Let Me (Us) Tell You What I (We) Liked About Les Miserables The Movie

Hello everyone and Happy New Year! I’m writing with my co-pilot Rob Meffe as we drive back to New York. We saw Les Mis six days ago but have been writing this blog verbally since, so let’s hop to it.

A few gentle reminders, Dear Readers.
1) This is not a review. If you’ve read my “Let Me Tell You What I Liked” series in the past you know that I feel there are plenty of negative reviewers out there in the world, and instead I focus on things I liked or things that interested me. In this post Rob and I will do a little comparison of the screen and stage versions, so we might digress a bit into the “What we wished they’d done” but generally speaking, this is not our rant on why we hated the movie. If that is what you are looking for, go elsewhere.

2) This post will be chock full of spoilers. Seriously, there is no way to write this without ruining the whole thing if you haven’t seen it, so go see it and come back. If you are still reading, you’ve been warned. And yes, although you might think you know the show backwards and forwards, there are some surprises in the movie. Not like aliens punching their way out of Sigourney Weaver’s stomach surprises, but some surprises none-the-less.

Rob was just telling me about all the blogs out there about the movie and the ones he liked the best, and I wonder if we should just publish one of those instead, but he says no. We have 8 hours left on this drive and are bored out of our minds, so this is our driving entertainment. He’s driving and has little concern for whether or not I will get car sick as I type, so let’s get to it.

It seems that it might be best to start with why we are interested in writing this blog in the first place, so I’m going to give you a short run down of our history with the show. I could write a book about this (hey! I already did!) but I will keep it short and sweet. I was cast in the 3rd National touring company of Les Mis in 1992 (fondly referred to as “The Marius Company”–sidebar–most big National tours of Broadway shows are named in an attempt to keep the tours straight for bookkeeping. Example, Rob and I toured with the “Raoul Company” and I later toured with the “Music Box Company” of PHANTOM. It’s an actual LLC and is what is listed on your paychecks for those of you who like geek theater trivia. I’m assuming there is an “Elphaba” and a “Glinda”company of WICKED, you get the idea).
ANYWAY, sorry I just digressed into accounting, after a year and a half with the tour, which Rob eventually joined as a keyboard player (he subbed in whenever he came to visit me), I left the tour and then was offered the Broadway Company (Broadway companies are called, well just that. The Broadway Company and your paycheck is just the name of the show. As in “Les Miserables LLC”). I was with the Broadway Company off and on for about a year and a half, and then, went back out and re-joined the Marius Company understudying the roles of Eponine and Cosette. So–if you are making a graph–please note that I played every female role in the show with the exception of Fantine, Madame Thenardier (which I was offered but did not take) and Little Cosette (which our daughter Charlotte played at the Weston Playhouse in 2008.)

Rob’s history: He was a keyboard sub on the Marius Company from 1993-1994, became the Associate Conductor of the Marius Company in 1996, and became the Associate Conductor on Broadway in 1997, a job he kept until the show closed at the Imperial Theater in 2003. In 2008 he music directed a production at the Weston Playhouse.

For your graph: That clocks in at a sum total of 11+ years with the show, and a myriad of casts. We traveled to Singapore and Hawaii with the show, and honestly–in many ways–the show is the soundtrack of our early adult lives.
So, you know, we were pretty excited to see the movie, but naturally not *quite* as excited as we would’ve been if we’d been in or worked on the movie, but I suppose most alums of the show feel that way. But we’ll get to alums who ARE in the film in a just minute.

