"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Observations of a Prodigal Les Miz Freak

Page One: Days of Endless Wonder

The first time I listened to the soundtrack of Les Miserables the musical, I did not utilize iTunes or an MP3 player, nor did I listen to a CD or even a cassette. I played a record. That was in the late 80s. My sisters discovered the musical first and borrowed the Original London Cast double LP from a friend.

One day I found myself alone with the album in our family's living room. I did not yet know the plot. And while the music had an apparent beauty, I was not captivated instantaneously. Then I listened to 'Bring Him Home'. When the song ended, I picked up the player's needle, moved it back to the starting point and listened to the song again...and again. I fell in love.

The first time I saw Les Miserables the musical was the summer of 1990. Our family made it a fancy night on the town in Washington D.C. Dressed in Sunday best, we ate dinner at Old Ebbitt Grill and then strolled over to the National Theatre to see the First National Tour of the show. Over the years I have seen the show six more times, including four times on Broadway. But in those early years, seeing the musical was not enough. I wanted to play and sing along.

Earlier in childhood I'd given up on piano lessons, losing interest as the difficulty increased. But I took piano playing up again to learn selections from the Les Miz songbook. In particular, I memorized 'Bring Him Home.' Armed with the London, Broadway, and Complete Symphonic soundtracks, I sang the songs in my room and with friends at school. I participated in musicals in high school and started taking voice lessons. This wasn't enough either.

I decided to read Victor Hugo's original novel. My mother offered to purchase me a copy. It will always be a matter of good fortune that she could not find an abridged version and instead purchased me the complete 1400-page edition. It took months to read and much of it was over my head, but Hugo's epic novel served as my entry into serious literature. Indeed, Les Miserables jumpstarted my forays into singing, theatre, and literature. No other single work made as practical and far-reaching an impact on my choice to embark on lifelong participation in the arts.

Page Two: At the End of the Day 

With the above fandom credentials, I was over-prepared to see the new film musical version. In fact, I went in expecting my mind to throw up resistance to any given cinematic alteration. Certainly, there was no chance I would just sit back and enjoy the show. After all, I'd been dreaming my dream of a film version ever since producer Cameron Mackintosh began promising one back in the early 90s.

Now for some criticism. The genius of the stage musical is that it faithfully distilled the thematic essence of Hugo's 1400-page masterpiece. By sculpting the stage version around the emotional arc of ex-convict Jean Valjean's journey, the show's creators artfully remained true to Hugo's vision without getting mired in political minutia. Novels are allowed, even encouraged, to explore byways of background and philosophy. Musicals and movies must stick to the main road and move things along. The asses of audiences demand it. In many ways, efficiency being foremost, the stage musical improves upon Hugo's narrative.

The movie musical, however, is an adaptation of an adaptation. As a work of narrative, it possesses unavoidable Frankenstein qualities. Well-versed fans of the novel and musical can see where pieces of past incarnations have been stitched together to make a new entity. In the case of Les Miserables the filmmakers did quite a bit of stitching, for better and worse. But overall, the effect is to render the plot hurried and choppy.

Some of the changes involve shimming up the stage version with tidbits from the original novel. Valjean's physical appearance just out of jail is clearly taken from Hugo's description. So too is the brutal moment when a john shoves snow down Fantine's corset (Hugo identifies this event as precipitating her fatal illness.) We get to see Valjean and little Cosette granted exile in a Parisian convent. Marius prevents an early overrunning of the barricade by threatening to blow it up with a barrel of gun powder. And when the barricade does fall, we see its herald Enjolras retreat to the second floor of a tavern for an Alamo-like last stand. To the film's credit, it dispenses with most of the stage production's stylized gallantry. Instead, the filmmakers emphasize the ugliness and two-way brutality with which Hugo first portrayed the barricade sequence.

So it is that the film version varies significantly from the stage musical. A tweet from a moviegoer on Twitter called for sing-along screenings. But I imagine a great deal of stuttering and furrowed brows at such events, at least in the short term. The movie's libretto is quite different, taking into account everything from truncated verses to completely overhauled recitatives. If you have learned the musical from its stage incarnation, you have yet to learn the film version.

As the film progressed, more and more I became aware that I did not love it the way I loved the stage production. Once too often the refitted libretto proved too clunky and over-expository. For every moment that rang true, a moment would follow that felt hasty or contrived. If love is the inability to remain objective, to keep something at arm’s length for proper analysis, then by an hour into the movie I knew I wasn’t in love. After watching the closing credits, I left the theater feeling tired instead of uplifted, almost as if I'd just attended a stressful dress rehearsal.

That’s not to say the movie didn’t have its magical moments, haunting or endearing in just the right way. Hugh Jackman’s rendition of ‘Who am I?’, and the filming of it, matched the spiritual peril this same sequence achieves on stage and in the novel. The large company in their cavalcade of cameos, one after another singing only a few bars solo, were awesome. Their composite voice did justice to Hugo’s epic, which seeks justice and vindication for the suffering masses.

