A couple of years ago I watched the film version of Les Misérables, and pardon the pun when I say that the experience was truly a miserable one. I’m not sure who told Hugh Jackman that he could sing, but his goat-like vibrato, his limited range and strain for notes, and his overall problematic facial expressions that arise when he attempts to emote while cackling should never have seen the light of day. Russell Crowe was just a travesty and was so awful that the less said about his impression of a dying wart-full toad, the better. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter were in a completely different movie, which they probably thought was being directed by Tim Burton. Eddie Redmayne and Amanda Seyfried had as much romantic chemistry as John Travolta and Idina Menzel, or, sorry, Adele Dazeem (read: not a lot). God, I really forgot until now how truly awful that movie was…
Cut to a couple of weeks ago I was out at a bar for beers with a few friends of mine and we started talking about musicals and Broadway shows, which were good and which were bad. A friend and I were discussing how bad the aforementioned movie was and how it had permanently cured us from ever wanting to see the Broadway show when her boyfriend, who had been silent until then, interjected. He adamantly defended the show, sang its praises, and insisted that it was the best thing he’d seen on stage. He spoke with such passion and insistence that when I saw that tickets were super cheap, I decided to throw caution to the wind and see what all the fuss was about. I was prepared to hate it.
And then the show began and I heard the voice of Jean Valjean and I knew I was in for something very different. Gone was Jackman’s bleat, and in its place was a crystalline timbered voice, a strong controlled tenor, powerful and emotional. This was a Jean I could spend the next two+ hours with. I was hoping for a bit more gravitas and vocal prowess from Fantine, especially as she sang “I Dreamed a Dream”, but she dies right afterwards, so it’s ok. Thénardier and his wife still seem to belong to another musical, but at least on stage they were actually funny and good comedic relief, so I was game. The Parisians and the revolutionaries were great and I was sold on the performances and especially on the emotion conveyed. A standout of the production was Éponine, as a tragic character in a sea of people who cannot catch a break. Even Javert made me forget that Crowe can’t sing one note on key to save his life!
The show is still a bit too long and it suffers from the problem of having 5 or 6 possible endings before the actual one finally arrives, making me feel restless the last half hour of the show. The songs worked on stage in a way that they really did not on film. In the movie the fact that the same melodies and themes reappear multiple times became distracting and shrill, but on stage somehow it ties everything together and provides a nice narrative thread I didn’t think possible. I didn’t even hate that every single line of dialogue is sung, which was one thing that while watching the film led me to nearly cut off my ears to make it all stop.
All this to say, my friend was right. Les Misérables is great, it actually does deserve all of its accolades and it makes sense that it still is one of the best regarded shows on Broadway even 36 years after its premiere. Who knew?