If you are a regular reader of this series you know that Rob is presently the Director of Music of the Musical Theater Program at Pace University and he teaches a class called, “Musical Theater History and Repertoire”. He usually gives us a little history of the show we’re talking about. He’s driving, so I will type as he dictates. For all of Rob’s students reading this, you’ll recognize this from his “British Mega-Musicals” lecture, and please picture him driving, unshaven, somewhere in Western PA as he does this with no notes or Google. Let’s see what he knows off the cuff. Ready? Here’s Rob:

Les Miserables would not have happened without Cameron Mackintosh. He saw a concert production of the score by two French song writers Claude-Michele Schoenberg and Alain Boublil. He opened the show with The Royal Shakespeare Company directed by Trevor Nunn and John Caird to fair reviews but sold out houses. One interesting element that was added for the London production was the 17 minute prologue which explained the back story of Jean Valjean to British audiences who were not as familiar with the tale. In 1987 LES MISERABLES opened on Broadway and ran until 2003. Les Mis won the Tony Award as best musical. There was a short lived revival a few years ago. Fun facts: Patti LuPone was the original Fantine in London, but did not do the Broadway production (allegedly) because she did not want to play a bullet boy on the barricade after she died. Randy Graff assumed the role and did, in fact (as all Fantines do) appear as a bullet boy. In fact (now this is Sharon co-opting Rob’s history lesson) the only characters that only play ONE character in the show are: Jean Valjean, Javert and the child actors. Everyone else in the cast appears as a chorus member in various parts of the show. In addition, only three adult actors are on a principal actor contract, Jean Valjean, Javert and Fantine. Everyone else (Marius, Eponine, the Thenardiers et al) are on Chorus contracts. Can you believe that??

Enough chit chat. Let’s get to it.

What We Liked (In no particular order)

1) Well come on, let’s face it, we like that the movie got MADE. Right? We’re never going to turn down a chance for ANYONE to profit from a musical, and this movie in particular has been rumored to be going into production for years, even as far back as when I first started in the show. Let’s talk dollars and cents for a moment. This movie made more money in its opening weekend than it cost to mount the original Broadway production. And money begets money and that equals jobs. A few days ago Cameron announced that LES MISERABLES would be returning to Broadway in the 2013-2014 season, as he is bringing the critically acclaimed current National Tour back to the New York stage. So the good news for those of you that had a problem with the movie? You can go see a great production the show in the coming months.

2) The trailers. Don’t you think the build up to the film release was great? Starting back as early as last summer the trailers stirred excitement around the world. Who didn’t tear up when they first saw Anne Hathaway singing “I Dreamed a Dream?” I was like–oh my God–they did it. They actually turned the show into a movie and it’s an actress singing the score I love and it’s not Uma Thurman and I’m so excited. And to release it on Christmas Day? I mean….you know….that’s the Big Time.

3) Speaking of Anne Hathaway singing “I Dreamed A Dream,” of course (you expected this) she has to be at the top of the list of things we liked about the film. We knew everyone loved her, we had heard the hype and boy, I’m thrilled to report that she lived up to it. From frame one Hathaway was completely committed and this musical is full of people who are on the edge of the abyss. She allowed herself to go there and we bought it hook line and sinker. Perhaps the coffin was a bit much–perhaps just singing the lyric “Don’t they know they’re making love to one already dead” gets the point across–but we’ll give it a pass. Who thought Hathaway was going to pass out at one point during the song? I did. I got nervous for her and was telling her to BREATHE in my head and caught myself holding MY breath. Overall, we think her performance was the most successful.

Rumor has it that the haircut was actually her hair being cut and I’ll say two things about that.
1) How nervous was the camera man to not screw it up because you have to get that in one take?
and
2) How nervous was the actress who had to actually cut her hair?
Super. Nervous.

There are some plot additions and changes that we thought were kinda brilliant.
1) Jean Valjean hoisting that giant flag out of the water (yes-we were a bit blinded by the Jesus reference BUT-) here’s why we loved it. The entire storyline that Javert recognizes JVJ (Jean Valjean shortcut) because of his brute strength is an important one and kind of comes out of left field in the show, when JVJ lifts up a cart. Okay, in the movie, they establish up front that JVJ is basically Hercules when he lifts up that giant flagpole, so when he lifts up the cart a while later, you’re like oh no! Don’t do it! Javert will know it’s you! A small but powerful plot development. A- Director Hooper (point reduction for blatant Jesus imagery).

2) Speaking of that giant cart, who didn’t LOVE that it was the guy who got squished and saved under the cart who showed up in the convent? Did you catch that? Fauchelevant is totally the guy who saves JVJ and Cosette. Nice. Loved it.

