You Can See the People Sing

If you’ve been wanting to see a filmed version of the Les Misérables musical, this is certainly that.

The Broadway cast recording of Les Misérables was one of the first CDs I ever owned, and I listened to it incessantly. I’m sure that on my death bed — assuming I get an actual bed, and don’t die in a chair in a convent somewhere — there’ll still be a chunk of my brain devoted to nothing but the songs from that damn show. Still, even though I knew the songs, I could never figure out what the heck was going on.

Seeing the actual play didn’t clear things up, either. The Playbill had a helpful synopsis and glossary (and I think maps and timelines were also included; they didn’t make any assumptions about the intelligence of the audience), but the only seat I could afford was in the orchestra, directly behind a support pole. With as little as I could see, it was roughly equivalent to just listening to the soundtrack again. I still wasn’t able to piece together more than “ex-convict adopts a little girl and then there’s a rebellion.”

Finally, tonight, I saw Les Misérables on film, where there’s not a bad seat in the theater, and it’s impossible not to follow the story. And as it turns out, the story really is basically “ex-convict adopts a little girl and then there’s a rebellion.” I realize that when the competition is “deformed guy kidnaps opera singer” and “cats tell stories,” the bar for complex storytelling is set pretty low. Still, I’d always thought there was more to it, especially since the novel is pretty long.

Sarcasm aside, that pretty much sums up what you get when you make a cinematic version of a musical: what seems epic on a stage loses something when you try to make it real. The filmmakers were going for realism, and I think they made the right choices every step of the way: they cast actors who could sing, instead of simply putting a camera on performers used to musical theater. The songs were performed “live” — as we’re reminded with every single bit of promotion around the movie — instead of lip-syncing a studio recording; the effect is that the actors are playing out a story in which they just happen to be singing. Most of the songs are treated as monologues or dialogues instead of musical numbers, and when they make an exception to film a straightforward musical number, it’s usually the right choice. The costumes and sets are, for the most part, perfect, and the overall look is similar to the historical dramas from the late 60s and 70s, where the filmmakers used cramped spaces and natural lighting to make it absolutely clear they weren’t on a set.

But the realism is at odds with the fact that everyone is singing, constantly. Or that each of the characters is a melodramatic caricature, specifically written so that after one song, a person from the back row of the theater could understand their entire back story. The pieces that are done like a traditional musical — Javert’s two soliloquies on rooftops or bridges around Paris; and Fantine’s descent into prostitution during “Lovely Ladies” — are more familiar, but also draw attention to the fact that significant chunks of the story are being condensed into a single scene.

It’s the most jarring during the “Master of the House” scene. It’s important for the show, because otherwise you’d have three hours of people just being, well, miserable. And Sacha Baron Coen and Helena Bonham Carter camp it up, just like they’re supposed to and they were hired to do. But again, what works on the stage doesn’t play as well in a movie so committed to realism. One of the oldest complaints about musicals is that the characters suddenly break into song. And I’ve always thought it was a particularly stupid complaint, so it’s somewhat strange that the first time it’s ever bothered me is in a movie where the characters sing throughout.

Although I was familiar with the soundtrack, I’ve never followed the show closely enough to be one of those people who calls it “Les Miz.” So I wasn’t aware that the actor who originally played Jean Valjean was cast as the Bishop who rescues Jean Valjean, which was a clever touch. And I wouldn’t be able to say anything about the vocal performances with any authority, except that everybody sounded fine to me. Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway were clearly emphasizing the dramatic performance over the vocal one, which is clearly the way to go when all of your dialogue is sung through and the camera is going to have you in close-up. Hugh Jackman’s voice gets a little Anthony Newly-ish, and it was obvious even to me that “Bring Him Home” was out of his comfortable vocal range, but he never once looks uncomfortable or unnatural. He gives every song his absolute conviction, and he ends up selling it.

I was most surprised that Amanda Seyfried could sing, since I was only familiar with her in movies aimed at teenagers. She and the actor playing Marius are well cast vocally, since they play the typical star-crossed lovers, and their voices sound like reincarnations of the leads in 1930s musicals. It struck me as remarkable that a movie like this could even be made, finding enough high-caliber actors who could also sing well enough to carry one of the most popular stage musicals. Dubbing a performance like in West Side Story or The King and I wouldn’t fly in a post-Milli Vanilli society, I guess.

I thought the standout, by far, was Samantha Barks as Éponine, and not just because “On My Own” is my favorite song from the show. She makes the singing look effortless, and her songs were the only times I was genuinely engrossed in the story, instead of being aware that I was watching a movie musical. She was amazing; it’s just a shame about the face. Speaking of which: Russell Crowe was probably the weakest singer of all the leads. He wasn’t bad, he just came across as a guy with an average-to-good singing voice, who wasn’t used to belting out a song, Broadway-style, cast as a lead in a show that demands the cast to belt out a song, Broadway-style. You could tell that he got the part mostly because he looks like Russell Crowe. Which is good, because the movie spends a lot of time showing him in close-up. I really didn’t mind, which is probably why I’m not going to be that critical about the singing.

Ultimately, I think that this version of Les Misérables is about as good a job as anyone could possibly do making a cinematic version of the musical. It tells the story with clarity. It sets the action in real places — a church, or a hospital, or the sewers beneath Paris — instead of mere suggestions. It takes a musical with almost no dialogue and delivers the songs as if they were dialogue. It finally shows the real scope of the barricade against the rest of the city, and the guns and cannon fire. And it ends beautifully; I’ve heard the songs countless times, and for the first time, the line “to love another person is to see the face of God” almost had me tearing up.

The only question is whether a cinematic version of the musical is a good idea in the first place, or whether translating it from a stage production to a Major Motion Picture causes it to lose everything that makes the stage production feel epic. In the worst case, it’ll give a ton of people who’ve never been able to see the stage production a chance to see what all the fuss was about. Considering it’s one of the most successful and longest-running musicals ever made, it’s entirely possible that I’m the only one who was disappointed to finally see it after 20 years, and realize that there wasn’t more to it.