So, Les Misérables. But first a disclaimer. As some of you already know, I have a bit of background in vocal performance. Les Miz is my favorite musical, and I’ve seen it live twice. So that’s the perspective from which I write. (Side note: I started writing this waaaaay back in December, when we saw the movie, and I’m just now getting around to posting it.) Now that you’ve been fairly warned…
Vocally, the actors did their best with some challenging music, but by and large they just were not up to the task. In particular, I thought going in that Hugh Jackman was just the wrong voice type for Jean Valjean. He’s the right body type – tall and physically rather imposing – but to me, asking a baritone to sing high A’s approaches cruel and unusual punishment. It just seemed to me he was going awfully nasal, early and often, to hit some of the higher parts.
Other performers were especially problematic. I’ve heard that Russell Crowe was considered the weakest link in the chain, and having seen the movie, I can appreciate the sentiment. He just came off kind of listless and ineffectual. Eddie Redmayne’s (Marius) vibrato just annoyed me: I found it unnatural and forced.
Not all of the performers were quite so rough around the edges vocally. Honestly, I don’t know why Amanda Seyfried, who played Cosette, isn’t getting more press. Her soprano was truly outstanding, on par with anything you’ll hear from a stage actress in the role. During the trio with Marius and Eponine, she hit the highest pitches effortlessly. (Samantha Barks was on the money as Eponine, but given her prior experience playing the role on the West End, she’s up against a different set of expectations.)
And expectations are the biggest problem this cast is facing. Les Misérables is arguably the best-known musical in the world, and the greatest voices imaginable have performed these songs countless times. No matter what Jackman and company might have done, they would be measured against a standard impossible to match. So I’m not going to go all choir nerd and say the movie stunk just because Jackman wasn’t at the caliber of Colm Wilkinson (side note: I loved his cameo as the bishop!).
Because what it may lack in vocal quality, it more than makes up for in imagery. Tom Hooper leverages the film medium to bring off 19th-century France on a level the stage could only imagine. His Paris is filthy, gritty…well, it’s just miserable. (Characteristic of the age, even the relatively affluent characters – Valjean, Enjolras, Marius – have really discolored teeth.)
A lot has been made of the vocal approach where the actors actually sang on camera rather than record the music in studio. For the movie, I actually thought it worked – the relatively unpolished nature of the vocal portions helped to add to the rough-cut image of Hooper’s France. (In fairness to the performers, it can help explain at least a little of the vocal weaknesses.)
All this is really best summed up by Anne Hathaway’s performance. Playing Fantine, she’s at a particular disadvantage: “I Dreamed a Dream” is one of the best-known songs from the show, and her voice, while pretty, is very thin. Yet her performance rends the heart: her Fantine, shorn and debased, is simply wretched. But here’s the thing: a woman in the depths of hell isn’t going to have a massive operatic voice that can fill a concert hall.
In short, the movie musical of Les Misérables is meant to be watched, not heard.