“It is time for us all to decide who we are…”
Lets rewind just over three years ago. Details are steadily being unearthed about a new feature film adaptation of Les Misérables, but unlike the Liam Neeson/Geoffrey Rush version from 1998, this one will closely resemble the stage musical and include all the principal songs. The excitement slowly boils over when Tom Hooper, fresh off his Oscar win for The Kings Speech is attached as director. Carnal frenzy grows when Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman sign on as Inspector Javert and Jean Valjean respectively. A slew of other top notch actors soon join the ranks and Les Misérables is already being hailed as Oscar bait with a camera yet to be switched on. It seems everybody is tingling with excitement.
Everybody, except me.
You see, Les Misérables in my eyes was one of those stage musicals that people tend to admit they love purely for the sole reason to appear cultured and snobbish and overly eager to be labelled intellectual. When the movie opened in cinemas worldwide to great critical acclaim and an abundance of award nominations, it only solidified my distaste for it.
Looking back now, in hindsight I had absolutely no reason for such bitterness considering I had never once watched any adaptations before and would struggle to name any songs outside of ‘I Dreamed A Dream’. I didn’t even know the plot, although I vaguely knew it had something to do with the French Revolution. Immaturely I was determined not to be pulled along by it’s obvious overhype and pretentious commendation. In fact I had stated many times that it was likely to be the only Oscar nominated movie of that particular year that I would gladly let drift by without a seconds hesitation. And so it is for me to profusely thank my girlfriend for persuading me otherwise. After a tearful visit to the local cinema, she excitedly rolled off each scene with such energetic passion that I felt it my duty to prove her wrong. But of course, it was I who was wrong…and had been for all these years.
By blatantly refusing to open my mind even just a little and by unconvincingly assuring myself and others around me that I would hate it, I had actually become the very person I was trying to entice others not to be. I was labelling myself. Almost three hours after that breathtaking opening scene, I was happy to eat my own words. Within a few short months I was willingly becoming addicted to the very aspect that made Les Misérables such a success almost 30 years ago, the music. Just not quite as obsessed as my girlfriend. So as a Christmas present I decided to treat her (who am I kidding, and treat myself too) to a night at the Queens Theatre in London’s famous West End to attend Les Misérables in person.
We could hardly control our excitement when we arrived at Piccadilly Circus Underground and made the short walk up to Shaftesbury Avenue where a fairly large crowd had already began to converge. We purchased the programme and waited in the bar area for the house doors to open. We didn’t have to wait for long, thankfully. We made our way to our seats in the stalls, which were perfect viewing made even better by the fact that nobody sat in front of us. Although I had visited theatres in the past (albeit only on two occasions) part of me was still shocked at how small the inside of the theatre was, which isn’t a bad thing. A theatre is a very different animal than an arena, the more intimate the better. As the lights dimmed, that famous image of young Cosette slowly became visible then faded away into the bellowing fog and orchestral-accompanied chanting of the chain gang slaves. I could almost already hear the anticipated gasp from the audience had they been brave enough to breathe.
Jean Valjean (Daniel Koek) made his presence known, joined from the shadows by the looming, intimidating image of Javert (Tam Mutu) and we were off and running. Both sang with an intense fire in their guts that was immediately captivating and neither wavered at any point during the whole segment, or the whole show for that matter. Much like the movie adaptation, Valjean and Javert’s continued confrontations are what drives the story forward, at least for the most part. Mutu would win the battles both vocally and characteristically and it wouldn’t be until Valjean’s ‘Bring Him Home’ later on that Koek would blow us all away. Of course the other fundamental story of the show is Marius and Cosette’s budding romance amidst the growing revolution, that begins with the misgivings of Fantine (Na-Young Jeon). Her rendition of ‘I Dreamed A Dream’ no doubt brought many of the audience to tears and while I did think she did a great job, it didn’t quite stir much of an emotional reaction from me. As Fantine passed away in Valjean’s arms, Javert entered the fray again forcing Valjean into hiding and gifting us with another remarkable confrontation.
One of my favourite scenes and songs from the movie is when we meet the Master of the House, Thénardier and his wife. Their performances were hilarious, exalting laughs and cheers from the audience without ever gravitating into pantomime territory. Not only did they provide much needed comedic respite, they shifted the story into another gear introducing Eponine and Cosette and eventually years later, the ‘love triangle’. Although we know Cosette is the eventual winner, for me Eponine came across as the peoples choice. I much prefer Marius when he’s with Enjolros and his boys, drinking beer and singing songs than when he’s chasing his skirt around town.
Enjolros and company give us something else to cheer for. Another type of freedom. Freedom is the central theme of the whole show. Everybody is fighting or at the very least longing to free themselves from some sort of persecution, some more recognisable than others. The theme continues when the students decide to build a barricade and rebel against the French army. As Valjean and Javert’s rivalry drifts into the background, the potential of Marius comes to the forefront. The scenes involving the red flag waving friends and sense of brotherhood were the first signs of me cracking under the frog in my throat. There’s a particular scene when the barricade is attacked at night that almost got me. The way it’s presented on the stage is amazing and so clever, it grips the audience, almost strangling us. Many a whimper was heard at the finale of that scene.
Javert and Valjean’s lives tread in different paths, fuelled by guilt and having both seen the light, they accept their fates. But unlike his nemesis, Valjean manages to feel love for another person so strong that he is allowed to see the face of God (see what I did there). I haven’t even mentioned the ensemble piece ‘One Day More’ that signalled the interval. It was just one in a long string of highlights, both audibly and visually stunning. And Javert’s suicide. So many unforgettable moments. By the time Marius serenaded his empty chairs, the audience were like statues, frozen by every word only to be unstuck by the sound of a pin bouncing of the carpet floor.
Many people die, very few live to tell the tale, and if the conclusion doesn’t have you holding back tears then you have a heart of stone. Impeccable performances from the entire cast. Simplistic yet at times inspiring set designs and enduring songs that still fail to escape my head. No wonder it has sustained such success and became the longest running musical in history. Im so glad I decided to press that Book Now button! I’ve learned a simple lesson. The old cliched saying ‘Never judge a book by its cover’ rings in my ears as I write this. Falling in love with a stage show isn’t pretentious, or snobbish or doesn’t make you clever in the slightest. After all, we are only human and who the hell needs labels anyway.
What came first, the chicken or the egg? For me the 2012 adaptation is the sole reason I even considered ever seeing the stage show but the movie would never have existed otherwise. Obviously the movie has the cinematic upper hand and benefits from the millions of dollars thrown into it by the production company. The actors, who all to some extent have come from a theatrical background (Samantha Barks and Colm Wilkinson both previously appeared in the stage show) give every ounce of blood, sweat and tears in their performances. Their singing voices may not be on par with the stage show cast but having the ability to see them up close adds a real depth to their characters. It actually makes the story more believable. Yes they miss some notes and struggle at times but the fact that the vast majority of the songs were recorded live in complete takes only helps to add to the realism of it all. I actually think Jackman in particular didn’t get anywhere near enough credit for his performance.
Purists will hate me for it but having never borne witness to any other incarnation beforehand, Jackman and Crowe will always be Valjean and Javert and it’s their versions of the timeless songs – despite the imperfections – that I’ll remember more than the stage show.
Gavin Logan – Follow me on Twitter
*Original article via CultNoise.com