Clear away the barricades/And we’re still there! (Thenadiers) …
But the tigers come at night/with their voices soft as thunder … (a lyric in one of the quieter songs) ….
There’s a pain goes on and on. Empty chairs at empty tables. Now my friends are dead and gone …
Dear friends and readers,
Christmas day we (Jim, myself, Laura & Rob, and Izzy) went to see the musical movie version of Hugo’s Les Miserables, directed by Tom Hooper, an adaptation for commercial film of the original book by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boubil, Englished and made Dickensian by James Fenton and Wm Nicolson (lyrics Herbert Kretzmer), produced by at least 9 people, some original (Cameron Mackintosh), some film types (Eric Fellner), featuring most notably and successfully Hugh Jackman as Jean ValJean, Anne Hathaway as Fantine (Izzy said later that after a while all she had to do was she Hathaway and she began to cry):
Daniel Huttlestone as Gavroche (this Artful Dodger provided the most unexpected totally alive moments of the production),
Eddie Remayne as Marius and Aaron Tveit as Enjolras, the young revolutionaries on the 1832 barricades (representing the 1870 uprising which was put down with more killed than in the whole of the 1792-3 so-called Terror), Samantha Barks as Eponine were as a group stronger and more effective than the first quarter or so of the film. I suspect Hooper felt more at home with them than the wildly romantic pursued Valjean. He changed Fantine to be sexual in lieu of a gamine — for me this did make Hugo’s tale relevant for women. Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen as the Thenadiers were faultless but over-directed into exaggerated grotesquerie, and Jim felt that their lines, some of the rawest most powerful in the whole piece, were placed so as to lose the central impact they were meant to have.
I found Tom Hooper’s production of intense interest as film, as an instance of what contemporary computer, non-naturalistic and symbolic theatrical, on location, close-up and aggressive film-making can tremendously effect. I’d like to see it again to study how the camera was daringly used to turn the vision of the novel into world-as-nightmare.
The music is as stunningly piercing as ever: I was again unbearably moved by the destruction of Fantine, the heart-break of Eponine, the nobility of Jean Valjean and the soaring revolutionary defiance of Marius and Enjolras. At first I thought Marius the actor who played Bingley in Joe Wright’s P&P (2005) and Enjolras, Elliot Cowan as Darcy in Dan Zeff’s Lost in Austen (2008), both deeply appealing types.
By contrast, Jim said no one could sing (!) and they all held their notes too long, Hugh Jackman was miscast (not so) and the whole production (which he said serious reviewers all agreed with) “a mess,” but apart from Russell Crowe who tried hard but just could not get up the seethingly pro-murderous law-and-order evil of Javier I thought them all stirringly effective and recognized that we had here a typical faithful BBC production. I’ve read about 3/4s of Norman Denny’s translation of Hugo’s novel, and unlike the musical, this film adaptation seemed to go through the book phase-by-phase. I don’t say the film had the original coherence, taste, brilliance of Hooper’s Daniel Deronda for the BBC (2002) or even the poignancy of The King’s Speech (2011), but it not intended to be subtle, but rather to sock its cri de coeur of the disenfranchised and powerless to wide varied audiences, and make huge returns in money.
I know I need say no more as so many have already, since there have been so many reviews not only on this musical film (among them Miss Izzy), and the many productions, French, the original London, the Broadway one, various intermediary as well as concerts versions, but the straight dramatic films and the musical version Jim thought and still thinks the outstanding best, Eric Schaeffer’s Signature version, with Greg Stone the closest to Hugo’s conception of Jean Valjean I’ve seen:
and Felicia Curry as an inspired Eponine type:
But I think we can contribute to the ongoing conversation about Les Miserables. We have now seen or perhaps I should say heard the musical four times. Jim did once read about and attempt to sort out the original pre-production show from its first staging and I’ve also read Notre Dame de Paris (in French this time), and Hugo’s powerful anti-capital punishment novella (The Last Day of a Condemned Man (an English translation). And I watched two recent “straight” films.
The soul in darkness sins, but the real sinner is he who causes the darkness (Denny’s translation of Hugo)
Before the musical was ever produced it was changed to include an overt providential patterning, religious emotionalism, and images of family types sticking together, with the Thenadiers as hypocritical aberrations we are expected to be amused by.
