Monday, January 7, 2013

Do You Hear the People Sing? (A Review of Les Miserables)

Do you hear the people sing?

When I was a freshman in high school, I was still attempting to figure out where exactly I belonged. I took Honors classes and was in the chorus. I was connecting, but I still wanted to join more clubs and be a part of the school experience. That spring, I went with two of my close friends to see our high school’s musical. Every spring the drama teacher would select their musical of choice. In 2004, that just so happed to be Grease. Popular at high schools throughout the country and so catchy it hurts, Grease is one of the best shows for high school students to perform. It does, after all, center around them. I vowed, after watching the show, to become a part of drama club. Seeing students singing, dancing, and smiling on stage made me yearn to be a part of it.

When Mr. Colangelo, the drama teacher, tacked a flyer to the bulletin board outside of the theatre announcing our sophomore musical, we all scurried to see what he had chosen. And… then we continued to stare at the paper in utter disbelief. “No,” we muttered amongst ourselves. Those murmurs carried throughout the halls. “He’s gone crazy,” some said.

Mr. Colangelo had chosen Les Miserables as the 2005 spring musical.

I’ll never forget the first rehearsal after the show had been cast. In spite of being selected, a lot of us were extremely apprehensive. Les Miserables is perhaps the most renowned musical of all time, and certainly one of the most beloved. Furthermore, it is one of the most DIFFICULT as nearly the entire play is sung. We thought Mr. C was overambitious or too zealous or maybe just insane. When we all sat on stage, legs crossed, and listened as the drama teacher instructed us to close our eyes. Imagine, he said, that you left rehearsal and drove home. Picture, he instructed, turning onto your street but instead of houses, you saw nothing but flattened debris where your home once stood. We saw the images in our minds. We felt the pain as he described how we would have known, in that moment, everyone – our families, our friends, our neighbors – was gone.

When we opened our eyes, some of us had tears in them. Mr. Colangelo motioned to the script he was holding and told us that what we had imagined was a mere glimpse of the pain those young French revolutionaries felt. And from that point forward, we didn’t doubt our director’s vision again. Les Miserables was the most successful musical in my high school career. It sold out both weekends and was a wild success. We didn’t know that we could do it. It took a lot of hours of work, rehearsals, blocking, costuming, and singing to make the show what it was. But because I was a part of the musical, I fell head-over-heels for it.

That’s why when I heard that there would be a movie version of my beloved musical… well, I just knew that I would have to witness the experience in theatres. Because the truth is that Les Miserables IS an experience. It’s an emotional journey of not one, but multiple characters. It’s centered around love and family and God and sacrifice. The characters are woven together in this brilliant patchwork – they’re nearly all connected to each other in some way – which makes the overarching story that much more powerful.

Before seeing the film, I was a tad bit nervous. But excited. And a tad worried. After seeing the film, I applauded with the rest of my theatre and felt relief – it had lived up to my expectations. So I thought I would discuss the characters/actors and the music of Les Miserables, since I haven’t been able to fully emotionally process the weight of the film quite yet.

(Bear in mind that if you know absolutely nothing about Les Miserables – or how to even pronounce it – this post WILL contain spoilers. So. Yeah.)

Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean
Best Scene(s): “Valjean’s Soliloquy”/ “Epilogue”

Hugh Jackman is astounding. I will never understand how someone can be good-looking, a talented dramatic actor, a fantastic singer, and also an action star. When I heard that he was cast as Valjean, I was pleased and his performance didn’t disappoint. At its core, Les Miserables is a story about the convict known as Jean Valjean, a man imprisoned because he stole a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s child. And he tacked on years to his sentence by attempting to flee.

Valjean begins the tale of Les Miserables as a bitter, angry man. He’s been in prison for nineteen years for a crime meant to help his starving family. Instead, when he is released on parole, he’s haunted by the ghost of who he was – of who he thinks he’s doomed to become: a convict on the run from his parole officer, Inspector Javert.

