Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Do You Hear the People Sing?

I've never liked Les Misérables.

This is not because I have anything in particular against it, in any incarnation. It has done me no harm. But throughout my life people have been shoving it at me, or me at it, and that will wear on anybody after a while.

It started when I was maybe ten years old, and my very first Best Friend, Katherine Rose Clarkson, asked me if I liked laymiz. I assumed it was a kind of food. She soon set me straight and played for me 'At the End of the Day,' of which I could understand not a word. I smiled and nodded. Very nice, said I. Very . . . fancy.

This wouldn't be that big a deal if it had only happened once. But it never seems to stop. There is a certain kind of girl who, upon meeting me, immediately wants to know if I like Les Mis and, upon learning that I've never seen or cared for it, proceeds to A. tell me how great it was that one time she saw it in (fill in city here), B. summarize for me the psychotically complicated plot, and C. play or sing for me her favorite song. 

I smile and nod. Very nice, say I. That sounds great.

All three of these things have slowly begun to annoy me more and more. In the third place, I freely admit that much of the music in Les Mis is very pretty . . . but I'm not a musician, nor a trained singer. I find pretty songs to be utterly boring. I love, love, love songs filled with emotion and personality, that tell a story, that transport me to somewhere else, but no song in Les Mis has ever done that for me (Except 'One Day More,' the day that I learned it was actually about Return of the Jedi). They are always just pretty songs, sung by people with pretty voices. And the kindly offered plot summary helps not at all, because . . . 

In the second place, Victor Hugo does not condense well. At all. 

Really, not well at all.

His novels are massive epic brick-books that skip all over France (and sometimes several other countries) and jump huge blocks of time at the drop of a hat and add characters without warning or restraint. The fact that anyone managed to fit a Victor Hugo novel into a three-hour production is a miracle. Fitting that three-hour production into a ten-minute synopsis is never going to be effective. And the summaries always have this flawed underlying assumption, which brings us back to . . .

The first place. I am so happy that you got to see Les Mis onstage in London. Or New York. Or Los Angeles. Or Antwerp. Or Montreal. Or Minneapolis. Or New Delhi. Or wherever. But the assumption that someday I, too, will have that chance, and your quick synopsis will be fleshed out into a full story and I will finally appreciate what you're talking about, is painful. It is an unconsciously done, but unsubtle reminder, that you (or your parents, or grandparents, or boyfriend, or whoever) have the disposable cash to buy multi-hundred-dollar tickets to professional theater productions, which I do not. And never will, if all goes well and I realize my dream of becoming an underpaid academic with no health insurance and a car held together with duct tape. 

So all my life I have smiled and nodded through summary after summary of Les Mis, and patiently listened to one song after another, and listened appreciatively to gushing reviews of how so-and-so playing this that or the other character was just amazing and how I just have to go see it. 

Then I saw the movie. 

It was kind of an accident. New Year's Eve Day, I was semi-stranded at the mall after conducting an optometric investigation (which is a story for another post) and thought to myself, Hey, what the heck. I'll grab a plate of pasta and then go see Les Mis, in honor of my upcoming unemployment. After all, so much of my life has been spent listening to snippets and summaries, I might as well have a look.

I saw it. And I loved it.

I was transported. I was in tears. The music broke my heart and knit it back together again. I loved the richness of the characterization and the vivid portrayal of the history and the deep and beautiful Christian metaphors. I went through half a packet of tissues. I loved watching Anne Hathaway descend into rage and despair and heartbreak and then be lifted up by a sliver of hope as she lay dying. I loved watching Helena Bonham Carter be cynical and coarse and ridiculous and manipulative. I loved watching Russell Crowe watch his comfortable paradigm of perfect, infallible and uncompromising justice crumble before his eyes. I loved watching Hugh Jackman struggle to choose between his need for survival and his need to redeem other people as he once was redeemed. Whoever the young actors were playing Cosette and Gavroche, I loved them, too! 

I left the theater feeling absolutely bouyant. I'd finally caught Les Mis fever. I was humming the tunes and vowing to learn the words so that I, too, could sing them. Some part of me wanted to climb up on something tall and scream "AUX BARRICADES!" (Of course, there's a strong streak of Frenchness in me, so this is pretty normal in any case.) And I was eager to meet up with all my Les Mis-loving friends and finally share in their transports at this astonishing piece of musical theater.

They hated it.

They hated it!

Because it seems that Anne Hathaway ruined her big number by crying in the middle of it, and Hugh Jackman ruined everything by being at the top of his range, and Russell Crowe ruined all of musical theater and most of western civilization by doing . . . something. I'm still not sure what. Anyway, it was horrible. A travesty. Nothing like when they saw it in New York. Or London. Or Shanghai. Or wherever.

Pictured: The End of the World as We Know It.

I was crushed. I wanted to take my Russell-Crowe-contaminated Les Mis and wrap it up in my favorite blanket and hide under my bed with it, where I could love it in shame and secrecy. 

And then I started thinking, and I started to get mad. 

Because, really, what the heck? Okay, so you may think that the film version wasn't as good as the stage production. Fine. I do this with book-to-film adaptations all the time. The difference is that people can get hold of the book, for free, and read it so that they can either agree or disagree with me. Access to books is not limited by socioeconomic status in this country. Access to live theater is. A more apt parallel would be me arguing 'You know, the play is absolute crap compared to the original book IN FRENCH. Translations are a waste of time. If you don't love the French version, you obviously have no taste." I don't say this because I know full well that reading Victor Hugo in French is an experience only available to a limited number of people, so I can't hold it up as the standard by which all other experiences should be judged. 

