From the NEPR Archives: How I spent my Christmas afternoon

With a new star-studded movie version of Cats about to open, and with the news that the great Stephen Sondheim musical Follies is about to be filmed, let me share my impressions of an earlier screen adaptation of a huge music theater hit, originally posted at the NEPR Classical Blog on December 27, 2012.

So, The Wife, The Big Sis and I spent two-and-a-half hours of our Christmas afternoon at the local cineplex attending the new Tom Hooper film of the hit musical Les Misérables, which we might have been the only people in the packed house not to have previously seen.  We paid our seven bucks each and took our chances.  I went with an open mind and an appetite for entertainment.  And I got sucked in, too…for about 20 minutes.  Then I found myself gradually detatching from the on-screen proceedings, and noticing stuff.  Why did they do it that way?  What could they possibly have had in mind there?  I promise; I don’t go looking for things to pick at.  They just sometimes have a way of finding me.  So, without in the least desiring to diminish your own eagerness to endure, er, enjoy the movie, here’s what hit me:

1.  If the darned thing were 15 minutes longer, I would have finished counting the follicles in Hugh Jackman’s beard. Really, especially from the third row, the constant close-ups were oppressive. Even in Anne Hathaway’s gripping “I Dreamed a Dream” scena ed aria, I had to turn away from all the tears, blood and mucous. There is some benefit to the distance a stage provides.

2.  Ever noticed how when people on stage break into song, it seems perfectly normal, but when people on screen, captured in natural settings, break into song, it seems…odd?  No wonder so many of the classic movie musicals were about thespians putting on a show, thereby making the songs plausible.  This one jumped the proverbial shark about a fifth of the way in, and never won me back.

3.  There is a difference between an actor who sings (see:  Crowe, Russell) and a real singing actor (see: Jackman, Hugh).  A big difference.  It can be somewhat mitigated by tessitura, technology and outright trickery.  But it will out in the end.  While the sub-standard singing of much of the cast of Les Misérables didn’t sink to the disgraceful level of the awful Johnny Depp/Helena Bonham Carter film of Sweeney Todd,  neither should anyone pretend that it was actually, you know, good.  Worst for me was Amanda Seyfried, whose paper-thin warble made the singer who did Snow White sound like Ethel Merman.  Come on, film folks.  There are some really, really good singing actors around today; I bet they’d work for less than you paid the fancy but vocally challenged stars.  (Speaking of Ms. Bonham Carter and Sweeney :  Did she just leave her Mrs. Lovett makeup on for her Les Miz  role?)

4.  For a “popular” stage musical to be sung throughout or for long stretches, as opposed to songs separated by spoken dialogue, is nothing new, going back at least as far as The Golden Apple  of 1954.  It’s a cheap way to lend more operatic “class” to shows on big historic themes, like our dear Les Miz.  But it’s a place very few composers and lyricists should go.  Unless you have the verbal dexterity and musical craft of a Stephen Sondheim, you’re going to embarrass yourself — which, IMHO, is the fate shared in this case by composer Claude-Michel Schönberg and English lyricist…excuse me, librettist  Herbert Kretzmer.  It was bad enough that the inter-song ariosos increased the unreality of the whole enterprise (see No. 2 above),  It was worse that their modal meanderings sapped what little melodic freshness the actual songs might otherwise have conveyed.  But oy, were the lyrics disfigured by the corniest, most forced rhymes I’ve ever heard! I swear, I expected a Burma Shave ad to pop up at any moment.  Someone, anyone, please  tell me it worked better in the original French.

I know, I know…there are millions who love this musical, quite a few of whom were packed into the theater on Christmas and cheered like crazy at the end.  If you’re a Les Miz  lover, go ahead and tell me what I’m missing.

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