Sunday, February 3, 2013

Les Misérables (Rhoades)

“Les Misérables”
Sings Its Heart Out

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Back in the ‘80s I saw “Les Miz” on Broadway. The music was soaring, but at the time I didn’t appreciate the history behind this epic tale of redemption.
If I’d paid closer attention in college, I would have known that the Paris Uprising of 1832 – sometimes referred to as the June Rebellion – was the backdrop for Victor Hugo’s great novel, “Les Misérables,” the source of this heart-rending musical.
That particular June day Hugo had been working on a play when he heard gunfire. Rather than seeking cover, he proceeded toward the sounds, unaware that half of Paris had already fallen to an angry mob. Pretty soon he found himself cowering between columns, caught in a crossfire. As frightened as he was, he knew this was better material to write about than the play.
Following economic downturns, cholera outbreaks, and social unrest, the monarchy of Louis Philippe was under attack. Hugo’s challenge was how to tell the story through the interactions of a handful of tragic characters.
 The resulting five-volume novel is one of the longest ever written, over 1,400 pages in all. The story begins in 1815, covering the years leading up to the rebellion.
Hugo uses an ex-convict to anchor the story. Jean Valjean has just been released after 19 years imprisonment for stealing a loaf of bread. But despite Valjean’s attempts to turn his life around, his past comes back to haunt him. A fanatical police inspector named Javert is determined to bring him to justice, despite his change of identities and virtuous life.
Along the way Jean Valjean starts up a successful factory, employs an unwed mother named Fantine, and eventually rescues her daughter Cosette from the unscrupulous Thénardier family.
Although Victor Hugo was a highly successful poet, and in the forefront of the romantic movement, this book met mixed critical reviews yet proved hugely popular with readers around the world.
In 1980 Robert Hossein put together a play based on the book, with music composed by Claude-Michel Schönberg and a libretto by Alain Boublil and Herbert Kretzmer. Colloquially known as “Les Miz,” it would become one of the most successful stage musicals in history.
Now Tom Hooper – using his clout as director of “The King’s Speech,” a film that won four Oscars and earned over $400 million at the box office –  has adapted the play into a movie.
“Les Misérables” is now playing at the Tropic Cinema.
Headlining a great cast are Hugh Jackman (“X-Men”) as Jean Valjean and Russell Crowe (“Gladiator”) as Inspector Javert. Anne Hathaway (“The Dark Knight Rises”) all but steals the show as Fantine, heartbroken as she’s forced to sell her hair and her body to survive. Amanda Seyfried (“Mama Mia”) plays the grownup daughter Cosette. Eddie Redmayne (“My Week With Marilyn”) is Marius, the young revolutionary who loves Cosette. Sacha Baron Cohen (“Borat”) and Helena Bonham Carter (“Sweeney Todd”) are the villainous innkeepers. And Samantha Banks is their daughter Éponine, the once-pampered child who pines for Marius.
If you’ve been paying attention during recent movie trailers, you’ve heard the director and the cast explain why this is a groundbreaking cinematic musical. Rather than lip-synching to pre-recorded tracks, the cast sang the songs live during filming with the orchestra added later. Although this unique live recording method is being touted as “a world’s first,” a few other movie musicals in fact have used this approach.
Nonetheless, it’s a perfect accompaniment to this story. The actors were able to put unusual emotion into the music – acting it. Anne Hathaway’s rendition of the “I Dreamed a Dream” is a showstopper.
“It came right after I cut off my hair so it was a little bit of an intense one-two punch,” says Hathaway, nowadays looking quite fetching in her new pixie ‘do. “It wasn’t my favorite scene to shoot just because there was so much pressure of expectation.”
As she tells it, “I had gone to Tom and said I was starting to feel nervous about a week before. He said: ‘Listen. It’s not an iconic song. You mustn’t think about it like that. It’s this woman's howl. It’s her processing what’s just happened to her.’ But all of a sudden the stakes were raised because there was a camera there and it was going to be forever. I couldn’t stop thinking about how if I messed it up how exposed I would feel.
“So I did the first take and I was so angry with myself because it wasn’t good enough. I had really wanted to come out of the gate and just nail it. I dug in a little deeper and we did the second take and it wasn’t there and I just thought, ‘Oh, God.’ I started the third take and I just said, ‘No, no. Stop. I’m sorry. The balance, it’s off.’ I closed my eyes and I remember thinking, ‘Hathaway, if you do not do this in this moment, you have no right to call yourself an actor. Just do your job.’ I opened my eyes and I’m like (snaps figures): ‘Let’s go.’ And I did it. That was the one that I let rip and that was the one that was in the piece.”
The music will haunt you – and follow you home.

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