Thirty years ago, Alan Boublil and Claud-Michel Schonberg decided to write a musical adaptation of Hugo’s Les Misérables. By 1980, they had a demo tape, themselves the sole performers: voice and piano. They took it to London and got sufficient backing for John Cameron to orchestrate what they had written and to record it with actual performers. This record is commercially available: call it “the French text.” Both Cameron Macintosh and James Nederlander of New York were interested in producing it, with changes. Nederlander actually optioned it, but the option lapsed.
By some later point in time Macintosh had talked Trevor Nunn into directing it. He brought in the RSC and John Caird. Herbert Kretzmer was hired to write the English lyrics, after James Fenton’s attempt was abandoned. The Macintosh/Nunn/Caird/Kretzmer collaboration was produced, first by the RSC as part of their London season at the Barbican, then by Macintosh in the West End, in 1985. Call this “the English text.”
Three major changes mark strong differences between the French text and the English text: the English text is more religious; the English text is, if anything, conservative politically where the French was more à gauche (to the left); the English text is a much bigger show. Nunn seems to have been responsible for the religious emphasis. The French text had scarcely mentioned God: a couple of “God knows how” sort of phrases and two mentions in Jean Valjean’s final lines, closing the piece.
La lumière, au matin de justice,
puisse enfin décapiter nos vices
dans un monde où Dieu pourrait se plaire
s’il décidait un jour de redescendre sur la terre.
qui aime sa femme
sans le savoir, aime Dieu.
Nunn added the scene with the Bishop of Digne; the scene where Jean Valjean wrestles with his conscience: “Who am I”; “Stars”; “Dog eats dog”; “Bring him home” and the dreadful scene where the spirits of Fantine and Eponine flank Jean Valjean as he dies (memory claims they were even dressed in white, but memory is unreliable and sometimes exaggerates for effect).
I add that Hugo is anti-clerical; the priests who harbor Valjean are pariahs and despised by all the other church people we meet. There is no afterlife. “Les Miserables” means not just the wretchedly poor but miserable in a more general sense and includes the outcasts, underdogs, rejected of society, and radical critics and rebels (who often do very badly economically and socially). Take, Book 2: Book 2, “The outcast.” The opening sequence of the movie follows this — prison for no crime at all, cruelty in a long sentence, hounding afterward with no forgiveness or any opportunity to be a productive member of legal society.
In case anyone might think this kind of thing can’t happen, he or she need only read a newspaper or journal article about who goes to prison in the US, for what, for how long, the typical use of extreme solitude (which Atul Gawande in a persuasive article in the New Yorker argued is a form of super-expensive torture): very long prison sentences, no reprieve, for small crimes having to do with drugs. Inside may be a step up for some, but it’s very bad socially. Women’s prisons are even worse than men’s, for they are subject to sexual harassment, parted from their children ruthlessly. Meanwhile bankers steal billions, flout the law and are not even brought to trial.
But the musical takes Hugo in the direction of Thatcher’s 1980s:
Some of the depoliticizing between the French and English versions may have been unconscious, the result of removing specifically French references. In the French text, the students are carefully organizing coordinated risings:
Au Pont au Change, toutes les sections sont prêtes
Grantaire attend à la Barrière du Maine
les sculpteurs, les marbriers
tardent à se joindre à nous
mais les maçons de Montreuil
seront tous au rendez-vous
In the English text, they seem to take it on themselves to rise, because who wants to confuse the audience with the masons of Montreil. But “Empty chairs and empty tables”, added for the English text, clearly condemns the students: “Don’t ask me/What your sacrifice was for.” More, Javert, in the French text, is not really to be taken seriously. In the English text, thanks to “Stars”, he’s the second leading man.
Nunn also made Les Misérables a grandiose show. DCist in its theater preview wondered how Signature would fit it into “much smaller quarters than usually house the famous turntable-style set.” Nunn had added choruses, he added scenes, some, like “Turning”, quite unnecessary. Nunn justified “Turning” on the grounds that the women didn’t have enough to do otherwise. Of course he then used the revolving set to manage the quick scene changes. All these changes made the show worse.
I don’t mean to say that in all aspects the English text is worse than the French text. Many of Kretzmer’s lyrics are much better than those of Boublil/Schonberg. The bridge of “I dreamed a dream”, for example: “But the tigers come at night/with their voices soft as thunder.” There is nothing remotely like that in the French text. The best line in the show, from Madame Thénardier, I’m sorry, Mme. La Baronne Thenard, in “Beggars at the feast”: “Clear away the barricades and we’re still here” (perhaps the profoundest line in contemporary theater), was added. “Beggars at the feast” is the reprise of “Master of the house” which bulks up and makes rollicking — and Dickensian. Nunn had directed Nicholas Nickleby — “Devise d’un cabaretier” where Thénardier complains he is one “qu’une destinée contraîre a planté dans ce canton” and thus has become, perforce, an innkeeper)
Jim had gone up to Eric Schaeffer, to say this Signature production was better than the London production we had seen years ago. “This sounded better than it was, since the London production had left me rather cold.”
