Friday, 28 October 2011

Les Miserables (Stage Musical)

Although I've reviewed Hugo's novel I haven't yet got round to discussing my favourite adaptation of the story, the famous musical which got me into the story in the first place. Les Miserables is my favourite musical ever (and I like more than a few!) I've seen it live and I frequently watch and listen to the 10th anniversary concert. I'm just going to explain why I love the musical so much. As with my recent Love Never Dies post this will probably be long and rambling - but the tone will be gushy instead of angry and slightly psychotic!

Les Miserables has been running since 1985 and is the longest-running West End show ever. Many will tell you that the 1980s was a bad decade for music but it certainly wasn't when it comes to musical theatre. This was the time when the mega-musicals started to rock the West End. These were the big-budget epic shows like Miss Saigon, Phantom of the Opera and Cats. Many of these shows were produced by British producer and theatrical legend Sir Cameron Mackintosh. However, the Les Miserables musical was actually written by two French men, Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil. Their show opened in Paris for a three month run in 1980. The show didn't do badly and 500,000 people attended the performances. However, the French - unlike Brits, Americans and Germans - aren't known for being great lovers of musical theatre. When the show ended there wasn't exactly a big demand to bring it back on stage again. Fortunately, Mackintosh happened to be listening to the French recording of Les Miserables one day, and, loving the music, decided to bring it over to London. Once Mackintosh got his hands on it the lyrics were re-written into English by Herbert Kretzmer, new songs were added, Royal Shakespeare Company director Trevor Nunn was brought in to direct, and the entire show was revamped and brought to the West End in 1985.

Les Mis received mostly negative reviews at first. The tabloids complained that it was depressing and argued that West End musicals should be more fun. The broadsheets complained that Hugo's classic novel had been transformed into a "mere musical". Thankfully the public ignored the reviews and it became a massive success. Nowadays most critics acknowledge that they got the show wrong. Interestingly, when the book was first published, many of Hugo's contemporaries such as Gustave Flaubert were very critical of it. But the public didn't listen and it became a bestseller. So I suppose it's only fitting really that the musical had a similar reception.

Les Miserables is based on the book of the same name by the author Victor Hugo. I won't go into the plot too much since it's very dense and has quite a few subplots but basically it chronicles the lives of several different characters over a 20 year old period and culminates in the French Revolution. No, not the French Revolution that many people think of. This Revolution is the lesser-known Student Revolution of 1832.
You really do have to admire Schonberg, Boublil and Mackintosh for deciding to adapt Hugo's book. It's one of the longest novels ever written and poses numerous challenges for anyone who'd want to adapt it. There's an enormous amount of characters, a large amount of settings, decades pass and the characters age. Most film adaptations of the book try to get around this by leaving huge chunks of the story out or by making wild changes from the source material. This means that most film adaptations of the book are rubbish. The most recent film adaptation of the book (the 1998 movie) is certainly awful but I've already reviewed that movie and I really don't want to bring up the painful time I had watching it! I can't go back there!

The musical is vastly superior and is by far and away the most famous adaptation of Hugo's book. But what exactly is it about the musical format that allowed them to adapt the book so successfully? Well, I personally put it down to the fact that the format allows you to put a lot of information into it whilst still maintaining the emotional intensity of the story. Also, the fact that the show is almost three hours long means that they're able to cover much more of Hugo's novel than many film adaptations would be allowed to show. The musical keeps to the spirit of Hugo's book and then some. It really is a fantastic adaptation of Hugo's book. The music and lyrics are wonderful. Almost every song in the show is beautiful, memorable and heartfelt. The story is rich and multi-layered and the characters are interesting and sympathetic. You really care about them.

The show is very well-staged too. It's much less simplistic and less elaborate than, say, Phantom of the Opera, but it's still very well-designed and makes excellent use of a giant turntable. I especially love the massive Barricade too. The one in the 1998 movie was tiny! Les Mis is a fantastic musical and shows just how fantastic West End theatre can be.
Yes, the show does take a few liberties with Hugo's book. It leaves some things out, it condenses the plot, and it simplifies some of Hugo's ideas. But for the most part the musical sticks to the plot fairly faithfully and is much more accurate than you might expect. The only major changes that I can think of are to do with some of the characters. The Thenardiers, for example, are much more humorous in the musical than they are in Hugo's book and are used as comic relief. In the book they're vile and selfish, true scum-of-the-earth types. However, the musical still clearly shows that these two characters are lacking in morals. Their daughter Eponine is different too. Although she's still ragged in appearance her character is considerably softened in the musical in order her to make her more sympathetic, and to make heartstrings pull at her tragic death.

