Movie musicals used to be highly popular. Tickets to the theatre were expensive, but tickets to the cinema were relatively cheap. In the age before there were televisions in every home, going to the cinema for a two-hour-plus musical was a decent evening’s entertainment.
True to form, most movie musicals prior to the 1970s were slightly adapted versions of the stage productions. Everything was done in a studio, so the sets were relatively minimal and the dance sequences were done on floors, even if the scenes supposedly took place outside. The dialogue sounded like a play — very stilted and unnatural, and geared toward accommodating for set changes and definitive scenes. To be fair, all movies used to be like that, not just musicals, but in a genre where the audience has to accept characters randomly bursting into song and the dialogue taking a back seat, the strange script is all the more noticeable.
Over the past forty years, however, movie musicals have adapted. They have had to, being considered a bygone art-form for the better part of that time, or at best something only for children. Instead of filmed stage plays, they evolved into music videos with dialogue — not necessarily a bad thing.
Enter Les Miserables — an “opera-ical” from the 1980s adapting Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name. Set in nineteenth century France, it takes a doorstopper of a novel and compresses it into a two-hour-plus musical. Rather than bore the audience with details about the French Revolution, Napoleon, and the aftermath, the musical gives us gritty settings, emotional truths, intriguing and relatable characters, and universal themes (in other words, what our English teachers would want us to get out of the novel) all wrapped up in catchy tunes. Some of its songs are mere short refrains, but they stick with you.
This musical is everything the old-style of musical was not. It is not happy — it is called “the miserable ones” and it is miserable indeed. No romance was added in for bonus points. There are no dance numbers, and the only comedic songs are in the category of “I wouldn’t laugh at this except that the first hour has been so sad already that I find anything upbeat funny.” The show doesn’t shy away from its religious themes, and it subverts the fight-for-our-freedom aspect of a lot of stories. This is not a story of the miserable ones rising up to better themselves. In fact, everyone in this story is miserable. It is not their poverty (or lack thereof) or their morality (or lack thereof) that makes them miserable, and it is not either of these things that save them in the end.
What Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables does is make us believe that despite the constant singing, the characters and setting are real and their troubles and emotions are similar to our own. Some might complain that there is too much singing, but I think that a whole film done in song actually makes it more credible. Going from song to dialogue is upsetting — the songs are whimsical and often outside of time, while the dialogue brings us back into reality. Les Miserables is able to be both whimsical and real, and the film medium makes it much easier to tell the story.
In keeping with realism, the characters don’t sing as though they are onstage for an audience. The actors sing quietly and roughly, unless otherwise directed, and their emotions fit with their singing. There is no need to project, so they don’t. They thus don’t sound like singers, but like their characters. Nothing quite takes me out of a movie like having the lead characters start singing like professionals when they are supposed to be teenagers who have never sung before.
As for the story itself, I was pleased at how they managed the Christian allegory and themes present in the original story and in the musical. They were able to elaborate on these because they have the canvas of a film to work with. I was worried that they would try to change the story to fit an audience that is not used to resurrectional triumphalism, but they did not. The resurrectional triumphalism stays.
Like I said above, this is not a story about how the poor and downtrodden fought for their rights. This is not a story about earthly love conquering all — that is not the love that they mean when they sing “to love another person is to see the face of God.” This is not a story about the poor becoming wealthy. This is not a story about the good being rewarded and the bad being punished. This is the story of one miserable man who reclaims his humanity, and of all the other miserable people that he meets on his journey. That journey is one we are all on, although for most of us, there isn’t as much singing.