In the New Yorker’s blog, movie critic David Denby has a piece on the new film version of the musical version of Victor Hugo’s bloated nineteenth-century French novel, Les Misérables. Denby says he hasn’t seen the stage version, but from what he writes, all its flaws are carried over nearly in full to the cinematic one (and with a few more added, which I can’t speak to, since I haven’t seen it yet). The show has been so ridiculously popular for nearly thirty years that it’s nice to see someone who feels about it the same way I do.
It’s terrible; it’s dreadful. Overbearing, pretentious, madly repetitive. . . . I couldn’t help wondering what in the world had happened to the taste of my countrymen—the Americans (Americans!) who created and loved almost all the greatest musicals ever made.
The music is juvenile stuff—tonic-dominant, without harmonic richness or surprise. Listen to any score by Richard Rodgers or Leonard Bernstein or Fritz Loewe if you want to hear genuine melodic invention. I was so upset by the banality of the music that I felt like hiring a hall and staging a nationalist rally. “My fellow-countrymen, we are the people of Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin! Cole Porter and George Gershwin, Frank Loesser and Burton Lane! We taught the world what popular melody was! What rhythmic inventiveness was! Let us unite to overthrow the banality of these French hacks!” (And the British hacks, too, for that matter.) Alas, the hall is filled with people weeping over “Les Mis.”
I couldn’t agree more.
Les Miz (as it’s called, for short) just isn’t a “musical.” It’s a spectacular. The show’s creators, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, are from France—not a country that had given us a large number of Broadway shows. (The same writers went on to create Miss Saigon.) It was adapted for the London stage before being brought to New York. At the time, Broadway was struggling, and the traditional style of musical play was having difficulty finding producers and audiences. Into the vacuum spilled new large-scale productions from London, often by Cameron Mackintosh, and eventually corporatized productions, often by Disney. The British shows, by Andrew Lloyd Webber, for example, were not in the American-music tradition. Webber began by writing rock operas, from the standpoint of which the American songbook appeared musically old-fashioned, but which were themselves old-fashioned in form, more like operettas than like the American form that had grown from the operetta. It helps a little, in appreciating Les Misérables, to recognize that it is definitely not a Broadway musical, but more in the operetta tradition.
I saw Les Miz onstage in the late 1980s. I didn’t like it. Like David Denby, I thought the only number that seemed a real musical number was “Master of the House,” performed by an innkeeper and his familiars. It had a bouncy tune, it had dancing, it had characters who seemed to be having fun. It was reminiscent of some of the songs in the 1960 English musical Oliver! The rest of the show is ballads and musically formless spectacles, both of which are okay in small doses, but not enough to sustain a Broadway-style musical. The plot alternates between the pathos of a young orphaned girl and the pathos of revolutionary students at the barricades of a revolt that’s never clearly defined. In my memory, the students lose, very badly, and in my memory, they’re also joined by a small boy who is shot by the government forces. I may have made him up, though, conflating the baggage carriers in Henry V with Fantine, the tiny waifish girl on the theatrical posters and the cover of my Signet paperback. The rest of the plot, as everyone knows, is The Fugitive, more or less, with Jean Valjean as Harrison Ford, and Inspector Javert as Tommy Lee Jones. And for my money, the South Park movie (Bigger, Longer, and Uncut), though unwatchable in parts, is worth the price of admission just for the parody of Les Misérables, in the song “La Resistance Lives On.”
However, for the past few years I’ve been listening to XM Radio’s Broadway channel in my car, and they fairly often play songs from Les Miz. Obviously, these were recordings of the casts from the stage versions. At first, I would change the station whenever these came on, but over time, the show’s biggest hits started to grow on me: rousing ensemble numbers like “Do You Hear the People Sing?” and “Red and Black,” fairly typical musical numbers like “At the End of the Day” and the comic “Lovely Ladies,” and even (to a lesser extent) the ballad, “A Little Fall of Rain.”
On the same channel I’d hear songs from Miss Saigon, and although these really aren’t as good, I began to hear the way melodic lines, vocal types, and plot elements echoed back and forth between these plays and, especially, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s. So there’s a comparison to be made between “The Heat is on in Saigon,” where the virginal hero wanders through the fleshpots of the city, and “The Temple,” where Jesus reacts badly to the moneylenders and other merchants in the temple at Jerusalem. Schönberg-Boublil gained by the comparison. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s attitude toward “superstars,” and the degree to which they distinguished between Jesus Christ and Evita Peron, was never very clear. Miss Saigon made more sense than those plays, even if it was not as good as them, theatrically or musically.
But when I saw the full set of trailers for the film, I remembered how painful the show really was to watch. Three minutes of a rousing ensemble number, or six, is one thing. Moment after moment of emotional “peak” is another. It’s not usual for a Broadway number to be especially intense, emotionally. This may be why they seem silly to many people these days. It may also be why the songs from Les Miz sounded better on the radio. The repetition of motifs was overbearing, the orchestration was overbearing, and every moment seemed designed to evoke strong emotion (which I knew, from my memory of the show, would eventuate in pity for the very piteous ends suffered by almost all the main characters). “Castle on a Cloud,” sung onstage by a small girl, can sound sweet and honest, and out of context, not very kitschy at all. But the film version (featured on the trailer) is intensified until it sounds like something from a horror movie.
And “Master of the House,” for me, has aged poorly. I saw the play on tour, at Boston’s Colonial Theater. The acoustics at the Colonial were terrible every time I saw a play there. Spoken or sung, you were lucky if you could hear five words in a row. Amplification still seemed new at the time, and it didn’t seem to work well. (This was one reason I was willing to assume the show was better than I’d thought after I saw it in person: the fact that it sounded terrible, muddy, and unmusical might not actually have been the composers’ fault at all.) I had no idea what most of the lyrics even were, beyond the much clearer tags like “master of the house, ruler of the inn.” Then I heard it on the radio, with the London cast. The innkeeper was clearly the butt of the song, a grasping letch whom all the lodgers hated, and his wife was Patsy from AbFab. The number turned out to belong to the cruder kind of BBC comedy. I don’t look forward at all to seeing it done by Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen, two Brits who I expect to perform it in a similar way.