Is the issue here Russell Crowe's voice, or is it that this formerly once-in-a-lifetime, break-the-bank, utterly exclusive experience is now available to anyone with six bucks for a matinee movie ticket and another dollar fifty for bus fare? God forbid that the unwashed masses should get their hands on Les Misérables. It might give them ideas.

I loved this movie. I thought Russell Crowe did a beautiful job. I enjoyed watching his performance, and learned a great deal from it about the nature of justice and goodness. Who cares if it wasn't "as good" as whoever-the-heck else played the part in the West End? I'm never going to be able to see that, so I don't have to care. And no one is going to make me.

Do you hear the people sing? They wanted to see Les Mis. And now they can. 



  1. THANK YOU! I will readily admit that I was absurdly annoyed at the Director of Photography for deciding that every shot had to be a close-up of someone's face. I was very sad to miss the scenery, and some of the shots following a character as he paced back and forth (for instance) made me kind of nauseated. But as far as the performances go, there are a handful of individual notes in the entire show that I thought could have been done "better"—bigger or stronger or whatever. Considering that I hadn't realized that Russell Crowe could sing at all, I was kind of in awe at how well he did. He has got a strong, clear voice. I thought he was fantastic. And when one of my friends on Facebook posted that she thought that he (and Hugh, though less) completely ruined the movie, . . . well, two weeks later, I'm still stewing over that one. I listened to a Live West End recording of the music on the way home from the theater, and I realized that I liked the entire movie cast's performances much better.

    Seriously, Ryan and I went to see the play for the first time in October, and it was $120 for us to sit in the very last row. To think that for $20 I can buy the DVD (in 6 months, of course) and listen to it any time I want? I'm all over that. Which isn't to say that I wouldn't go see it in the theater again. But I would save up for better seats next time.

    Also, if you're interested in a non-musical version, I enjoyed the movie that came out in the late 90s with Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush. Not as much focus on the barricades, and they cut the Eponine sub-plot, but that was the version I was familiar with before seeing the play last year.

    1. Right with you . . . I had no idea Russell Crowe could sing, either. Good on him!

      I watched the Liam Neeson version a few months ago, and it didn't grab me, but I may need to give it another shot now that I've caught the bug. Shame about cutting Eponine, though, because as a character I found her a lot more interesting than Cosette. I guess cutting Cosette and leaving Eponine wouldn't make a lot of sense, though . . .

  2. Nothing is as good as the first time you see it for people. The Magic of the Theatre transports you far away. Here you have spend hundreds of dollars to find a couple of nosebleed seats and you have waited in anticipation as the actors who look miniscule before you begin to play. It didn't mater who sang the lead that night it was amazing and suddenly nothing can ever be as good as that night. No matter how much better your memory embellishes every moment until it is perfect. Now though you can see it again and again and instead of a nameless partially starving actor who you don't care a fig for you are mad at the big name star. You know had you supported that nameless starving actor perhaps it would have been him up there on the screen. However remember the Screen is not a stage the theatre is not the Cinema. Thousands will now share the love for the thing you love as well but all you'll say is I like the Play before it was popular. Well I like the book before it was a play so there...

  3. I, too, dealt with Le Mis Fever, with the reaction of "How can you be in choir if you've never heard Le Mis?" as well as the undying adoration for said show. I did, eventually, see the Broadway version on VHS a few years later, and it *was* really good. To the credit of my FB friends who have seen it, though, not one of them has complained *at all* about the casting or acting or choices in filming and lighting or anything of the sort. No, like you, they all love it. To pieces. Which I thought they would, judging solely from the previews. Unfortunately, I have yet to see it (again). I like watching movies on DVD, when the sound isn't so loud (my sinuses thank me time and again for this decision).

    That being said, I'm very familiar with the story of Anne Hathaway's char, and I would like to know what those people thought she was going to do during that number. Dance? Mini rant over.

    1. I just realized my misspelling of Les Mis. And I did it twice. And I took French for two semesters. There are worse things than misspelling something in a foreign language, but this just makes me crazy. *sigh* Oh, well. At least I caught it.

  4. I'm sorry. In my defense, I wasn't mentally comparing it with the stage production nearly as much as the film "Moulin Rouge," but I was too ashamed to say that on facebook, largely because I didn't want to be attacked for loving "Moulin Rouge." ;) I just think it's possible to make a much better movie of a musical.

    1. In your defense, Moulin Rouge is an astonishing piece of cinema. I speak as the absolutely unbiased person who made you watch it in the first place. :)

  5. I'm still at the "I'm sick of people pushing it at me" stage. I don't really have any desire to see it, especially in the theaters, where I'd have to pay more. I totally hear you on the "pretty music doesn't really do it for me" thing, too. But I must admit, knowing that someone else who has felt the same way as I do about it in the past actually enjoyed it has warmed me up slightly to the idea. Also, the grouch in me is interested in the idea that the people who are usually pushing it at me don't like it. That part of me now wants to go see it now just to spite them and tell them that I LOVED it and it's now my favorite movie ever, just to watch them stammer and gasp. Like I said, the grouch in me. :-P

  6. for the record, i saw the musical in Portland, Oregon, in the $60 back seat rows, not being able to see their facial expressions except when it was my turn to use the binoculars we brought to share among 7 family members... I LOVED the movie. I also loved that it was the first time in movie history that they actually filmed the actors singing in real time without dubbing in their voices after the fact. That is why they were able to put so much emotion into their singing performances, which i felt was more realistic anyway...