only in that Sunday night extravaganza on ABC TV ["The Pillars of the Earth"] and had no idea he could sing. Do you think it might have been Cambridge that did the trick, not the playing fields? As to Boris, not with that hair, but I can't blame Oxford for that.


Some iPads simply refuse to post responses. I have no idea why, but be aware of this.
Word verification has been enabled because of an avalanche of spam. SAVE or compose a long comment elsewhere before posting; don’t lose it! View in Preview mode first before trying to post.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.