Jackman carried this film, and not just because he was the title character. He played Valjean with such desperation and raw emotion that it was beautiful. His soliloquy falls right after the Bishop of Digne gives the man a chance at a new life – a life devoted to becoming a better person, not of thievery. In spite of some weird camera angles during the scene, “Valjean’s Soliloquy” is so solid, so strong, and packed with so much emotion that by the time you hear his last note (“Jean Valjean is nothing now, another story must begin”), you get chills.

Another stellar performance by Jackman is during the “Epilogue” – one song I didn’t anticipate to shed as many tears at as I did. One of the musical decisions that I feel worked so well throughout most of the film was to have the actors sing live. For those who are unaware, usually in a  movie-musical, the cast will record their album and then arrive on set months later to lip sync their performance. While this ensures that the tracks will be flawless, it also eliminates a lot of emotional prowess that could be accomplished by singing live. “Epilogue” is half-sung, half-sobbed by Jackman, which really struck an emotional chord with me. It amplified the acting and rawness of the scene. And it was beautiful.

Russell Crowe as Inspector Javert
Best Scene(s): “Prologue”/ “The Confrontation”

There was only one casting choice I was apprehensive about prior to seeing Les Miserables, and that was the decision to cast Russell Crowe as Javert, a character so integral to Valjean’s story and the narrative as a whole. If I’m being honest, here, I didn’t necessarily hate Crowe as Javert… I didn’t like him or love him. (But maybe I just have a higher tolerance after listening to Pierce Brosnan in the movie version of Mama Mia! Eesh.)

The scenes where he sang least were those most bearable to me. Which, of course, is a dilemma because Javert’s two stellar songs are “Stars” and “Javert’s Suicide” and I didn’t like either one of those. (Crowe has this weird thing he did when attempting to sing – his voice was kind of garbled, like he was attempting to sing with an accent but just couldn’t.)

Nevertheless, two performances I found actually bearable with Crowe as Javert were “Prologue” and “The Confrontation” (okay, admittedly the latter is because of how awesome Jackman was during the scene). When we first meet Javert in “Prologue,” he’s cold, unforgiving, and views Valjean as scum. In an interesting contrast, “The Confrontation” reveals to us that Javert is more like Valjean than anyone knew – the Inspector was born inside of a jail, and claims that he “is from the gutter, too.” It’s a well-acted moment by Crowe and his introduction to us in “Prologue” is pretty solid as well.

(Additionally, the second moment that made me cry in the film was one of Crowe’s – as soon as he pinned his medal to Gavroche’s body, I started weeping.)

Anne Hathaway as Fantine
Best Scene(s): “I Dreamed a Dream”/ “Epilogue”

If you don’t get chills or tear up when you hear Anne Hathaway’s version of “I Dreamed a Dream”… you are a robot, plain and simple. Of course, the film’s trailers heavily promoted this song prior to the movie’s release, so I had heard her version and was blown away. Upon seeing it in the theatre, I was even MORE impressed (and I didn’t think that was possible). “I Dreamed a Dream” is a song that nearly everyone knows. It has been performed on television shows, talent shows, and nearly everywhere else you can fathom. But the live-sung version was something entirely new and exhilarating to listen to.

The song is usually belted, and is usually a very dramatic song. I was surprised at how understated this version was at the beginning, but how utterly and completely powerful it was. Hathaway’s performance deserves every award possible, and I’m not exaggerating. She captured so brilliantly the pain and intensity of Fantine as a character, as well as her utter despair and desperation that you could not help but be moved by this song that we’ve heard a thousand times performed before. Honestly, this is my favorite version, in spite of Hathaway missing a few of the lower notes (but she was SO invested in the character that her tortured sobs during those notes more than make up for any perceived flaw in this song), because of how completely raw and emotionally powerful it is. She did SUCH a fabulous job that they’re probably already engraving her name on that Oscar.

For those who were unaware before seeing the film, as much as the promotional trailers featured Fantine, she’s literally only in about a quarter of the musical. But her absence throughout the film makes her appearance in “Epilogue” all the more powerful. She returns to Valjean as he is dying, an angel beside him, gently singing him home. The Jackman/Hathaway chemistry throughout the film, by the way? Stellar. There’s no other word to really describe it. The two characters, quite simply, saved each other. It only made sense, then, to have Fantine there as he died – for her to be beside him and guide him, just as he had been there for her in her own dying hours. The quiet gentleness with which she sings: “Come to me, where chains will never bind you” is just beautiful and then, of course, the very end of the film where the ensemble sings “Do You Hear the People Sing?” is just beautiful.

