The Oscars were last night, and Les Miserables came to a theatre near me just in the nick of time. Living in a small town like mine can be frustrating where the Academy Awards are concerned, because when you already don’t watch R-rated films, you don’t get to see many of the nominees. And then when your (very small)(non-stadium seating)(ONLY) local theatre decides that films like Lincoln and Les Miserables aren’t worth getting on opening week, well…you don’t get to see many good movies, and are often lost during the Oscars. Though it’s still fun to watch.
So, on Saturday night we went to see Les Miserables. You may remember a post I wrote way back in July in which, prompted by Anne Hathaway’s rendition of I Dreamed a Dream in the trailer, I admitted to being a music snob.
Many of my friends didn’t agree with me about Anne’s performance, most often citing the (valid) reason that “Fantine has been through so much! She’s down-trodden, sick, and dying. How can she possibly sing well after all that she has experienced?”
To that I say,”Have you ever seen an opera?”
Two of opera’s most beloved heroines, Mimi (La Boheme) and Violetta (La Traviata), die of tuberculosis. And they are perfectly capable of singing very high notes beautifully seconds before they succumb to the illness. Because it’s an OPERA. People sing beautiful high notes in all kinds of down-trodden, sick, and dying situations in opera. Nobody would want to go see a Mimi who decided to portray her consumption realistically and actually sang like she was dying. That isn’t the point of opera.
But Les Miserables isn’t an opera, right?
The definitions of opera and musical theatre blur a little bit in the case of shows like Les Mis. Because everything is sung and there is no spoken dialogue actually written into the book, many people believe that Les Miserables is technically an opera. And if that were the only difference between opera and musical theatre, those people would be right.
But there are many other differences, which means that Les Miserables is actually musical theatre. We call it “sung-through” and it shares this category with shows like Rent, Miss Saigon, and Evita. (On the flip side, there are operas, like Mozart’s The Magic Flute, that contain spoken dialogue.)
Still, my issues with the movie lie in the fact that this is a musical that is entirely sung.
In theatre, there exists a threshold of verbalization. Basically, this means that the actor remains silent until the need to communicate via speech becomes so strong that the actor crosses that threshold and speaks. In opera and musical theatre, there is also a threshold of vocalization. This threshold is higher than the threshold of verbalization and means that an actor’s need to communicate through song must be stronger than the need to communicate through speech.*
“Music is what feelings sound like” is a popular quote that musicians (myself included) like to use to show how music allows us to feel more deeply, and to put some sort of tangibility to our emotions. If you are going to sing, you must be able to sing in such a way that the emotions can be understood through the music, and through the singing voice. It is not enough to just act the same way you would with spoken dialogue. It is an entirely different process.
The composer has already given the singer everything. Our job is to figure out why specific notes, dynamics, rhythms, etc. were written. Then we use that music, and our voices (which we have spent years learning how to use properly) to bring the emotions to life. But we have to have the ability to sing softly in order to make use of the composer’s direction to do so. We have to have the ability to change timbre, sing in tune (at one point during the movie my husband leaned over to me and whispered, “Does pitch matter in this show?”), crescendo, and so much more. If we do not have that ability—that technique—in place, we cannot truly cross the threshold of vocalization.
“When one wants to find a gesture, when you want to find how to act onstage, all you have to do is listen to the music.The composer has already seen to that. If you take the trouble to really listen with your Soul and with your Ears—and I say ‘Soul’ and ‘Ears’ because the Mind must work, but not too much also—you will find every gesture there.”Maria Callas
Ultimately, I felt that the actors in Les Miserables did not have the ability to cross the threshold of vocalization because they simply did not have a strong enough singing technique to do it. Instead, they used the acting skills that made them the big names that they are.
Anne Hathaway acted the crap out of Fantine. Her acting was superb. She deserved the Oscar last night, and I mean that. But, if she had had the singing chops to really become Fantine through song? To really show Fantine’s despair through the music and not just acting? Her performance would have been so much more than it already was. She has a nice enough voice, but her lack of breath support was enough to limit her ability to show emotion through singing in a big way.
Russell Crowe, another marvelous actor, would have made an amazing Javert in a version of Les Miserables where singing wasn’t required. As it was, he had to concentrate so much on his singing, that his acting suffered. I feel he did the opposite of what Anne Hathaway did, and didn’t even try to act the crap out of Javert. He just did his best to sing the notes and stay in tune (and he wasn’t always successful). Consequently, the suicide scene, which could have been so freaking amazing on film (did you SEE that bridge and that water?) fell short because Crowe was so staid in his singing. He couldn’t use his voice to show the emotion, and it felt like he was afraid to try.
Hugh Jackman did an admirable job, but I didn’t like his rendition of Bring Him Home. There was no subtlety of emotion in it, because the notes were too high for him and he he had to work too hard to sing them. It resulted in a pushed performance, in my opinion. (And what was up with the new song? Probably just a grab for an Oscar nomination, which was the end result. I was disappointed to have a new song added and one of my favorites—Little People—cut.)
Amanda Seyfreid, who was fine in Mamma Mia! because it wasn’t nearly as vocally demanding, simply shouldn’t have been given this role. Cosette is the operatic role in Les Miserables. It is high, and classically sung. Amanda did not have the breath technique to do it, and her vibrato was fast and Snow White-ish, and it detracted from the performance.
Marius, played by Eddie Redmayne, had similar issues, though he ended up creating his vibrato entirely in his neck and head. It was both distracting to watch and to hear, though I thought he had one of the nicer voices in the show, vibrato issues aside.
Samantha Barks, who played Eponine (how can I get a waist as tiny as hers?), did an honorable job as well. Eponine is a belt role, and while I would have liked to see more from her, she nailed the end of On My Own and I enjoyed her performance of A Little Fall of Rain.
Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen were hilarious. It’s really too bad they couldn’t have sung the roles the way they were meant to be sung, because it would have been so much funnier.
The guys who played Enjolras and Grantaire (Marius’ friends) were very good singers with Broadway experience. Because they had nothing holding them back musically, they were my favorite characters in the movie.
Besides Gavroche. Who is always my favorite character in this show. The boy they had playing him did a superb job. The young Cosette was pretty darn good, too.
And let’s not forget the cameo appearance of the original Jean Valjean—Colm Wilkinson—as the Bishop. He’s gotten old, but it was lovely to see him in the movie.
All of that said, I enjoyed the movie. Really. The singing issues, which I am very aware would not bother the majority of the population, did not detract so much from the story that I couldn’t appreciate the amazing work that is Les Miserables. I cried. It is a wonderful and epic story of justice and mercy, hope and redemption, love and beauty.
It’s just that it could have been so much better if Hollywood didn’t think that singing is secondary to acting. That’s all.
And, no. I have no idea how I would have cast this show. That’s why that isn’t my job. My job, apparently, is only to write long essays about why the musical wasn’t all it could have been.
And if you felt it was your job to read this, I thank you.
*I learned about these thresholds from Dr. Matt Bean, who was a professor of mine at BYU. I took a class from him called “Acting for Singers” and it was one of the most amazing classes I have ever taken, even though fear was struck into my heart every time I crossed the threshold into the classroom (hardy har har). He wrote an article in the 2007 NATS Journal entitled “Why is Acting in Song so Different.” I love that article so much that I make all of my students read it and I talk about it way too much.