NEW YORK – "Les Miserables," an adaptation of Victor Hugo's popular 1862 novel about social injustice in 19th-century France, is one of the most popular and successful stage musicals in theatrical annals..
It was originally created by composer Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyricist Alain Boublil as a French concept album and first performed in 1980 in a Paris sports arena, Palais des Sports. The English-language premiere with an expanded book and newly translated lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer took place in London in 1985. Over the last 28 years, it has been viewed by millions of theatergoers worldwide, grossing a staggering $3 billion. It is still playing in London, ran for 17 years in New York and is now due back in New York in the spring of 2014.
The film version of "Les Miserables" received eight Academy Award nominations and won three Oscars, including a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Anne Hathaway. Although it should still be in movie theaters this month, DVD and Blu-ray versions with copious bonus features will be released on March 22.
After years in movie development limbo, this past holiday season, the film, directed by Tom Hooper, who won several Oscars for "The King's Speech," finally made it to the big screen. As always with "Les Miserables," the critical reception for the movie was mixed. In 1985, the London first-night reviews of the original stage production were not favorable, with one critic labeling the show "The Glums." This sung-through, pop opera retells Hugo's saga of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), prisoner number 24601, who is given parole by M. Javert (Russell Crowe) after spending 19 years in prison, five years for stealing a loaf of bread for a hungry relative and another 14 for trying to escape. As a fugitive, he breaks his parole and reinvents himself, becoming a wealthy factory owner and the mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer. When his past is discovered and revealed, he becomes a renegade again and Javert revives his pursuit of Valjean.
Directing his first musical, Mr. Hooper does a commendable job in capturing on screen Hugo's great work, as well as Schönberg's, Boublil’s and Kretzmer's grandiose, emotionally charged score. He chose to shoot all of the vocals on set and location with piano accompaniment; orchestral accompaniment was added in post-production. He also chose to shoot the main character's songs in full-screen close-ups as if they were arias. For the most part, these choices work fine; they tend to allow the actors to bring freshness and added feeling to their performances. Unfortunately, first up using this technique is Ms. Hathaway's full-screen face, emoting the beleaguered Fantine's signature song, "I Had a Dream," at top register, which visually and vocally serves as a bit of a jolt.
Mr. Jackman acts the role of Valjean brilliantly, but, alas, better than he sings it. Normally a fine natural baritone, he or the director has chosen for him to sing Valjean as a tenor, which in his rendition of songs like "Valjean's Soliloquy," and "Who Am I?," his voice is noticeably stretched. While Mr. Crowe makes no attempt to pass himself off as a singer, he just talk-sings his songs and carries them all off with surprising aplomb.
"Les Miserables" clocks in at two hours and 38 minutes and seems wearing without a break. It could have used an intermission like those movie epics of yore, "Ben Hur" and "Cleopatra."
Also, about two-thirds of the way through, there is a lull in the action which Mr. Hooper could have easily addressed with his editing scissors. But things soon pick up and get lively with the introduction of the student insurgents Marius (Eddie Redmayne) and Enjolras (Aaron Tveit) and the street urchin Gavroche (Daniel Huttlestone), all of whom turn out to be superb actors as well as singers. Playing the shamelessly unconscionable innkeepers, the Thénardiers, who take slovenly care of Fantine's daughter Cosette, Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen bring some badly needed comedy to Hugo's basically somber tale. As their indigent daughter Éponine, Samantha Banks makes a promising screen debut and gives a heartfelt execution of "On My Own."
As was the case with the musical stage version of "Les Miserables," and the many past film versions of the novel, Mr. Hooper and his collaborators, especially the screenwriter, William Nicholson, wisely stick close to the tight structure of Hugo's book. Besides being an exemplary novelist, Hugo was also a distinguished poet and playwright. For decades, his poems and plays have served as inspiration for many musical compositions and opera librettos, like Verdi's "Rigoletto" and Donizetti's "Lucrezia Borgia," both based in part on two of his plays.
All of Hugo's writings are told in dramatic terms and have an inborn sense of theater. His stories evolve in a stage-like sequence, scene by scene. This sense of rich dramatic irony has fortuitously spilled over onto both the stage and now the screen incarnation of "Les Miserables."
As always, the question with all of these big blockbuster films is: will "Les Miserables" be a success at the box office? Three months into release, it has grossed a respectable $400 million worldwide on a $61-million investment. It will be interesting in the coming months and years to see if it will ever reach the quixotic billion dollar popularity of its stage predecessor. It will also serve as a good barometer of today's audience’s enthusiasm for that warhorse: the movie musical.
Critic Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.