I should start this by saying that I’m a gigantic Musical Theater nerd.
I may or may not have seen Les Mis on stage 5 times.
I may or may not own the London cast recording, the original Broadway cast recording, the multi-national Complete recording, and the 10th Anniversary DVD. I also may have seen the 25th Anniversary concert (Jonas brother and all).
I’m one of those ubber-nerds who literally knows every single word of the show. And I mean every word. I can sing all the parts from the first “Look down” to the last “tomorrow comes!”
Which means that I noticed and noted Every. Single. Word. They. Changed. for the film.
You have been warned.
I have a lot of feelings about the film and so I’ll start with the good ones.
1. Anne Hathaway. Holy crap! When I heard she’d be playing Fantine I had my doubts. I didn’t think she was old enough. I didn’t think I would like a non-singer performing “I Dreamed A Dream” — possibly the most famous song from the show. Then when I saw all her award nominations popping up I was a bit skeptical, yet cautiously optimistic. And now I think she deserves every bit of it! Her solo was one of the few times my classical-singer brain stopped its ever constant running commentary of “wrap your jaw back, lift your soft palate, breath down, stop shaking your whole head blah blah blah” and just experienced what she was feeling. And cried. No Fantine I’ve ever seen has made me feel that much. So kudos, Anne, well done.
2. Enjolras, Eponine, Helena Bonham Carter and the students. Enjolras (in case you are less of a nerd than me) is Marius’s friend, the main student guy who does most of the singing. I actually enjoy Enjolras much more in general and he gets some seriously bad ass stuff to sing. Aaron Tveit, the actor, is a legit Broadway guy. He’s been in Next to Normal and the musical Catch me if You Can. Eponine was done by Samantha Barks (not Taylor Swift THANK ALL THINGS HELD HOLY BY ANY RELIGION OR FAITH because she would have ruined one of my favorite characters) who is also a legit broadway performer. She does Eponine in the 25th anniversary concert, and I can only hope at some point she performs the role with a decent Marius to play opposite. Tveit and Barks were a relief for me, singers actually singing (when they were allowed to and more on that later) the way its meant to be sung. And Helena Bonham Carter- I mean how can she not be awesome?
3. A few small details of backstory from the book. The fact that Marius is a pampered rich boy pretending to be poor. The huge lengths Valjean went through to escape from Javert and then keep hidden from him. Young Eponine’s participation in her parent’s schemes from a very young age.
4. Colm Wilkinson as the Bishop. If you don’t know, Colm Wilkinson was the original ValJean in London and on Broadway. He is well cast as the Bishop in the film, a nod to the past for those of us who know. Also he looks and sounds exactly the same as he did 25 years ago.
5. The scope of the uprising. One of my pet peeves is people who say that Les Mis is about the French revolution because it’s NOT. It takes place years after the revolution ends (and if you read the book there is discussion of Thenardier’s participation in the Battle of Waterloo ad fricken nauseum). That’s kind of the point– its not really a revolution. It’s a completely meaningless student uprising. It never had a hope of changing anything ever and the only people who didn’t realize that were the naive and idealistic students who fought and died in it. On a stage where the barricade appears enormous and the passion is contagious we feel it from the student’s perspective. But the film allowed for big sweeping crane shots that showed us how hopeless the student’s cause always was.
6. Hugh Jackman. He gets put in the middle here because for the most part he was awesome. He’s a legit stage performer and I thought his emotion was great. I thought his acting was marvelous and in general a thoroughly enjoyed him. I don’t think that most people realize what a difficult role ValJean is. The music is killer and he sings almost the entire show. I was happy when I heard he’d been cast.
But then there was “Bring Him Home” Which is #1 on my Things I Didn’t Like List.
1. Dude. Hugh Jackman. Stop. Yelling. At. Me. That is all I could think during “Bring Him Home.” This song that I love more than is remotely logical. This song that is the only sort of prayer I believe in. I’m sorry, but he ruined it for me. I don’t know if it was a choice to sing it in full voice rather than floating it all– maybe it was. Or maybe he just doesn’t have the chops to float it (that is waaay more difficult). Or maybe the director wanted him to do it that way. But I hated it. And instead of sobbing like I normally do I sat there and thought “stop yelling at me.”