Schaeffer managed, in the Signature production, to minimize these changes. He could do nothing with the religion and politics that are baked into the English text. One cannot not sing “Stars” or “Bring him home.” And Javert did take the penultimate curtain call. But he could and did de-emphasize at least some. The business with the saintly Bishop of Digne went quick. In the final scene, Fantine and Eponine sang with Jean Valjean, but they stayed on catwalks leading to the stage (and neither dressed in white).
And he made the show intimate. The MAX theater is a black box. For this production it seated around 250. It was set up as a thrust stage, with two catwalks leading to the corners of the box, screened at the back. Sliding doors in the screen allowed mass movements onto the stage (for choral entrances or the barricade). The orchestra (two winds, five brass, three keyboards, guitar, bass, two percussion) was set on a balcony behind the screen, the conductor’s image on two screens visible from the stage. The audience, then, was on three sides. No more than six rows on any one side. Every member of the audience was closer to the cast than any member of the audience would have been in a conventional proscenium theater with the orchestra in a pit between the audience and stage.
In this setting, he brought out the quiet elements of the score. There are many. Of the 28 numbers, a majority are either soliloquys or conversations. We eavesdrop, up close, on them. The actors eavesdrop with us. In “A heart full of love”, Eponine is on the catwalk, members of the audience on either side of her, as she overhears Cosette and Marius (the same location, exactly, as she will occupy in the second act finale). She is suddenly lit as she reacts. We do not know how long she has been there. She is us. And we sympathise. Schaeffer doesn’t shrink from the noisier numbers. “Master of the house” is duly rollicking. He accepts the Dickensian parallels: Cosette in Paris reminds us of no-one more than Lucy Manette.
But the heart of this production are the quiet lyric pieces: “I dreamed a dream”, “Who am I”, Fantine and Jean Valjean’s duet around her deathbed, “Stars”, “In my life”, “A heart full of love”, “On my own”, “A little fall of rain”, “Drink to me”, “Bring him home”, Javert’s suicide, and, yes, the second act finale.
There have been 19 (!) film adaptations, most recently a French mini-series with Gerard Depardieu as Valjean and John Malkovich as Javert, and in 1998 an English, with Liam Neeson as a noble Jean Valjean; Geoffrey Rush as Javert (hard and steely), Uma Thurman as Fantine (the raped Cecile in Les Liaisions Dangereuses), Hans Mathisen as Marius (deeply felt), Ann-Marie Duff (wry, realistic) the last two also in Davies’s adaptation of Dr Zhivago. Depardieu practically stands for France (remember Martin Guerre) and Malkovich (Valmont, Jekyll-Hyde) has had a long career playing evil types; the English cast shows the connection between Zhivago and Hugo. Five translations into English are available.
The story, characters, events are a parable for our time.
To turn it into a film musical with the whole repertoire of montage, location, psychological in-depth acting is to make it more available to everyone. On Christmas day almost every seat in the auditorium was taken. We were just in time and had to sit in the front row.
I remember that in London Patti LuPone sang Fantine, but she was far away — we were in the back of the orchestra. Anne Hathaway is right on top of us, close up, the story made utterly contemporary. When she sang the pain goes on and on I found myself remembering my own anguish. I was rooting for Enjolras all the way.
Do you hear the people sing?
Singing a song of angry men?
It is the music of a people
Who will not be slaves again!
Izzy is right. You need not see this version probably. Jim is right too: perhaps another would be more thrillingly sung. This was over-produced and not controlled enough. But I would say not only don’t miss it, but also read the book, go on to Notre Dame de Paris and then The Last Day in the Life of a Condemned Man. Les Miserables‘ vision is more than of the wretched of the earth; he shows how such wretchedness is made deliberately and what it feels like to be hunted down, scorned, fearful, alone. Don’t skip the supposed digressions (Waterloo for example): the history, analysis of how society is organized into exclusionary cliques, the skewed values of church and courts passionately laid out and as relevant today as ever.