“Les Miserables” has never been a personal favorite, but I understand and respect its place in Broadway history and I enjoy a few of the songs, so I was looking forward to Tom Hooper’s Oscar-nominated film adaptation. After having seen it, I could examine “Les Miserables” from many angles (unlike the movie itself, which only uses two angles: down the brow or up the nose). But whatever its problems as a film, ultimately Tom Hooper’s “Les Miserables” fails as a musical. The decisions to cast for acting and star quality instead of voice and to ask these actors-who-can-sing to sing live shows a lack of understanding of the musical’s fundamental strength as a storytelling genre: namely, its music.
The original “Les Miserables” is less a conventional musical and more a melodramatic operetta. As such, it follows basic opera structure: recitative moves the plot forward, and moments of strong emotion and character development are highlighted by aria-like songs. The recitative in “Les Mis” is the original musical’s weak point; it borrows themes from character arias, which makes the whole thing unfortunately repetitive and very long. However, the character-driven songs allow for moments of deep introspection, ebullient joy, and melodrama.
This is the musical genre’s strongest storytelling tool: the song. Someone once said that a song in a musical is a moment or emotion so strong that it overwhelms the character, and he or she has to express it. Here are some examples of a song’s expository power, both funny and sad:
Of course, people don’t just sing one at a time in musicals. There are choruses, and harmonies, and different voice parts that meet different musical and character needs. The best musicals take advantage of the kind of character moments that can be created by interwoven harmonies, such as the Quintet from “West Side Story”:
“Les Miserables” is nothing but overwrought emotion and music. It’s an operetta about a failed French Revolution with intersecting plotlines, changing locations, and loads of characters crying and fighting and dying. It seems like an obvious choice for the next Great Oscar Bait Musical. So what went wrong?
What struck me most in this interview with Tom Hooper is that he tends to talk about the music as an obstacle he had to overcome rather than as a means of allowing the characters to express themselves. His insistence that the actors sing live was not musically motivated, nor were his casting decisions. When Hooper made a musical, he put the music second. He said:
“Where people communicate through song, then why wouldn’t you record the singing like you would record dialogue? Why would it be different?”
The movie’s biggest musical problems can be boiled down to its casting. Hooper definitely cast actors who could act, but he didn’t necessarily cast actors who could emote through song. Amanda Seyfried and Russell Crowe are woefully underprepared for their musical parts. Hugh Jackman, who won a Tony for “The Boy From Oz,” has a beautiful second-tenor-or-baritone voice. As such, he’s ill-suited for Jean Valjean, who needs to hit notes so high that there’s actually a parody about it called “God It’s High.”
(Many of you reading are now screaming, “WHAT ABOUT ANNE HATHAWAY?” Anne Hathaway is the exception, not the rule. Her performance is raw and overpowering, and we all know she’s going to win an Oscar anyway.)
The trouble with casting for acting ability instead of music is that the music begins to work against the actor. The technical challenge of singing live meant that actors had to focus both on singing melody and acting through a period melodrama. This had mixed results. Those with enough musical training and good voices were able to get by. But for those without, singing live upset the harmonies of the full ensemble. Compare, for example, “One Day More,” the crowd-pleasing conclusion to Act 1 with its anemic film version:
In order to cover castmembers’ singing deficiencies, Tom Hooper had to cut musical threads and frantically remix, and in the process he killed the emotive power of the song. Gone are the epic, sweeping themes. Instead it’s a nice enough song where a bunch of people look uncomfortable while they sing notes slightly out of their range. It might as well be high school drama.
Tom Hooper’s “Les Miserables” is not an isolated incident of movie musical murder. Since “Chicago” won Best Picture in 2003, we’ve had about one musical per year. And while I don’t want to sound like an old-timer sighing for the bygone shows of yesteryear, I can’t help noticing that most of these haven’t been very good. For every “Mama Mia” or “Chicago,” there’s a “Rock Of Ages,” “Sweeney Todd,” or “Nine.” Part of this problem seems to come from filmmakers who, like Hooper, respect the music but don’t appreciate its importance. A large problem arises from casting: Helena Bonham Carter in “Sweeney Todd”? But hope may lie in TV: “Smash” and “Glee,” however you may feel about them individually, together are teaching a new generation to love musical storytelling. And of course, we’ll always have Disney.
One final thing: Hooper’s “great experiment” with live singing wasn’t new or particularly great, but he isn’t wrong about the power of live singing in film. Here are three examples off the cuff:
However, contrary to what Hooper says, it is not impossible to convey great emotion while lip-synching. Ladies and gentlemen, for the third time on this blog I bring you Judy Garland singing “The Man That Got Away”
Maybe we don’t have a Judy Garland in this generation. Not yet. But I have hope. And maybe we’ll see her in the next movie musical.