3) Moving “I Dreamed A Dream” to after “Lovely Ladies.” Yes. Yes. Makes such better sense. Why wasn’t it always there? My best guess? Costume changes were needed and putting the song their allowed everyone to strip down to their whore and slather some makeup on.

4) Here’s one we didn’t understand; Why change the story and have Gavroche deliver the letter from Marius to Cosette (and intercepted by JVJ)? We prefer the story as it is in the show where Eponine delivers it, because it motivates her climbing over the barricade to get to Marius…and she gets shot…blah, blah, blah. Why Gavroche?
5) There are some things that are in the book and not in the show, but found their way into the movie and we liked them. Here’s what we can remember.
**They pull Fantine’s teeth and sell them. It’s a brutal scene in the book and it made the film and it was awful and great.
**You can see that the factory workers are making rosaries. We can’t remember if it is from the book or if that is a director Hopper thing, but either way at least there was some detail about what was being made in the factory.
**They really show and explain that JVJ and Cosette hide out in the convent. In my foggy memory of the book it’s only Cosette that hides there and JVJ is somewhere else, but I don’t know that I’m right. It’s a long book and I read it in 1993, but regardless, in the book there is a ton of Cosette (and only a few pages about Eponine–a very minor player) and one of the big plot points is about her being raised by the nuns. It is not developed in the show at all and I loved the nod in the movie.
**Hey don’t blink, that’s Marius’s Grandfather! He’s a big character in the book, it is established that Marius comes from money and a higher class than the rest of the students and they give this plot line some development in the movie.
**They built Gavoroche’s Elephant! This is straight from the book, he and his band of ruffians live in there, and it was a real landmark in France.
**Who is General Lamarque? Okay, it’s still pretty vague in the movie, but better than in the show. He is the leader of the movement whose murder kicks off the revolution and I think he gets two mentions in the movie instead of the one mention in the play.
**That said, I do think the movie follows the book point that this is a very small revolution and not the famous revolution we learn about in history class. The movie does a great job depicting the struggle of the working class people and whether or not to sacrifice their lives for a small group of student’s ideals. This is well set up in the book and well shown in the movie (remember how the towns people shut their windows and refuse to help?). Much more clear than the show.
**We like that they kept a little of the song “Turning” and show the women mopping up the blood in the street. They talk a lot about the blood running in the street in the book.
**From Charlotte: She loved how brutal Javert’s death was–that you could actually see his body break, which is directly from the book. She thought the build up to the death was very accurate and you could understand Javert’s reason for jumping.

Okay, now let’s talk a little about casting and let’s start with former cast members.
1) HOW MUCH DID WE LOVE COLM WILKINSON AS THE BISHOP??? SO MUCH. You guys all know he was the original JVJ in London and on Broadway, right? And then he showed up as the Bishop in the film. Brilliant. Only thing better? When he showed up with Fantine as one of JVJ’s escorts to heaven. In the show it is Fantine and Eponine, which is bizarre because why is Eponine there? She didn’t have any impact on JVJ’s life. According to Rob it was originally the Bishop in the show and I don’t know why it was changed to Eponine. If you know, please write in. I have guesses but I am not typing them.

2) Somewhere in that whore scene is Frances Ruffelle, the original Eponine. Fun.

3) How about that Loud Hailer? Who is that? He’s never named, but in the movie he shows up on a horse in the opposition army and sings, “You on barricade listen to this. No one is coming to help you to fight.” (etc). In the show this is done as a voice over by one of the guys who just run off and sing it in an off stage microphone, and then he runs back on and they all get shot. In the film the sequence is a little slower and the Loud Hailer is shown (and is a British actor named Hadley Fraser) and you could see real remorse on his face. He wants them to surrender, he doesn’t want to go in and kill all those kids. It was a small but terrific moment.

4) A lot of people don’t know that Hugh Jackman is a Broadway musical theater veteran and has starred in three major musicals, OKLAHOMA (on the West End), THE BOY FROM OZ, and his own show, HUGH JACKMAN, BACK ON BROADWAY. Also not well known, Russell Crowe has his own band.

