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Misérables Loves Company

January 9, 2013

I have a long history with “Les Misérables”, one that predates my general interest in theater. It started, as such things do, with a girl.

During my junior year in high school, I fell hard and fast for a willowy ginger in my Catholic high school’s choir. That year, in their spring concert, they did a medley from “Les Mis” and I fell hard and fast for the soundtrack, which I acquired and listened to over and over throughout the summer. I also read the novel, thinking it would take all three months. I absorbed it in three weeks of immersion. I joined the choir myself when senior year began in September, a move that initiated me into the school’s bohemian clique. (In addition to the choir, the school’s theater community was a part of it — so I spent the year among actors but failed to make that leap.)

For my 17th birthday in October, I asked my parents to take me to the show at the Shubert Theater in New Haven, about 30 miles from our house. My dad to this day calls it “Les Mez” — perhaps because we were seated in the mezzanine? Of course, he also calls the original James Bond “Sean Connerly”. A choir trip to Manhattan that spring resulted in my second time seeing the show — with Debbie Gibson as Eponine. A few years later, I dragged my skeptical college girlfriend to the show. She loved it, and we briefly met the actor who played Javert, David Masenheimer, after the performance.

My love of the show had by this point transcended that high school redhead (who now runs an organic farm in Ohio). “Les Mis” was the perfect show to capture the imagination of a romantic young man who had vaguely revolutionary dreams and a religious bent. Though it faded in my consciousness over the turning of the years, I was excited when I first heard of the film version — and then when I saw that a production would be mounted at D.C.’s National Theater, I decided I had to go, and bring my sons.

My twin boys are eight, but they have been exposed to a lot of theater, both the high-quality young audiences productions in our area and a few shows at the Shakespeare Theatre Company and elsewhere. I took one of them to see “Mary Poppins” on Broadway during a one-on-one weekend excursion, but wanted them both to see this show I loved so much.

I loved the show, because I always do, but it was still a slight disappointment. The 25th Anniversary production has some nice aspects — the use of period paintings as backdrops, for one — but the National Theater stage was too small to do the scope of the show full justice. While the original Broadway production included projected dates to let the audience know when the story was jumping ahead in time, this version did not — and it confused my sons and would have confused me if I had not already known the story well. And the stage lacks a revolving platform, which hampered things — Gavroche’s death was unseen since after he scampered over the barricade, he was out of audience view. I also thought the show’s Fantine and Cosette were among the weaker ones I have seen.

But there were some positives. Briana Carlson-Goodman was the best of the four Eponines I have seen (sorry, Debbie), in large part because she alone conveyed the anger in “On My Own”, not just the song’s sadness. She brought a muted fury to Eponine that I had not seen before. And the production made Grantaire more than just a lush with a cameo. (Grantaire, I might add, is the character I would most like to play if ever I get the chance. Well, and if I was not up for one of the leads.)

The experience was not as grand as what I’d had in Manhattan or New Haven, but I still got to share it with my sons — and one of them has been singing the songs ever since. I was very happy to be able to offer them the memory.

I then decided to go see the film version the very next day. I rarely go to movies — they cost so much now, and my free time is limited and I’d rather go to the theater when I have it. But the chance to see a Broadway production one day, and the film version on the big screen the next, was too much to pass up. This time, I went alone.

The film was impressive, with beautiful cinematography and oft-inspired direction. Some critics have said Tom Hooper relied too much on extreme close-ups, but in many of the scenes there may have been little other palatable option. He also made wise use of the novel to fill in some of the blanks in the original stage musical, like what exactly Valjean and Cosette did from the time they fled the Thénardier inn until the day the young revolutionaries came on the scene. (Neither the play nor the film, however, really makes it clear how the reformed Valjean went from poverty to wealth and office — which the book does.)

Hooper made the bold (and well-publicized) choice of having the actors sing as they performed, rather than dubbing in their songs later, and that brought an earthiness and vitality to the lyrics. He also was smart to occasionally use a bit of dialogue to fill in pieces or advance the story. The actors were generally well-selected. Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway are as magnificent as one would expect, and Eddie Redmayne is the first Marius I’ve seen who I didn’t want to slap. (Really, he is a tiresome chap in the wrong hands.) Sacha Baron Cohen was a risky choice for Thénardier, and while I did not love his performance — his comic “Fronch” accent was a bit much — he fit the bill. Helena Bonham Carter’s performance has received little mention, but she deserves commendation for actually bringing a bit of subtlety to the overly broad Madame Thénardier.

The casting had a few misses. Yes, Amanda Seyfried was stuck with Cosette, the blandest character in the show, but she still failed to do much with it. And then there’s Russell. Oh, Russell.

I cannot fault Russell Crowe for accepting the role of Javert. It’s the most interesting character in the story, and he has the show’s best solo song, “Stars”. If someone offered it to me, I’d take it too — even if I was not right for it. And Crowe was not right for it. His singing was curiously wan, and he came off like a suburban burgher trying to muddle through the hymns in church. However, even his acting was weaker than his norm. He looked uncomfortable throughout the entire experience.

The film suffered also from an effort to cram too much in while keeping the running time down. Scenes and songs started and stopped suddenly, with large bits cut away, making the movie at times seem like it had been hastily cut for broadcast. This is most obvious at the very end, where Cohen and Bonham Carter belt out a few lines of “Beggars at the Feast” while being tossed out of the wedding. Hooper did cut a couple of songs entirely, but seemed to try to get a bit of all the favorites in for the sake of the fans, and this was not always to good effect.

Peter Sig

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