Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Les Miserables (Original French Concept Album)

I think it's fair to say that most fans of the Les Miserables stage musical are looking forward to the upcoming film adaptation. In fact I think for many it will be less of a shock to the system to see Les Mis on the big screen than hearing this album for the first time! Even though I'm already familiar with Les Miserables I was still very surprised when I heard the musical as it first began - the original French concept album that came out in 1980. In fact this album is so different to the Les Mis show that we have now that they're almost completely different musicals!

One of these differences is the sound. This album was written in the late 70s and it really shows at times! Many of the songs on this album do actually have the more classical musical theatre sound that we're used to but other songs have much more of a pop-rock sound to them. Occasionally electric guitars are used. This 70s influence is most obvious on the song Les Amis d'ABC which sounds disco-ish and, er, groovy in places! This of course makes the song unintentionally hilarious. I just had these mental images of Enjolras and the students disco dancing in the cafe! Also, the early version of Master of the House sounds a bit too wacky for me. I'm glad that it was later changed around. This more pop-rock sound of Les Mis applies to some of the singers as well. Javert and Enjolras have a rock edge to their voices in this version and Jean Valjean is a baritone. Apparently Valjean was supposed to be a baritone for the West End production of Les Mis too until Colm Wilkinson auditioned for the role and everyone fell in love with his voice. After that the role was re-written for a tenor. Casting the baritone Hugh Jackman in the upcoming film is kind of like a return to the show's roots then in a way.

Another difference that is very surprising is that important scenes and popular, much-loved songs from the Les Mis musical that we have now aren't on this album. We don't get the Prologue with the Bishop on this album for example. This is extremely surprising since it basically sets up Valjean's entire backstory! There are numerous other examples I can mention. Valjean doesn't get any solos at all on this album. We don't get his song Who Am I? - which is again very surprising since it tells us a lot about Valjean's character and is one of the major moral dilemmas of the story. Instead we go straight from Valjean saving Fantine from being arrested and then - bang! - we're at the Thenardier's inn. Fantine's death happens off-stage. Cosette and Marius's first meeting happens off-stage. The death of the students, Valjean saving Marius by escaping through the sewers, and Valjean's encounter with Thenardier in the sewers are all off-stage as well. We're just told about them afterwards. Marius's solo Empty Chairs at Empty Tables isn't on this album. Javert's solo Stars isn't on this album. In fact Javert's character is much less prominent on this album than he is in the Les Mis musical that we have today. He only appears in about five songs, and the only song he gets to himself is his suicide song Noir et Blanc ("Black and White"). In the Les Mis musical we have now he's in about 15 songs! The story jumps around a bit as well. The Drink with Me song actually comes before the One Day More song on this album which is quite weird. And Javert dies before Gavroche on this album! Gavroche has witnessed Javert's suicide and in his final song he mocks Javert and hopes that they won't end up sharing the same "cell" together in the next world!

Many of the lyrics for the songs are very different too. In Fantine's song J'avais reve d'une autre vie (the "I Dreamed a Dream" song) the lyrics are much more shocking. Fantine has become a prostitute by this point and it ends with her singing "when they ejaculate inside me, with a pitiful attempt, they do not know that they're making love with death". WOAH!!! Can you IMAGINE if Susan Boyle had sung that line on Britain's Got Talent?! Also, in Mon Prince est un chemin ("the Castle on a Cloud" song) Young Cosette sings about her dream of a fairytale prince rescuing her from the Thenardiers. She sings that her prince is on his way. However, when Herbert Kretzmer went about re-writing the lyrics into English for the West End production, he thought (with some justification) that an 8 year old girl would be too young to be dreaming about this sort of thing. Instead she'd be imagining the loving mother, friends, toys and normal, happy childhood that the Thenardiers had deprived her of. I completely agree. And how would Cosette, who is abused and neglected, have been exposed to any fairytales? Unless she overhead Madame Thenardier reading them to Eponine I suppose. Rouge et Noir (the "Red and Black" song) is different too. The version on this album is mostly about Marius's love for Cosette and is only a little bit about the upcoming student revolution. In the musical we have today it's divided pretty much equally between the two.