An important note: no one gives the ensemble enough credit in a musical SO HERE IS ME GIVING THE AMAZING ENSEMBLE CREDIT. They were all amazing, wonderful, and just… so very good. They really brought the film together.

Samantha Barks as Eponine
Best Scene(s): “On My Own”/ “A Little Fall of Rain”

Eponine is one of the most tragic characters in any stage musical, perhaps ever. She is brave, strong, heroic and so heartbreaking. She is nearly everyone’s favorite character because… well, women want to relate themselves to her. If you’ve ever suffered that dreaded case of “he doesn’t know I love him,” then “On My Own” is perhaps the song you’ve emotionally connected to the most. This track and scene was performed brilliantly by the talented Samantha Barks, a choice for Eponine I couldn’t have been happier about. As speculation and casting rumors had floated around regarding Eponine, everyone from Lea Michele to Taylor Swift had been named. Finally, a young woman who had played Eponine on the West End and the Les Miserables 25th Anniversary Concert was selected. What I really did love about “On My Own” was the subtlety with which she played Eponine and the song. Much like “I Dreamed a Dream,” this track is famous and has been performed by everyone under the sun. It was refreshing, then, to hear Barks’ more subdued version. But make no mistake, she shone vocally on the track and sounded absolutely gorgeous, building the intensity in her voice as “On My Own” drew on. My favorite understated moment has to be the very end where Barks begins to cry during the lines: “I love him, I love him, I love him.” It was so subtle but SO beautiful.

“A Little Fall of Rain” is the one song I knew would destroy me in this musical (and it did). When I performed in Les Miserables in high school, I was in the ensemble, and I had a BLAST doing it. Accidentally, I was present at a weekend rehearsal I didn’t really need to be at, but that worked out in my favor – those of us who hadn’t gotten the “no rehearsal” memo were blocked into “Drink With Me.” So, prior to the song each night, a few girls and I would sit on crash mats in the wings and watch our Marius and Eponine perform “A Little Fall of Rain.”

(Look, there it is!)

I kid you not when I say that I cried every single night.

This song and scene is so utterly tragic. In the film, Eponine throws herself in front of a gun, literally taking a bullet for Marius. The play is a bit different – the young woman climbs over the barricades after delivering Marius’ letter to Cosette and is shot as she does so. Regardless of the slight differences, the pain and tragedy is evident – Eponine is dying, and she dies in Marius’ arms. I think the bit that always gets me with this song is the hope and happiness that Eponine clings to as she dies. She is the one reassuring him, for the most part – she KNOWS she is dying, but she’s in his arms, and that’s the one place she wants to remain forever. Marius, in turn, is desperate to not let his friend die, so he continues to assure her that she will be all right. It’s not until this song that Marius even realizes how much Eponine loved him. She never finishes her song, too, which is the most gut-wrenching part of the scene. She dies for love – LITERALLY – and Marius breaks down afterward.

There are a few things I loved about the film performance of this song: 1) I love that they chose not to have Marius actually kiss Eponine on the lips, as some versions do. I always feel like that’s… too much, I guess. I absolutely loved how Marius kisses her forehead and stays there while he cries. 2) After the song has ended, Enjolras later tells his friend: “Marius, rest” while the young man continues to rebuild the barricade. It’s a nice but subtle reminder that Marius cared about Eponine so much and her death truly is causing him to grive.

Amanda Seyfried as Cosette
Best Scene(s): “Epilogue”

In stark contrast to Eponine, no one really likes Cosette. That’s not to say that Marius’ beloved is a BAD character by any means. She’s not villainous but she’s just… about as interesting as a piece of white paint. Again, that doesn’t mean that Cosette is an evil character. Her whole purpose in the musical, however, is to be beautiful and sing some high notes and then marry Marius.

Really, that’s the extent of her character.

