Les Miserables is an epic pop/rock musical adapted to the screen as a slight and claustrophobic show. Jean Valjean is released after 19 years of hard labor incurred from stealing a loaf of bread for his starving nephew. He vows to make a better life for himself and rises to great prosperity as the mayor of a large town. He stands by as a loyal factory work is cast to the streets for having a daughter but, once again, vows to set things right by taking the daughter in as his own. Cosette, now an adult, is oblivious to Jean Valjean's true identity even as France appears to be on the verge of collapse with a student rebellion growing in numbers every day.
Tom Hooper did not have an easy job directing this bloated, three and a half hour mega-musical from the 1980s. Les Miserables, though a popular show for decades, is a troubled one. Originally written in French and quickly translated to English for the West End, the sung-through show settled for spectacle, suggestion, and character development over linear storytelling or the clear establishment of relationships. You know Jean Valjean is at odds with Inspector Javert and Marius falls head over heels for Cosette, the daughter of the disgraced factory worker Fantine. Eponine is always at Marius' heels though he never notices her. Everything else is open to interpretation, including events that should play as clear as day in the overall narrative, like death and blatant lies.
Thankfully, you won't easily get lost in this adaptation. Tom Hooper and screenwriter William Nicholson, under the guidance of the original creative team Claude-Michel Schonberg, Alain Boubil, and Herbert Kretzmer, restructure the book to actually tell a linear story. Instead of having Fantine sing about hitting rock bottom just because she's fired from the factory, Fantine now hits rock bottom through the clearer than ever narrative of "Lovely Ladies" before she "Dreamed a Dream."
It's smart choices like this that make the story flow in an accessible way with the added help of some spoken dialogue. I would love to see the rights holders agree to license live stage productions that use the newly reordered score. Then the show would be as close to perfect as it can be.
Unfortunately, two huge problems distract from this excellent restructuring of the story. Tom Hooper selected close-ups as his device of choice, showing fully staged musical numbers as nothing more than shifting backgrounds behind a crying singer's face and chest in all but a handful of songs. True, we get to see the pain the miserable cast is going through quite clearly--they're all ugly singers, by the way, with snot running down their noses and mouths open wide like gargoyles on a drain pipe--but we lose the physicality of the songs.
One song sees Javert and Jean Valjean have a sword fight where we only see the tips of their weapons but every bead of sweat on their foreheads. Another song sees Jean Valjean pacing in a monastery, though the expense of actually designing a set like that was wasted when Hugh Jackman could have sitting on an office chair in front of a greenscreen for all we know. The few moments where we see the full bodies--"Lovely Ladies," "Master of the House," "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables, "Red and Black," "At the End of the Day (Factory Section)," "Do You Hear the People Sing," and the finale--are the moments where the true potential of Les Miserables is shown.
This is a musical. We need to see the action unfold. You don't design dozens of locations to such beautiful extravagance and then focus on the actors' faces and wigs alone. That's insanity. Aside from the wasted locales, the actors' performances all suffer when we're shown nothing but their faces. Acting is a full body experience, especially with the staged movement of a musical, and focusing on the face alone is a poor decision.
If you can see the tears on the actor's face, you know they're sad. Do we really need close-ups covering half the screen with one face and a stationary background when surely cutting in a bit more variety in a three to five minute song might show some of the nuance of a performance beyond trembling lips and pensive stares?
There is a secondary issue at play that almost forces Tom Hooper's hand in this decision. The much touted live singing of Les Miserables is a failure of music direction. With few exceptions--Aaron Tveit, Samantha Barks, and ensemble members with one line to their name, these are not musicians performing in a musical. They're big Hollywood actors who can carry a tune performing in a musical. They do not have the training or the experience to direct themselves on how music should come together. Giving them full control of the tempo of their songs kills the power of the score because they don't know, musically, what to do with them.
Rubato is one of the trickiest things to get right in musical theater. The actor instinctively wants to slow down or speed up to sell a moment in their performance. Yet, without the proper balance between the fast and the slow, the song loses its shape and even its meaning. Very few songs in the score of Les Miserables call for rubato, let alone 10 second pauses in the middle of a line so an actor can cry and show how much they deserve an award. It's a distraction, at best, to anyone with a sense of rhythm or style.
Forcing the orchestra to follow what the singer is doing on every song is a huge mistake and it compromises the beauty of the property. Les Miserables has problems as a musical, but that score is flawless. The greatest strength becomes the greatest weakness just to indulge an experiment in throwing out the rules of movie musicals.
Thoughts on Les Miserables? Sound off below. Be aware that I do work as a music director for live musical theater and do not speak from ignorance on the challenge of reining in actors to preserve the integrity of the score and show as a whole.