Note: This appeared in the print-only TV Guide of The Marshall Independent.
“Les Misérables” has come a long way from its slow start as a French “sung-through musical” in 1980. I have no idea what the difference between a sung-through musical and an opera is, but it’s an opera to all intents and purposes.
An English-language version was developed and premiered at the Barbican Centre in London, England, on 8 October 1985. In spite of bad reviews word spread by word of mouth and it became a world-wide sensation. Such a sensation it became one of the few productions with a universally recognized nickname, “Les Miz.”
When you see and hear it, you understand. Soon after it opened in the U.S. critics noted with wonder rock-ribbed nuke-the-dirty-hippies-till-they-glow right-wingers coming out of theaters singing “Will you join in the crusade, who will be strong and stand with me? Beyond the barricade is there a world you long to see?”
I’ve been familiar with the music for 20-odd years, and days after seeing the opening on Christmas Day the tunes are still running through my head. “Red – the blood of angry men! Black – the dark of ages past…”
“Les Misérables” is based on the book of the same name by Victor Hugo. It covers three decades of the life of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), one-time convict, who becomes a prosperous factory owner under an assumed name. He becomes a fugitive again, the foster father of an orphaned girl Cosette (Amanda
Seyfried, Isabelle Allen as a child) whose love, and the love of God, redeems him. He is pursued relentlessly by Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) who is obsessed with his capture.
This is the personal story of a handful of people, set in an age of turmoil and revolution. In other words, it’s an exciting story set in an exciting time.
It’s about sin and redemption, of individuals and nations.
Hugo pulled this off so well “Les Misérables” is considered one of a handful of the best novels ever written, in spite of some quirks. Hugo liked to make lengthy digressions on a number of subjects, which is why most people have read abridged translations and thus miss the 20-odd page long grammatically correct sentence Hugo wrote just to show he could.
As a former sewage treatment plant operator I personally miss Hugo interrupting Jean Valjean’s flight through the sewers of Paris to discourse for 27 pages on the folly of polluting the water with sewage instead of using it to fertilize the land, but I digress.
Visually it’s stunning. Since I’ve always managed to miss it on stage, I don’t know how they did it without the wonders of CGI. But the visuals don’t overwhelm the production.
The casting was inspired. Even Allen’s relatively minor part is magnified by her image used as the now universally recognized logo of the work, based on the iconic illustration from Hugo’s first edition.
But… I’m scarcely the first to notice that they cast actors who sing, rather than professional singers in the major roles. Of the three leads, Crowe’s voice is kind of high and reedy, not at all what you expect from his speaking voice. Jackman is competent but not strong. Seyfried is not a strong soprano.
I don’t think any of them could have belted their numbers out to the back rows without a mike.
On the other hand, the sheer presence of Jackman and Crowe makes you forget the flawed voices.
The supporting cast are great. Anne Hathaway as the beautiful, doomed Fantine, knocks you down and sits on you, reaches into your chest and rips the heart right out of you with her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream.”
And somehow they took a woman rated one of the 100 most beautiful people and made her look malnourished and diseased. You watch with horrified fascination the corruption and death of a beautiful innocent.
Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as Monsieur and Madame Thénardier are repulsively comic and they can sing, who knew?
Eddie Redmayne as Marius sings beautifully and portrays to perfection one of the earnest young idealists who in the time since the founding of the American republic have given France The Reign of Terror, two kingdoms, five republics, and an empire.
And keep an eye on newcomer Samantha Barks (from the Isle of Man of all places) as the other beautiful doomed character Éponine, who loves Marius and dies on the barricade after doing the right thing so he can live happily ever after with Cosette. Rumor has it Barks beat out Taylor Swift for the role. Not too shabby.
As the movie ended with the peaceful death of Jean Valjean and the beginning of Marius and Cosette’s happily ever after, Valjean’s spirit left for the big barricade in the sky with all the martyrs of the 1832 uprising joining him in a reprise of “Do You Hear the People Sing?” I heard a hearty “Amen!” from the audience.