When I heard that Amanda Seyfried would play this character, I thought she’d be perfect for the role as the blonde, beautiful young daughter of Fantine. She did well with the songs she was given (“In My Life”) with her soprano vibrato, but I really feel that Seyfried shone in the epilogue of the film, which is something I was a bit surprised about.

In the epilogue, Marius and Cosette rush to find Valjean and discover that he is dying. He tells his daughter and son-in-law of his transgressions and begs them to forgive him. Seyfried’s emotions throughout this scene were palpable, and she really conveyed the pain and heartache of Cosette losing her father. Additionally, as Vajean passed, Seyfried let out audible sobs, which really got me choked up.

Overall, Cosette is never a favorite character – she’s rather dull, as I said before – but I think that Amanda Seyfried did a good job with her. Even if we were all rooting for Eponine.

Eddie Redmayne as Marius
Best Scene(s): “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables”

Eddie Redmayne had some great moments as Marius, including “The ABC Café/Red and Black” but his highlight for me in this film was his performance in “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.” I’ll admit that this song hasn’t always been a favorite of mine due to its… er, rather melancholy nature. But if there is anything I learned from Les Miserables as a film, it’s that the performances had the ability to take a song I knew and turn it into something fresh and wonderful.

That being said, “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” was a solid performance for Redmayne (especially his “Oh my friends, my friends, don’t ask me what your sacrifice was for” line), as it packed an emotional punch. You could hear the grief in his voice and also just the complete and utter guilt that Marius feels for surviving while all of his friends died at the barricades.

It’s a beautifully executed song and wonderfully performed by Redmayne. It’s one of the songs on the soundtrack that gives me chills, to be honest.

Aaron Tveit as Enjolras
Best Scene(s): “The ABC Café/Red and Black”/ “The Final Battle”

I think Enjolras is one of those lesser-known or talked about characters in Les Miserables but he’s perhaps one of the best. He throws himself completely into a cause he believes in – he’s a student, unwilling to live under an oppressive government and wants to take a stand. He wants France to be a place run by the common men, not those who were self-indulgent and privileged and could care less about the plight of the poor. Two moments that Tveit really shone during were “The ABC Café/Red and Black” and “The Final Battle.”

“Red and Black” is perhaps one of the most famous songs in Les Miserables (apart from “Do You Hear the People Sing?”), and Tveit performed it beautifully. He has such an amazing voice and commanding personality on screen that you can’t help but be in awe of this revolutionary student. And… well, he’s easy on the eyes, too. Regardless, one of my favorite moments was during “The ABC Café,” where Enjolras chides Marius for chasing love over a larger goal. It’s a moment which seems rather insignificant at the time – we believe Enjolras to be rather heartless, or perhaps just dismissive of Marius’ distraction. But after “A Little Fall of Rain,” we see Enjolras become infinitely more compassionate – his facial features and voice soften toward Marius.

I think that it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that Enjolras and Marius were young men – students – who wanted to see a change in the world. And I love how “The ABC Café/Red and Black” exemplified this.

Enjolras’ end occurs in “The Final Battle,” a terrible and gruesome battle that leaves all of the revolutionaries (besides Marius and Valjean) dead. Though this song is more about the battle than an actual performance, Tveit did a fantastic job and conveyed the determination and resilience of Enjolras perfectly. Plus, Enjolras’ final words in the song are: “Let others rise to take our place until the Earth is free” which is just brilliant and wonderful and encapsulates his personality perfectly.

Also did I mention that Tveit is easy on the eyes?

Sacha Baron Cohen & Helena Bonham Carter as The Thenardiers
Best Scene(s): “Master of the House”/ “Beggars at the Feast”

In a play completely about pain and loss and suffering (guys, the title translates as “The Miserables,” after all), there is comic relief to be found in the characters of Thenardier and Madame Thenardier. They’re morally bankrupt characters who care only about themselves. When Fantine sends her little daughter Cosette to live with them, the Thenardiers waste no time in treating the little girl like their own personal servant, insisting that she fetch them water from the well, making her sweep and clean, etc. They’re villainous, thieving, scheming characters (as exemplified further in “The Attack on Rue Plumet” and “The Robbery”) who have no conscience or care.