Look, overall, would we have liked slightly better and more rhythmic singing?  Sure.  Absolutely.  But I hope you can see that we not only were delighted the film was (finally) made, but we really enjoyed it.

Don’t forget, coming in February SMASH Fact or Fiction.  If you are interested in advertising on this blog during that high traffic time, contact me at sharonswheatley@gmail.com

Later this week we’ll be back to my Lifetime TV blog, The Untitled and Confidential Project: Exposed (Or, My Life While Shooting A Lifetime Movie).  What??  You haven’t read it yet? Catch up NOW.  It’s dishy and fun and a perfect way to spend New Year’s Day.  Grab a snack and catch up HERE.

Happy New Year!

P.S. Lots of good discussion, corrections and questions in the comments below if you want to read even more (this is becoming as long as Hugo’s book).

About Sharon Wheatley

Mother of Charlotte and Beatrix. Sometimes an actress. Sometimes a writer. I'm glad you're here.
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28 Responses to Let Me (Us) Tell You What I (We) Liked About Les Miserables The Movie

  1. Jen DeRosa says:

    Loved this!!! How interesting that the whole exposition was added!! (And the whole accounting tangent was really interesting, too!) Thank you Sharon, Rob & Charlotte!!!!

  2. Tracy Bristol says:

    Happy New Year– and thank you for making my first morning coffee of the year more enjoyable. Safe travels!

  3. Brett says:

    Loved reading this!

  4. Jim says:

    Cameron never saw the original production in Paris. He was given a copy of the album (remember albums?) by Peter Farago, a Hungarian-born English director.

    Patti wanted to do both Fantine and Eponine in NYC. Not sure if that or the Chorus contract was the reason she didn't go to NYC with the show. That Chorus contract scheme saved Cameron a ton of money, as did his cutting the show down under three hours; no more musician overtime!

  5. Dave says:

    Awesome post!

  6. Chris says:

    Love this blog!

    Straight from Ms. Hathaways mouth: the actress cutting her hair only chopped the bangs in front as the camera zoomed in. Then they CUT, and her hair was actually chopped off by her personal hair/makeup artist –A MAN!– wearing the same dress. Hahaha! I LOVE that but of trivia.
    She said when they finished the scene she was such an emotional wreck she was happy to have an old friend there to turn to for comfort. And she turned to hug him, saw him standing in the dress, with his FULL BEARD, and died laughing.
    Interestingly, it was her idea to have the hair shorn live on camera, and she suggested it to Hooper.
    :)

  7. Well done, my friends! If memory serves, in the novel Valjean put Cosette in the convent and then takes a job as gardner at the convent so that he can keep an eye on her. Love this!

  8. Jaaaake says:

    It's clear that Mr.Hooper has never been Eponine in his life because he missed the boat with that story line. Eponine takes the note to JVJ and overhears him reading it aloud. Hearing Marius confess his love to Cosette, she knows he will never love her…..intro in Own My Own. Irritating he changed that, but I'm buying everything Samantha Banks is selling! As for Frances, she's in Master of the House as a whore along with Patti Lupone. Linzi Hately (who took over Eponine when Frances came to Broadway, and my personal favorite although I've never seen you do the role) was one of the Turning Women cleaning up the blood. Caroline Sheen (whose brother is Hollywood actor Michael Sheen) is currently Fantine and was in the factory working next to Anne.

    I'm surprised you have never been Fantine because I actually think you would make a perfect Fantine.

  9. Amanda says:

    LOVE your thoughts- agree with you on all accounts (thank goodness- was starting to think I was crazy!).

    THANK YOU for calling out the blatant Jesus imagery- I actually missed that particular moment, but I did notice the other ridiculous hitting-us-on-the-head imagery moments throughout, and they drove me INSANE. There were the coffins at the front of the barricade, the huge eye in the background while JVJ sings "Bring Him Home"- ugh, I just need to stop there before I get too worked up….

