The highly anticipated Les Misérables releases in theaters this Christmas Day. Whether you’re a die-hard fan of the musical, a long-time lover of the classic novel, or just curious to see Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman sing on the big screen – here are some tips you may find useful!
1. Yes, They Sing
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Newcomers to the story may be unable to discern this from the theatrical trailers, but this film is almost entirely sung through. The film is an adaptation of a stage musical from 1985, with music written by Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyrics by Alain Boublil and Herbert Kretzmer. The musical is sung-through start to finish; while a line or two may be spoken in a given performance, music underscores the entire libretto.
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The expression of the show’s heart through song is a powerful tool which has resonated with audiences for more than twenty-five years. “In the end, people keep coming back [to see Les Miz] because it provides the opportunity to re-experience strong emotions, and then delivers,” according to director Tom Hooper. And putting the stirring score to film creates “an even more intense emotional experience.”
So don’t be caught being that guy in the theater wondering when the actors will break out of song.
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2. Yes, They Sing Live
The traditional way of putting musicals on screen has been for the actors to record their songs in a studio, study their parts, and then lip synch during the actual filming. This method has been used since the first movie-musicals, with notable recent examples being The Phantom of the Opera and Mamma Mia!. The main downfall of this method, for audience members, is that it becomes obvious the actors are mouthing words which have been recorded separately, and a large element of truth is missing from the accompanying acting performance.
Not so with this new adaptation of Les Miz. First, the director and producers had a much narrower list of actors with enough musical background and technical training to make the cut. Each principle cast member endured a vigorous audition with Tom Hooper, the cast rehearsed for nine weeks before filming began, and then sang during filming, accompanied by an off-set live piano which they could hear through hidden earpieces. “This film is completely unique,” asserts producer Eric Fellner, and that’s certainly true in regards to the singing.
Cast members rave of their piano accompanists as the “unsung heroes” of the film, and indeed their contribution to the film breaks new ground in the medium. Because of this choice to sing live during filming (a choice Tom Hooper was uncompromising on) the audience gets a veritable tidal wave of raw emotion and spirited acting on screen, an experience formerly exclusive to seeing the performance live on stage. With the addition of the camera close-up (a tool of which Hooper is extremely fond) this makes for one of the most memorable films in a long time.
Bonus tip: Try to notice any especially long takes. There are a few key scenes and songs which are single shots with no breaks in filming, which means (you guessed it) no “re-dos” or “take-two”s in the acting or singing – just like seeing it on Broadway!
3. They Honor the Stage Musical
Some fans of the live musical are bound to be disappointed with this film, as is the case with every adaptation. However, the desire of the filmmakers to make a faithful adaptation of the stage musical cannot be denied. Fewer than twenty lines are spoken, with (as was seen in Point #1) the movie being sung-through in the same fashion as the play. And while the structure of certain songs or scenes varies from the stage production to better fit the demands and pacing of film, the emotional through-line of the musical is preserved with flying colors.
“The central DNA I had to protect was its emotional DNA,” says Hooper, who went to see the play onstage numerous times leading up to his commitment to the film. He was also able to foster this emotional connection between cast members by the many weeks of rehearsing, something Hugh Jackman states as being completely necessary to musicals. Jackman voices that the cast was “incredibly grateful” that the film’s director and producers made the effort and sacrifices to make sure that the film lived up to the show’s demands. “We’re all massive Les Miz geeks,” admits Anne Hathaway.
If in nothing else, leery fans of the show should receive comfort knowing that the show’s original artistic team was on-board with the film from its beginnings. Broadway mega-producer Cameron Mackintosh, who produced the original show, produced this new film and worked closely with Top Hooper. Also involved was original composer Claude-Michel Schönberg and original librettist Herbert Kretzmer, who were on hand to help in orchestrating and writing new or re-arranged material.
Bonus tip: Fans of the show will be delighted to see actor Colm Wilkinson cast in the role of the Bishop. Wilkinson originated the leading role of Jean Valjean on stage, and is still widely considered the most beloved Valjean around the world.
4. They Honor the Novel
It is almost surprising how evident is Tom Hooper’s respect for Victor Hugo’s 19th century novel. When asked about his process for preparing for this film, Hooper states that he began this Les Miz journey by going back and re-reading the novel (point there!). While it was naturally his desire to adhere to the musical, and to make the best film he could, he was greatly influenced and inspired by the original source novel.
This inspiration weaves through the movie, almost unnoticeably at times, such as in the opening sequence. The prologue is set in a naval shipyard, with the prisoners hoisting a wounded vessel into port. The stage production is very sparse, showing the convicts working at some form of ambiguous prison labor. Hooper learned from the book that a chief way convicts were used by the French government was to build and repair the navy’s ships.
Hooper (along with the composer and librettist) also add in a few transitional scenes, missing from the stage musical, to further drive home key moments in the novel. The most obvious example of this is the new song “Suddenly,” placed in the film as Valjean travels away from the Thénardiers after rescuing and adopting the young Cosette. Hooper explains that this moment is the second of two major epiphanies in the life of Jean Valjean; the first is when the Bishop teaches him about virtue, the second when he discovers real love for the first time, in Cosette. In the book, Hugo spends a great deal of time explaining this change in Valjean. However, it is glossed over very quickly in the musical. That presented a problem for filmmakers, says Hugh Jackman. “For the first time in this fifty-one year old man’s life, he experiences love,” explains Jackman. “Tom said ‘this is one of the most incredible, dramatic moments ever written about…and we don’t have a song for that?’”
Thus was the new song commissioned from the original composers: in order to best serve the original intent of the novel. Such a perspective can be seen in many of the film’s small additions or departures from the source show. This respect and love for source material is what’s missing in so many half-hearted adaptations, and thankfully Les Misérables does not disappoint in such a fashion.
5. It’s Not About Politics
Those unfamiliar with the show may have heard bits and pieces of the film’s political backdrop and may be nervous, burnt-out from this year’s intense election season. However, don’t let that keep you from the theaters. It’s just that: a backdrop.
The film’s climax is set in the midst of an attempted revolution, an effort from incensed students protesting against an oppressive government. While critique of the government is certainly present in the film, it is no more present than critique of the church, the upper classes, or the general hardness of the human heart.
The film doesn’t discriminate against any one group of people; no finger is pointed at one demographic. One political figure is discussed by the characters as being “the friend of the people,” while others are seen as enemies. The religious Javert is castigated as a hardened antagonist, but is balanced by the gentle, gracious Bishop. Even though the plight of the poor is championed by the film, the wealthy are not despised for their wealth. Valjean, Cosette, and Marius are wealthy characters for most of the film and are only ever portrayed as heroic; conversely the poor innkeepers Monsieur and Madame Thénardier are shown to be greedy, crude villains.
Les Misérables is a story about grace, love, and the condition of the heart. Though the battle of the Barricade and the fiery spirits of the rebellious students are central to the plot, even these stories serve as vehicles for exploring different relationships and the depths of the human spirit.
Now that you’re equipped with these handy tips, you’re ready to head to the theater!
Oh…one last tip. Bring tissues. Seriously.
Debbie Wright is Assistant Editor for Family Content at Crosswalk. She lives in Glen Allen, Virginia and is an avid writer, reader, and participant in local community theatre.
Publication date: December 14, 2012