Page Three: My Friends, Forgive Me...

Intentionally, and sometimes to great dramatic effect, Les Miserables the movie has a jarringly unpolished feel. A critic or two like me found Tom Hooper's direction at times overbearing and intrusive. What do I mean? Watch Hugh Jackman sing 'Bring Him Home.' Notice how the camera moves incessantly. Watch at the end as Hugh hits the final high note with the camera launching heavenward, in case we weren't aware that he was praying. The dominant element in what should be the most simple and sacred moment of the show is not the character praying, but the camera traveling about the set. That is heavy handed direction.

Casual moviegoers may not care about cinematic nuts and bolts. And many devout fans have already taken great offense at critics second-guessing a movie that brought them to a state of rapture. In any case, I have no apology. I did not find the movie to be a masterpiece, even though I found much within it to be masterful. In any case, being analytical is part of why I love going to the movies. Sitting there weighing the merits, evaluating this scene or that casting choice, made for an engrossing evening at the movies.

Speaking of casting, the choice to have Colm Wilkinson play the small but pivotal role of the Bishop of Digne was inspired. As the original and definitive voice of Valjean, Colm's blessing of Hugh Jackman's Valjean held extra gravitas. It should never be forgotten that Colm's casting in the original London production is what caused the musical's creators to convert the role from a heavy baritone to a lyric tenor. (The Complete Book of Les Miserables, Edward Behr, pg. 95). This allows for greater contrast when Valjean appears opposite his nemesis Javert. As Valjean trends brighter in tone and demeanor, Javert remains dark as we first saw and heard him in the prison prologue.

More than any other character, Javert is revealed to be excruciatingly static in the film. Granted, this is largely because he is unyielding in his devotion to law and order. But at some point Javert’s humanity needs to percolate to the surface if the audience is to become endeared to him in the way Broadway audiences did. And this is why I am glad Russell Crowe assumed the role.

A consummate screen actor, Crowe always holds the moment, even when delivering the libretto’s clunky recitatives. Of course his expression seems pained and awkward, as naysayers have pointed out. Pain and awkwardness sum up Javert's journey through a world that constantly undermines his faith in law and justice. But when at last Crowe is given a chance to portray Javert as vulnerable, very late in the film during a touching post-battle close-up, he executes the moment with a clean performance free of emotional excess. Most of the time, great screen acting is about not overacting.

Let me join in the chorus of people fawning over Anne Hathaway's performance as Fantine. I’ve never been able to fully enjoy Anne’s acting before, for a rather silly reason. She looks a bit too much like a girl I once dated (acutely distracting, but not Anne's fault). Nevertheless, in a role created by the inimitable Patti Lupone, and before a vast audience of Les Miz freaks like me who already have their favorite Fantines, Anne stepped into the role and delivered.

At some point in the last decade or so, I deliberately distanced myself from Les Miserables. This happens sometimes with me and my favorites. I reach a point where the memory of the first encounter feels far sweeter than any reunion could hope to, so I just stay away. It’s one of the reasons I’ve now gone several years without watching the original Star Wars trilogy, but that’s another blog post I suppose.

But then the orchestra crept in to accompany Anne's singing of 'I Dreamed a Dream.' As Anne’s Fantine sang about past days of ‘endless wonder’ my mind returned to those first curious explorations of a borrowed Les Miz soundtrack, to that first time sitting captivated in the mezzanine of the National Theatre, and to countless hours spent singing along to soundtracks. I felt my connection to the musical reawaken.

Page Four: In Time Gone By... 

In 1993 or early 1994, I found myself trailing actress Susan Dawn Carson around a crowded theatre lobby on the campus of Montgomery College in Rockville, Maryland. I was seeking her autograph. Over three years earlier I had seen her play Fantine. As it turned out, she was an alumnus of Montgomery College and was back on campus for a special reunion concert with two other alumni. It seemed every person in that audience also wanted her autograph.

For an hour I shadowed her through the crowd, waiting my turn. This included a couple pang-filled instances of Susan noticing me. I would approach sheepishly but then back away as others swooped in for their chance to meet her.

Finally my turn came and Fantine, which is to say Susan Dawn Carson, smiled and said to me, “You’ve been waiting awhile.” I grinned and handed her my playbill from the First National Tour she’d performed in almost four years prior. “Wow,” she said with nostalgia. Then my geeky superfan spiel gushed forth. “Susan I’ve seen Les Miz four times including twice on Broadway but that company was my favorite.” She warmly replied, “You know it was mine too.” To this day, Susan's Fantine remains my favorite. Meeting her is one of scores of sweet memories I owe to the show and its creators.

The man I am today had no chance of falling for this new movie the way I fell for the stage musical in my youth. Yet, it is this long overdue and problematic film that reawakened all of my adoration for Les Miserables. The original Broadway soundtrack has been dusted off, as has my thick paperback copy of Victor Hugo's novel. Once again I hear the people sing. So in spite of technical concerns, I must call the movie a success. What else can I say? It brought me home.