Stage musicals aren't like that. The evolution your average musical undergoes in its journey from paper and piano to the Great White Way is Darwinian. Musicals are work-shopped, toured, translated, revised, recast, and reworked until, often, the final project in no way resembles the original. This fine-tuning can last long after a show opens. Broadway musicals are essentially engaged in a last-man-standing deathmatch. Hollywood blockbusters do a couple weeks, or at most a couple months, in theatres, then they go to DVD. But a musical can perish in under a week, or it can run for over two decades. That means that every facet of a successful, long-running live show has been calibrated for maximal audience enjoyment. Structurally speaking, Broadway musicals are perfect.
Someone working on Les Miserables (Tom Hooper, 2012) didn't get this, and it shows.
|Yeah, Cosette, you're cold, we get it.|
The plot of Les Miserables is convoluted, but I'll do my best. The convict Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), recently released from prison, breaks his parole to start a new life, pursued all the while by tough-on-crime cop Javert (Russell Crowe). Valjean soon encounters the dying prostitute Fantine (Anne Hathaway) and agrees to look after her daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen), who is being fostered with the wicked Thenardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter). Valjean quits his erstwhile mayoral post (Javert is hot on his trail anyway), collects Cosette, and starts a new life in Paris. Flash forward nine years: a group of students hanging out at the ABC cafe decide that the French revolution was pretty banging and that they want to have their own, so they pile up a bunch of furniture in the street and loudly espouse the forgotten ideals of the French republic. Unsurprisingly they are all shot, except Marius (Eddie Redmayne), who is rescued by Valjean because the teenage Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) has the hots for him (Marius, not Valjean). Cosette and Marius get married and Valjean, quite literally, crawls into a corner and dies. He then goes to heaven, where Fantine is waiting for him; for some reason her angelic visage still has awful hair.
My relationship to Les Mis is rather special. I first encountered the musical as a young teen; its combined bombastic optimism and cheerful willingness to wallow in its own filth appealed to 14-year-old me. I'm not talking about just being one of those annoying Musical Theatre Teenagers who "IS Eponine" and will break into a chorus of "On My Own"at the slightest provocation (although that was also the case). I'm talking fan art, fan fiction, and on one occasion, a sleepover where me and two of my closest friends reenacted the entire musical (dividing the parts between us, and using found-object costumes and props from my basement). I've grown out of this, I'm not a lunatic any more, but you should just understand that no one, no one, went into Les Miserables more prepared to love it than I did. (No, not even you). But when it finished... you know, I just wasn't crazy about it.
|Nothing says "lovelorn waif" like a waist smaller than your hair.|
Amanda Seyfried is also charming as Cosette: she has a delicate, endearingly reedy soprano, and comes off as innocent rather than oblivious (a stage hazard of the role). Bonus, Seyfried is almost thirty now and has largely aged out of looking like a startled goldfish.
|You know damn well what I mean.|
Other good things: the music is beautiful and beautifully rendered. The sets (although uneven) are, at their best, breathtaking. The costumes are excellent -- Cosette's giant Parisian Socialite Barbie dresses are positively drool-worthy. There are many allusions to Victor Hugo's original text that will be appreciated by book geeks like me. And so on.
|Are you not entertained?|
Similarly, lines are often rewritten and rearranged, sometimes to accommodate plot changes, and sometimes for no discernible reason; but lyrics cannot be merely exposition, they must also be poetry. Much has been made of Hooper's decision to allow the musical to remain a sung-through, but I would have preferred expository lines of dialogue over the spectacle of poor Samantha Barks trying to find the poetry in "still pretending to be poor? Well, I know you're really rich!" (the final word never quite finding anything to rhyme with). Similarly, the students of the ABC cafe now refer to the "barricade" before said barricade physically exists: perhaps Hooper meant us to take it as a metaphor? Many of the actors take to acting extra-hard between their sung lines; gasping, panting, growling, sobbing, exclaiming "god!" or "no!", and so on. Unfortunately, this doesn't really work in a musical, the entire point of which is to reflect the excesses of a character's emotions entirely through song; vocal realism of the "I'm breathing-really-hard-because-I'm-so-upset" variety could, and should, have been sublimated into music.
|"I told you you couldn't stay awake through the 10:30 showing."|
Basically, I liked Les Miserables. It was generally well-executed, and where it wasn't well-executed, it was at least well-intentioned. Still, I don't think I'll go see it again. When I go see a musical, I want to see a musical, not bizarro Broadway Hit Clips. Your local high school will give you more bang (and more songs) for your buck.
|Careful with that candle, Helena.|