In December 1985, I fell in love.
No, this wasn’t when I met my husband-to-be or gave birth. It was when I saw Les Miserables on the stage for the first time, the very week it opened in London’s West End. Row D in the stalls.
I’ve always enjoyed musical theatre. I’d been fortunate enough to see most of the major shows from Annie to Evita to Phantom to Chicago and many, many others. But as I sat there, experiencing Les Miserables for the first time, it was a watershed moment for me.
I was struck by how I could understand every single word of every single song. I was awed by the incredible talent of every single member of the large cast; any one of them was talented enough to take the lead roles. The staging was remarkable, innovative.
I was thunderstruck by talent of Colm Wilkinson who played Jean Valjean. I fell head over heels in love with Michael Ball, who played Marius. I wanted to be Eponine, played beautifully by Frances Rufelle.
Never before had I been so moved by a show. It was at once rousing, glorious, heartbreaking and breath-taking. Who didn’t weep when Fantine was on her deathbed, calling to her daughter; when Eponine breathed her last breath in Marius’ arms; when Jean Valjean pleaded with the lord to “Bring Him Home”; when Marius sat alone in the ravaged bar, singing “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables?”
At its core, the genius of the score delivered a tapestry of harmonies that effortlessly weaved together making an imprint on your mind and heart, one that would stay with you for days and weeks and years.
Fast forward almost 28 years (how is it possible that I am that much older?) and the release of the movie version of Les Miserables. The anticipation was thrilling. But when I took my seat in the cinema, I have to admit to being nervous, so scared of being let down and disappointed. After all, the memory of the stage show had made such a significant mark on me. How could this possibly compare or exceed?
Two and a half hours later, I emerged, high once again on Les Miserables. The movie was a masterful adaptation from the stage to the silver screen, glorious in its production, stark in its cinematography, with powerful, in-your-face performances that were raw, moving and penetrating. I wept: fat, hot tears rolling down my cheeks, over and over. I applauded at the end. All that night, phrases from songs wove their way into my dreams and I woke up humming. They are still with me, their melodies and lyrics skimming the edge of my consciousness.
Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway’s performances were stunning, Oscar-worthy. Known first and foremost as actors, their vocal deliveries surprised with unanticipated talent. It’s been well-documented how their performances were filmed live, in one take, on-set—and the net result was remarkable, setting a whole new benchmark.
The only disappointment was Russell Crowe. Sure, the man can act. Yes, he can kind of sing. But unlike Jackman and Hathaway, he couldn’t do both at the same time! And Eddie Redmayne was no match for Michael Ball’s Marius—not even close—but his “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” was perhaps more visceral.
What was even more righteous was that Colm Wilkinson and Frances Ruffelle—protagonists of the original stage show—had parts in the movie: the bishop and Whore #1, respectively.
Yesterday my husband surprised me with the CD soundtrack from the movie. I eagerly listened, seeking to recapture the marvel. But I quickly realized that decoupling the vocal performances from the on-screen performances was a mistake. The flaws in the actors voices were heightened. Without the imagery, they lacked impact. By contrast, when I listened again to the soundtrack from the original stage cast, I was struck by how pure the performances sounded, how ‘staged’ and lacking in drama.
But no matter. I have fallen in love, all over again with Les Miserables. Whether the movie is your first encounter with it, or you experienced the stage version, there’s no denying that Victor Hugo, Claud-Michel Schonberg, Alain Boublil, Cameron Mackintosh and Tom Hooper are creative geniuses to whom I am forever indebted.
I may gush. But I dreamed a dream. And it was worth it.