2. Russell Crowe. WTF. Now, I love Russell Crowe in a way that is slightly unhealthy for anyone and very very odd for the huge dyke I am. I am at a complete loss to explain why he makes my very short “men i would sleep with” list, but he does. All this, however, does not make up for the fact that he was awful in this movie. His acting was too stoic. I mean, Javert is stoic but come on! And the singing… oh gods the singing. It was just bad. it was just really really bad. I won’t let my inner voice teacher out to go on forever about all the vocal things he was doing wrong, because that would be boring. It was just…. BAD.
3. Changing all the things. Like I said, I know every single word of this bad boy. I can tell you what they changed between the West End Premiere and the Broadway opening. I know the full version of “Little People” that no one ever does. I know all the normal cuts and every note of every musical transition. And so I know all the things they changed. Which was at least 50% of the lyrics. They changed small words and flipped rhyming couplets and it was always worse than the original. Always. They moved timelines around, especially Eponine’s. She was supposed to leave and go give ValJean Marius’s letter and then sing “On My Own” on the way back. She is also supposed to be in the trio at the very end with Fantine. That especially pissed me off since it’s one of my FAVORITE PARTS OF THE SHOW!! With very few exceptions all the additions were bad and all the rewriting was not nearly as well written. They moved “Do You Hear the People Sing” and it lost all its effect.
4. Taking out things. They cut so much!! I can see why some would think that the bits they cut aren’t necessary, but it was usually the commentary from minor characters that makes important points about what the main characters are doing. They cut the rest of “Turning” in which the women lament how all the students died for nothing, that “nothing every changes, nothing ever can, round about and round about and back where we began.” Which is a commentary on one of the main points of the show. They cut “Dog Eats the Dog,” Thenardier’s song in the sewers which is a beautiful, haunting showcase of his cynical, yet practical point of view. They cut a lot of the students’ music, which is a shame because it’s beautiful. They cut enough of the Thenardier’s stuff that we no longer got the comic relief we need, and they got the shaft in the complexity of their character.
5. No transitions. In the musical there is quite a bit of musical transition. It’s needed in a stageplay to get us from one place to another and change sets. It would seem that a film can accomplish this without taking that time, but the problem is that then the audience also loses a chance to breathe. Without the transitions, the pacing feels too fast. I lurched from one traumatic moment to another with no time to catch my breath. Musical transitions give us a chance to breathe, to emotionally relax for a moment, and without them I couldn’t ride the roller coaster properly. Also one of my favorite moments is the instrumental “Bring Him Home” done by oboe, after all the students have been killed. It’s a quiet, sad moment and the audience has a chance to grieve what has just happened. Instead we just lurched onward into the sewers.
6. Get out of my face. I was super claustrophobic. There were too many extreme close ups. I wanted everyone to back up a yard or two.
Okay– here we go. I love that it was all sung live on the floor. I really do. And I see why when you have a camera 2 inches from someone’s face the logical choice seems to be to sing more to yourself than the audience. I get that. I get that it was a choice. But what makes me love Les Mis is the power of the music. The way the melodies convey emotion. The power of 50 voices singing full strength. The play between harmonies. the sheer humanness that comes from humans standing and singing together. The choice to make everything internalized and small robbed the music of its power. I couldn’t really feel it. Rather than feeling like an insider, part of the story, I felt like an outsider watching it all happen.
This choice to make everything all internal and half sung, partly to do with a number of actors who didn’t sing very well, meant that those who could sing spent most of their time holding back. Eponine couldn’t well unleash her full voice next to Chirpy Mc Blue Eyes and Sir HeadShakesAlot. I would have gone to see this even if I didn’t recognize a single name on the cast list, and I have a feeling most MT fans would have done so too. The desire to fill the cast full of big names may seem like a Hollywood no brainer, but I would rather they had cast real singers who could really sing and then LET THEM SING FOR THE LOVE OF EMILY DICKINSON!
In general I felt that they either should have done an artsy non-musical film that was all internalized and subtle feeling, or produced the full bodied musical emotional roller coaster as it’s done on stage figuring that they probably did something right since it’s so successful. Instead they tried to do both and it all just cancelled each other out and didn’t really work.
So, yeah. I just have a lot of feelings. I certainly had wet eyes as the credits rolled, but I wonder how much of that is the nostalgia wrapped up in everything Les Mis has been to me over the past 25 years. I’m glad I saw it, but I won’t be buying the DVD and I probably won’t watch it again.