Finally, in the Les Mis musical we have today we get huge, epic finales. There's the finale of Act One (One Day More) and the finale of the show: Valjean's Death and the reprise of Do You Hear the People Sing? However, the finales on this album end on a much more quiet and low-key note.

Up until now I've mostly mentioned everything that "our" Les Mis musical has and everything that this album hasn't. However, it is worth mentioning that the opposite is true in places as well. There are parts on this album that are no longer in "our" Les Mis musical. Marius reunites with Monsieur Gillenormand in this. Yes, Marius's grandfather is in this version and so is his aunt! Also, it's actually Fantine who gets the On My Own song rather than Eponine. In this version it's called L'Air de la Misere ("Air of Misery") and she sings it just after she's been sacked from the factory. Instead Eponine gets a solo called L'Un Vers L'Autre ("One After the Other"), which she sings as she watches Marius and Cosette together.

This song serves a similar function to On My Own but Eponine sounds mournful and resigned here rather than full of longing and desperation. I know that some actually prefer this song to On My Own and wish that Eponine had gotten this song to sing in the West End production. I disagree. Although L'Un Vers L'Autre has a very lovely melody I think that giving Eponine two solo songs would have been one too many. And if it's a question of On My Own vs L'Un Vers L'Autre then I still say On My Own. On My Own is unquestionably more of a show-stopper and has a stronger melody. It's simply a better song to open Act Two with. It's a shame that they couldn't have taken the melody for L'Un Vers L'Autre and placed it somewhere else in the show though.

Listening to this album was a very interesting experience even though I would say that it's definitely inferior to the show that we have now. Most of my absolute favourite songs from Les Miserables (like The Confrontation, Bring Him Home and Empty Chairs at Empty Tables) aren't on this album which I was quite disappointed about. I'm very glad that the musical got revamped for the West End! Saying that though it was still really nice to hear the songs for the musical actually being sung in French. The cast is good on this album as well with the performers playing Fantine, Enjolras and Gavroche - Rose Laurens, Michel Sardou and Fabrice Bernard - deserving special mention. It was very nice to hear Marius's grandfather and aunt on this album as well even though they're only in it briefly. Eponine's sister Azelma gets a mention in this version as well. Madame Thenardier even calls Cosette the same names that she calls her in the book: "Miss Toad", "nameless dog" and "slut". The lyrics that Javert gets in his suicide song are almost word-for-word accurate from the book, as well as the La Faute a Voltaire ("The Fault of Voltaire") song that Gavroche sings.

There isn't very much that I didn't like about this album. I only disliked its occasional disco sound, some important scenes from the book being kept off-stage, and an alteration from the book that I haven't yet mentioned. In the Les Mis musical that we have now it's the foreman who sacks Fantine from the factory - but on this album it's Valjean himself! In the "At the End of the Day" song the other women in the Factory tell Valjean that Fantine is the mother of an illegitimate child and Valjean then tells Fantine: "I don't want a story of this sort in my factory! Here are fifty francs and there's the door!" He doesn't even give her the chance to defend herself! This is just so incredibly out-of-character from the compassionate Valjean that we all know and love! And it's too much of a reversal when Valjean bumps into Fantine later on and decides to help her out. In the book Valjean wasn't personally involved in Fantine's dismissal. He was shocked and ashamed when he realised that all of this had gone on without his knowledge. But as I say, this album is still really interesting and is well worth a listen. You can hear all of the songs on YouTube. A user called "mildetryth" has uploaded all of the songs from the album - http://www.youtube.com/user/mildetryth - and if you're not fluent in French and need translations this website is well worth going to: http://www.placedauphine.net/translations/ofc.html. The user is called Madame Bahorel and is on the Abaisse fan website that I occasionally visit.


Anonymous said...

do you have any sources? or did you thought of all this by yourself? im writing about this in a school project :)

Hannah said...

Oh, I just listened to the album really. If you're already familiar with the current stage musical or the 2012 film then the differences between them and this album will be really apparent. If you want to find out more about this album then I'd recommend visiting the abaisse.the-barricade website. I think I know Les Mis really well - far better than most people - but even I can feel like an absolute newbie on there because of the depth of knowledge people have! I can't really recommend any scholarly sources for you sadly.