In the autumn of 1987 I was sixteen-years-old. Most of my week-ends that season were spent travelling to various Mid-Central Illinois (for some reason we qualify our geography twice) high schools to compete in Speech Team events. This involved waking just before the ass crack of dawn (3:30am) to get on a bus which took myself and a few dozen other teenaged zombies to wherever that week’s Speech Team Meet was held.
On one of these hazily remembered journeys I slumped in my bus seat, knees curled up and pressed against the back of the seat in front of me, head resting on my balled up coat against the icy window. There were no i-pods in the autumn of 1987, but we did have these semi-newfangled things called “Walkmans” (I insisted on calling mine a “Walkgirl”) just big enough for a cassette tape and a headphone jack. Then as now, pushing a pair of headphones into your ears on a bus was the universally-understood, non-confrontational method of hanging a “Piss Off” sign and slamming your door in the face of the world.
But not everyone stops to read signs. Or perhaps he took my sign as a challenge. He was a freshman, round-faced with an eager expression, sandy blonde curls and hands which seemed out of proportion with his young body. I glared at those long-fingers paws. They warned that this frisky puppy would soon evolve into a force to be reckoned with.
‘What you listening to?’ he asked wagging an invisible tail.
‘You wouldn’t like it,’ I grunted back.
I didn’t understand why he bothered. I was two years older and, according to everyone else, a fairly intimidating person. The only thing I knew about him, aside from his name, was that I didn’t like his older brother and his disproportionate hands worried me.
‘How do you know?’ he grinned. He had me there but I refused to give into his overtures.
‘You’ve never heard of it,’ I insisted.
‘Try me,’ he bounced. Sigh.
‘It’s Les Misérables. You probably can’t even pronounce it, so why don’t you just—
‘I love Les Miz!’ the puppy enthused.
He plopped down beside me, pulled out his own pair of headphones and shoved them into the second jack on my Walkgirl. We listened to the Original Broadway soundtrack for the rest of the bus ride. He made me listen to the London Cast recording on the return journey.
‘Want to come over to my house and make brownies?’ he asked once we were back in the school parking lot.
‘Sure,’ I shrugged.
Twenty-five years and who knows how many brownies later, that puppy (who did indeed grow into his massive paws) is still my best friend. In the spring of 1989 we sat together for the first national tour of Les Misérables in Chicago and he held my hand as I sobbed through the entire performance. I still have the ticket. From 1990-1996 nearly every intoxicated night ended with us regaling anyone too smashed to move with our rendition of the entire score, including orchestrations. We never resolved our debate over the best soundtrack (I was Team Broadway and he was Team London) but it never stopped us passionately arguing our case to the other.
I share this story to explain the meaningful role Les Misérables has played in my life. Already well schooled in musical theatre by the autumn of 1987, this exciting new show felt tailor-made for me. The score combined traditional musical structures with edgier instrumentations and more contemporary styled vocals. The story’s themes included friendship, drinking, sex, unrequited love, injustice, armed rebellion. And Enjorlas was HOT! What more could a teen drama queen want? Les Miz defined my adolescence and soundtracked one of my most profound relationships.
Apprehensive does not begin to describe my feelings in the lead up to the release of Cameron Mackintosh’s recent film version. I avoided it. I obsessed about it. I feared it. In a fit of stubbornness I vowed not to go, but the first trailer weakened me. Already familiar tingles of emotion crept up through the years and gripped my heart. Could the film version of my beloved musical friend deliver?
For me, the answer is mostly: yes.
From the opening sequence this film shows us something theatre cannot through the sheer scale of the shots and sets. You could never fit that many miserable chain gang convicts even on the biggest Broadway revolve stage. There are many other moments like this in which Mackintosh indulges in the privilege of having endless cameras and locations at his disposal. The panning shots of At the End of the Day and Look Down capture the atmosphere and degradation of Victor Hugo’s France as does Lamarque’s funeral procession which leads majestically into Do You Hear the People Sing.
Conversely, Mackintosh takes advantage of close-ups to wrench some truly intimate emotional moments from his actors. Anne Hathaway’s performance, hyped to near goddess like expectations, does not disappoint. I Dreamed a Dream is always a poignant moment in the play, but with the lens so close it becomes emotionally painful—in a good way. Other times I found myself wishing the camera would give the actors a bit more space. These songs were made for a large theatrical venue. They need room to breathe and so does the audience. I felt this particularly with some of Hugh Jackman’s solos. Those big notes need a bigger camera shot. Even the more intimate songs like On My Own have a unique impact when you see them in a huge amphitheatre: tiny actress all alone on the big stage singing her heart out in a way that makes her look so abandoned, fragile and insignificant compared with the events engulfing her. I missed that in the film version. But that is the beauty of different art forms—they have different things to offer.
As I watched the film (when I wasn’t reaching for more tissue), I found myself thinking the same thought I nearly always think when seeing a film version of a stage play: can I please have this same cast in a stage version? Sweeney Todd, Noises Off, Hairspray—I would love to see Johnny Depp do a short run of Sweeney (ok, bad example…I would love to see Johnny Depp do anything anywhere anytime). Les Misérables creators Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil should write a sequel just for Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter. Even Russell Crowe delivered a decent performance. Obviously not in the same category as Hathaway or Jackman but they have far more experience with musical theatre. Admittedly Stars was, to quote my friend Suzanne, “too big a song for him” but he certainly was not the embarrassment I had been led to expect.
Little moments in the film seem to pay homage to the universally loved stage production. Dammit if Mackintosh doesn’t find a way to arrange Enjorlas’ dead body in a tableau identical to the staged version, red banner and all. Colm Wilkinson’s cameo as the priest who offers Jean Valjean his redemption is like a cheeky, affectionately blown kiss to legions of fans who fondly remember the Irish tenor, originator of the lead role. Even my beloved Frances Ruffelle, the only Eponine I will ever recognise, makes a cameo.
So yes, the 2012 film version of Les Misérables delivers. As we used to say on those long ago Speech Team bus trips: “I laughed, I cried, it became a part of me.” If only my best friend could have held my hand through it all, it might have been a perfect theatre experience.