Over the holidays, I was compelled to see the new movie, Les Miserables, based on the musical theatre version of the 1862 novel by Victor Hugo. In this big-budget film, director Tom Hooper’s version of Les Mis, as it is known colloquially, has set a precedent for helping to expose the masses to quality musical theatre without having to know that the word “gallery” is just rich people theatre speak for “nosebleed seats.”
In case you haven’t seen the show or read the novel, here’s the Reader’s Digest version. The story follows the plight of petty thief Jean Valjean the 1800’s when France was on the brink of revolution.
After breaking his parole, Valjean struggles to rebuild his life under assumed names as he is relentlessly pursued by police inspector Javert. He eventually winds up raising the daughter of a woman for whose death he felt ultimately responsible and finds himself tangled in the beginnings of the French Revolution.
Hugo’s novel was adapted into musical theatre in Paris in 1980 using music written by Claude-Michel Schönberg and original French lyrics by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel, as well as an English-language libretto by Herbert Kretzmer. Over the last 30-odd years, it’s been one of the most successful musicals of all time and the producers of this new film have made every effort to bring the sights and sounds of the stage show to the silver screen and to a wider audience.
Instead of having the actors lip-sync to a recorded track and overlay the vocals later, director Tom Hooper attempted something that hasn’t been done since the infancy of the industry. All of the singing parts were recorded as they were shot, right along with the video, just as if the audience was watching it happen live on stage.
The result was a wonderful mixture of visual and audio effects that brought the audience closer to the actors and the emotion of the story than could have ever been achieved before. But technical innovation was not the only potentially ground-breaking achievement demonstrated by this movie.
There is a direct correlation between the progress of a society and advancement in the arts. Unfortunately, in most countries including the United States, high quality theatre productions are often inaccessible but to the elite wealthiest few because of the staggeringly high ticket prices.
Occasionally, there will be lower-priced seating on lesser-known shows or locally produced events, but Broadway-quality performances are still usually out of reach of the average middle class, particularly once you factor in parking and other associated expenses.
Of course, organizers constantly tout that theatre should be available to everyone but the prices remain astronomical. However, Hooper’s Les Mis film may change that. For the price of one mezzanine seat at the theater, a family of four can go to a matinee movie or, later on, buy or rent the video of the production at a substantially lesser cost.
The challenge for filmmakers will be to create quality productions that mirror the stage show. In the case of Les Miserables, Hooper has captured the intent of the production and combined it with the grandeur available on the big screen and, in doing so, has the potential to reach millions more audience members than his stage-bound counterparts.
As so many people complain about the quality of today’s movies and television, Hooper’s version of Les Miserables provides a welcome respite from the violence and repetition in today’s mass entertainment industry.
As for my experience, it was fascinating. At the end of the movie when the final note was sung, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house and the audience broke into applause, just as if all of the actors were there to hear them. It was really something to see.
Nothing will ever replace the experience of seeing a live production on stage. But, at that moment I realized that films like this could change the face of theatre in the digital age and make quality shows more accessible to everyone.