A very popular book, the longest-running-ever stage musical, and now a film — Les Miserables goes from strength to strength. The 2012 film directed by Tom Hooper is playing in Rio at the moment.
Les Miserables is an adaptation of an immense novel published by Victor Hugo in 1862. It ran to five volumes and 1500 pages, full of characters and different settings in time and place, though always in France. The story follows Jean Valjean, imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread for his sister’s child, who after 19 years was finally released on parole in 1815 – only to find he could get no work and was faced with starvation. Succoured by the Bishop of Digne, in his desperation he made off with the Church plate, only to be captured and brought back. Expecting the worst, to his astonishment the Bishop confirmed he had given him the plate, and added two valuable candlesticks, bidding him go in peace, that he was cured of his past and his anger. He tears up his parole papers and begins life again as another person.
Eight years on we find him master of a workhouse and Mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer. One of the women workers, Fantine, is thrown out of work because she is a single mother. In desperation to send money for the care of her child, she sells her locket, her long hair, some teeth, and finally descends to prostitution and despair. On the verge of being imprisoned, she is rescued by Valjean, who promises to take her child Cosette into his care. At this time too, Valjean is nearly captured by Javert, police inspector who originally released him and who throughout the story maintains an implacable desire to return him to custody.
Valjean locates the waif-like daughter Cosette (whose face stares out of the publicity posters) and buys her from her guardians – who in any case dreadfully maltreated her – and the two escape to Paris.
Nine years on (1832), Cosette is a beautiful young girl, lovingly cared for by Valjean, at a time of great popular discontent. Forty-three years after the 1789 French Revolution and 17 after the defeat of Napoleon, the poor are still miserable and impatient with the Monarchy. Crossing in the street, Cosette and Marius – one of the leaders of a student revolt – “have changed eyes” as Shakepeare would have it, and want desperately to be together. But Valjean is recognised by the ex-guardians of Cosette, now beggars and thieves, whose daughter Éponine in turn is in love with Marius. Valjean and Cosette take refuge in a convent.
We are now well into the times of revolution and extreme acts, and why should I say who makes sacrifices for whom, who dies, and who lives? But in the confusion Valjean has his nemesis Javert at his mercy – and lets him go. And then Javert has the chance to kill Valjean, but can’t bring himself to do it. In finding that his sense of humanity has finally triumphed over his sense of office and his duty, he takes his own life.
Shocking in its portrayal of misery and lopsided “justice” Hugo says of his work: “… it is a progress from evil to good, from injustice to justice, from falsehood to truth…… from hell to heaven, from nothingness to God.” It is complex, full of notable characters, and even in the reduced stage and film versions, somewhat hard to follow.
The Stage Musical
The original 1980 Musical was in French, with words by Alain Boublil, music by Claude-Michel Schonberg, directed by Robert Hossein. In 1985 a version with English lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer, directed by Trevor Nunn and John Caird and produced by Cameron Mackintosh opened at the Barbican Theatre in London. There is a clip on You Tube of the staff party after the first night, when the interviewer questions the curiously operatic form of the musical (no spoken dialog) and the artists say they think it is a good show, and hope it will have a long run. Well, it is still running at the Queen’s Theatre in London, 28 years on, and has been seen by 60 million people in 42 countries and in 22 languages around the globe!
Among the astounding statistics we learn that every performance involves 101 cast and crew (not counting admin and back of stage), 392 costumes and 85 wigs. The 10th Anniversary performance DVD is a major best seller, and soon multiple shows will be running worldwide.
One of the qualities of the original production was that, apart from the incredible staging, the cast could really sing and had beautiful voices. The original Jean Valjean was Irish tenor Colm Wilkinson, who opened the productions in both London and Broadway. Other “all-time greats” were Michael Ball as Marius and Frances Rufelle as Éponine – from which you can see that there is a cult of followers of this piece, who know it back to front and compare one artist with another through the years…
The film will give yet another burst of life to Les Miserables. True to the tradition, the director has come up with magnificent sets, costumes, and scenes full of interest. However, the choice has been to emphasize emotion and drama, rather than the vocal production – even though it is all sung. I sat through it first time scandalized by the strong scenes and by the strained, badly-produced voices of so many of the cast. Russell Crowe in particular communicates uncertainty in his singing, and my vision of him as a sensitive but heroic actor is not at all compatible with the role of the implacable, rigid, chato Javert. Anne Hathaway as Fantine in despair in close-up, disfigured and poor, squeezing out the notes of the lovely song I Dreamed a Dream is a bit hard to take, while later on the beautiful Amanda Seyfried as grown-up Cosette has to use a peculiar falsetto to get up to some of her notes. But Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean does a great job of everything throughout, and I liked the voice of Aaron Tveit as the student leader Enjolras. The actors for Marius and Éponine are just fine, and have some good songs – Empty Chairs and Empty Tables and On my Own. Some of the smaller parts are really well done – watch out for Daniel Huttlestone as the little Gavroche and Colm Wilkinson (the same!) now as the Bishop of Digne.
Perhaps it is questionable to put so much raw emotion into a musical, particularly with singers in prolonged close-up, but the ending of the film is magnificent, with its message of the triumph of forgiveness…. and the camera panning round everybody on the barricades in the final chorus.
Not exactly Good Listening, but a powerful movie to continue the fame of Les Miserables!