There is very little that I can criticise about the show. Oh, I do think the show has one or two faults but these aren't major faults at all. I'm just nitpicking. I'm not so keen on the song Turning for example. It's by no means a bad song and it has pretty harmonies. But the song is completely pointless and irrelevant. It doesn't advance the plot, it doesn't develop the characters who are singing the song in any way, and it's the only song in the show where I dislike the lyrics. The only reason for its inclusion is because Cameron Mackinstosh felt he needed to give the female ensemble another song to perform to justify their wages, and also to provide a bridge between Javert's Suicide and Empty Chairs and Empty Tables. If Tom Hooper has any sense he'll leave this song out completely or will severely shorten it when he finally gets round to directing his film adaptation. I'm not so keen on the song Dog Eat Dog either but I still think it sounds decent if the Thenardier who's singing is good enough.

Another issue that I have with the show is due to how it presents some of the characters. The musical leaves out quite a bit of Marius's backstory and as a result he's blander and less interesting than he is in the book. Cosette could have done with more character development too and I think it's a shame that her solo song I Saw Him Once was taken out of the show. Also all of the student revolutionaries (apart from Enjolras, Marius and Grantaire) are rather one-note and aren't developed properly. You don't get a real sense of their personalities. But in Hugo's book they're all really cool characters and they're all unique. It would have been really nice if we'd gotten more information on Combeferre, Courfeyrac, Feuilly and the rest. In fact none of the characters in the musical are as well-developed as they are in Hugo's novel, but to be fair there really isn't time to develop them all in the same amount of depth as the book and the main characters' personalities still come across. Again, they're still sympathetic and you still care about them. I mean, yes it would have been nice if they'd mentioned that Gavroche is Eponine's brother. And it would have been nice if they'd kept Marius's grandfather in the musical. And it would have been nice if they'd kept Montparnasse in the show * Oh, wow! I would have loved to have seen his dark, sexy, murderous self on stage and if his his relationship with Eponine in the musical.* And it would have been cool if they'd given us a bit more information about the Bishop. However, the musical would probably need to be an extra three hours long to accommodate all of this stuff and I completely understand why the changes had to be made. I still love the show obsessively and love it to death. Best musical ever!

So hopefully this review will have made you quite curious about Les Mis if you're not already familiar with it. But you might be thinking: should I read the book first or should I check out the musical? Well, I would personally recommend checking out the musical first. I know that there will be many people out there who will disagree with me for saying that and would say "No! You MUST read the book first!" I can understand why some would think this because I do think it's generally better to read books before you check out their adaptations. However, I still think that the musical can make for an excellent introduction to the story. It certainly worked for me. I don't think I would have been nearly as keen to read Hugo's book - let's face it, the size is daunting - if I hadn't watched the musical first.
Before I wrap this review up I thought I'd like to include my Top 5 favourite songs from the show. You will notice that the song I Dreamed a Dream is not on my list and I must say I'm a bit confused as to why the song is so popular. Don't get me wrong, I still think it's a great song but there are much better songs in the show! I think it's because of the Susan Boyle factor. It's difficult for me to pick a Top 5 since I love pretty much every song in the show but there are songs that I listen to more often than others.

5. Do You Hear the People Sing? (sung by Enjolras and the revolutionary students). I had a very hard time trying to choose between this and the big ensemble song One Day More. In the end I choose this song since I really both versions of it, the one that's sung by the students and the one that's sung right at the end of the show.

4. The Confrontation (sung by Jean Valjean and Javert)

3. Empty Chairs at Empty Tables (sung by Marius)

2. Bring Him Home (sung by Jean Valjean)

1. On My Own (sung by Eponine)

Ha! I wasn't on about the infamous Dawson's Creek abomination! I had this version in mind (see below):

Rating: 5/5

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