But the truth is that they’re the comedic relief of the show, and are absurd characters who make us laugh. So when the casting of Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter was announced, I knew they would be perfect for the roles and they both did not disappoint. The Thenardiers’ big number is, of course, “Master of the House,” in which Cohen and Carter both did a fabulous job. (Cohen was also quite hilarious throughout the film with his inability to remember Cosette’s name.) What I liked was Madame Thenardier’s understated portion of the song. Carter sang with quietness and more delicateness, and yet… it was still insulting and venomous toward her husband (as the first line is “Master of the house isn’t worth my spit”). And the way that they both portrayed these characters – as utter fools and scheming thieves – throughout the song was brilliant.

Les Miserables really ends with a few people living: Cosette, Marius, and the Thenardiers. It’s kind of a bummer, when you realize that half those who survive are evil. “Beggars at the Feast” is another one of Cohen and Carter’s shining moments, as they crash Cosette and Marius’ wedding (hilariously), and then end up telling Marius that Valjean is the one who saved his life. They get kicked out of the wedding, of course, after raiding the guests for their valuables, but it’s another comedic scene (the last one) before a very sad ending to the film. I think Cohen and Carter did a fabulous job playing these characters, quite frankly.

Daniel Huttlestone as Gavroche
Best Scene(s): “The Beggars”/ “Little People”

Oh, Gavroche. This is one character who you cannot help but love and adore because he’s a child. But make no mistake about it, he doesn’t believe he is ONLY a child – he’s a little leader and full of spirit. We’re introduced to him first in “The Beggars,” where he announces himself and really narrates this portion of the story. Little children follow his lead, and he stands beside Enjolras and Marius when it comes to fighting. In “The Beggars,” Gavroche introduces us to his people – the beggars on the street, those who are calling for a change, for something to be done. He lives on the street and knows his way around. And he’s PROUD of that. He’s proud to be of use to those who are older than him. And, unlike how Anybodys is treated in West Side Story, the revolutionary students don’t dismiss Gavroche as insignificant and rely on him to do things.

And then, of course, there is the heartbreaking scene in “Little People,” where Gavroche dies. Prior to that, however, I must say one of my favorite Gavroche lines is the self-satisfied little way that he delivers the: “Good evening, dear Inspector, lovely evening my dear” line to Javert at the barricades. That’s the first part of “Little People,” really. But the most devastating scene is when Gavroche climbs over the barricade singing the song, because guns are aimed at him and ready to fire at any moment. He continues, however, even after being shot once, while those over the barricade fight not to leap over and rescue him. But then, before the little boy is able to finish his song (“You better run for cover when the pup grows…”), he’s killed. And it’s the second time a character fails to complete their song before their untimely end and is completely devastating. Even though I knew what was coming, I still gasped along with the rest of my theatre as we watched Gavroche venture from the safety of the barricade and into the oncoming fire.

Overall, Les Miserables was a beautiful, wonderful adaptation of the stage musical. There were parts that obviously differed and scenes I wish had been included (really, I wished they would have kept Eponine in “Epilogue” as she’s supposed to sing with Fantine, almost watching over Marius), but I really loved this adaptation. I thought the casting was stellar and the choice to live-sing over record an album and then lip sync was genius – it really gave the entire musical a fresh feel to it. There was a rawness present that was reflective of how Les Miserables is when it’s performed on stage.

But moreover than that, this is a story that is just so beautiful at its core. It’s about redemption, love, forgiveness, and becoming a better person. It’s about sacrifice and devotion. It will always be my favorite musical because of how it resonates with each of us. Never mind the fact that we do not live in revolutionary France, nor that we do not exist as beggars on the street… these words still resonate with us. Words of hope, inspiration, of perseverance.

Because the truth is that this musical teaches us what it means to be human – to live, to love, and to suffer. It teaches us how to forgive ourselves, forgive those who’ve wronged us, and to continue to love the people around us. After all, as the musical concludes, it reminds us that “to love another person is to see the face of God.”

I can’t think of a more inspirational charge than that.

1 comment:

  1. Jennifer, why aren't you writing reviews for big publications like the Times or Posts. I have read most reviews from these big newspapers, and none can come close to your brilliant dissection of characters. Your piece here is inspirational. Keep writing!