Les Misérables (2012), the musical, in a movie theater—I was skeptical. The signs of hope were there, however. For one, I’d seen that the director made the actors wear earpieces, piping in live music for each take from an accompanist just off camera. As a singer, and a one-time (terrible) actor, I instantly recognized the treasure of this method; Hugh Jackman did not need to explain it. Basically, you get the benefits of two media in one. You get the enormous temporal flexibility of film—doing shots in any order, taking bits from here and there, multiple takes, etc. without losing as much of the improvisation of live performance, of feeling the song.
Although the movie is far from perfect (paging Russell Crowe, please stop singing, yesterday), it moved me repeatedly. The “Heart Full of Love” trio with Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, and Samantha Barks was so beautiful musically that the movie aspect—the editing in particular—diminished the romance. (Wait, I take that back, a little. I could look at Amanda Seyfried without diminishing anything, especially my pulse.) I dare say that these three actors were classically trained in voice. It’s no accident this was my favorite moment in the film. My ears might be biased.
Speaking of these biased ears, I had forgotten that the musical was sung-through, meaning there is little-to-no spoken dialogue. The film preserves this, another wonderful choice from director Tom Hooper. Les Mis, more than any other piece of musical theater, always makes me wonder about the medium. Why is Les Mis widely considered musical theater and not opera? It seems to me that the location for its original exhibition, the Broadway/West End-equivalent stage, is the source of the puzzling definition. Of course, from a marketing perspective, musical theater is an easier sell. If by easier, one means making the world’s most risky media investment (a Broadway show), a little more bankable. This movie will do much good for the art form, and for this reason, I really do not care what we call it.
I do care about the experience of media though, what it means to change the form of something in myriad ways. In the packed little Western PA movie theater where we watched Les Mis, my mother and I were jarred by the people clapping after the big numbers. It took me out of the moment so I was annoyed. At the same time, I liked that people were preserving a little slice of the original medium—the live-stage. One could argue that the clapping added to more of a shared experience. I’m usually all about those, unless, it turns out, I’m watching a blasted movie. Shut up! I don’t have to suspend my disbelief here, unless you clap, you rube.
How odd that I’m the first to yell, “Bravisima!” at the opera. Corny, I confess. I even prefer my opera singers to be better actors than singers. Witness my devotion to Domingo over Pavarotti. While the latter might be technically superior, the former wrenches more emotion per note than anyone. When Domingo sings Puccini’s ballad about the stars as he longs for his lover Tosca in prison, I weep at the exact. same. bar. every. time. Keep in mind I’m speaking of a recording; I’ve never seen him do it live, and I guess I never will now that his voice has aged out of the range. Again, I’m back to the medium. The recording does not diminish my experience, although I’m certain the live version would’ve found me bawling from the Met chandelier, straining through tears for a better view of my tenor hero.
So yeah, Les Mis. It’s an opera, dressed as musical theater, trying to convince big sister to take it to the movies. I highly recommend the experience, whatever yours might be, but if you’re not down with people singing non-stop for over two hours, don’t—wait, go anyway, what am I saying? You might enjoy making fun of the nerds in the audience, the sniveling weenies who sing every part in the shower, especially when the tigers come at night.