    Thank you as well for mentioning how confusing they made the revolution in the film. I felt like it really wasn't explained at all in specifics and this sort of implies that we are to assume it's a big important revolution that everyone should know about….But it really wasn't. It sort of annoyed me that the futile nature of the students' fight was lost in the film. Sure some townspeople closed their windows and doors to them in the end, but the film really didn't bring home the fact that these were untrained, naive – albeit passionate – school boys fighting a battle that no one else was brave enough to really believed in…(cont)

  10. Amanda says:

    (cont)…If I didn't already know the background from the stage version, I would have definitely assumed this was THE French Revolution. Also falling into this category is Javert's motivations for joining the students as an undercover spy…This is COMPLETELY lost in the film. In fact, my brother even leaned over to me and asked why he was helping the revolutionaries.

    Wanted to comment on one last thing- the change from Eponine to Gavroche being the letter-bearer. I really did hate all the changes that occurred – lyrically and even plotwise – but this particular one didn't bother me as much. Like the moving of "I Dreamed A Dream," I felt this change was also more justified by character motivations and experiences, and in the end it was okay. It made more sense for Eponine to work against the coupling of Maurius and Cosette – that is to say it's a more natural reponse for her to want to suppress a letter and then join him at the barricades where she can then at least (try to) protect him…(cont)

  11. Amanda says:

    (cont)…Also, while sure, it's implied that Eponine knows her way around and can find people that others cannot, it's messier to have Maurius send Cosette a letter when he really doesn't know where she's moved to…it makes more sense that Cosette would worry Maurius wouldn't be able to find her and so would send off a letter to him informing him of her new whereabouts. At any rate, I just thought it was a lot cleaner to have it happen the way it did in the film (Although I did think it was dumb that somehow no one saw Eponine block the gunshot that was aimed at Maurius (he doesn't realize she's shot until she hands him the letter and he realizes she's bleeding on the ground. The best part was when he's like, "What have you done???" Um, she saved your life, bro….You know, I wonder if he even ever realized that bullet was meant for him….Sheesh.)

  12. Melissa says:

    Fauchevalent is also in the convent in the book, where Valjean ends up living with him the convent for most of Cosette's growing years, pretending to be Fauchevalent's brother (and a gardener, as Craig said), while Cosette attends the convent school. There's also about a half dozen or more chapters dedicated to describing life in the convent before, during, and after Cosette and Valjean live there. I didn't really read all of them, it does get kind of long.

    And Gavroche delivers the letter in the book, as a dual purpose plan from Marius to try and get him away from the fighting.

  13. Evan says:

    Loved the musical underscore when Javert pinned the medal to Gavroche: "He's like the son I might have had/If God had granted me a son". Tears.

  14. Nora says:

    Was hoping to hear Rob and your thoughts on the added JVJ song that seemed to only be added for Oscar contention.

  15. sswheatley says:

    I have a new piece of trivia: Turns out that Anne Hathaway's mother, Kate Hathaway, was an understudy for Fantine in a national touring production. I read it in the December VOGUE today, here's the link: http://www.vogue.com/magazine/article/leap-of-fai

  16. amcdonnold says:

    Great topic! I enjoyed your perspective. Thanks for sharing

  17. Thomas says:

    Hugh Jackman was also in the original Australian productions of Sunset Boulevard (Joe Gillis) and Disney's Beauty and the Beast (Gaston). He also did the non-musical play A Steady Rain on Broadway (I've met him a few times…he's a really nice guy).

  18. Cathy says:

    Thanks for your take on the film, Sharon! As a Les Mis alum, you'll appreciate that most of the ensemble parts in the film were filled with London Les Mis cast past and present, as well as other West End vets. "Live singing' experts! LOL

    PS – In her book, Patti Lupone says that she didn't reprise Fantine on Broadway because she felt she had the perfect theater experience creating the role in London and didn't want to spoil it. She admitted that she did everything possible to get out of performing in the ensemble after her 'death' but couldn't get out of doing the barricade scene.

  19. Lauren E. says:

    I so enjoyed your bit about the checks! I'm incredibly entertained about theater trivia like that.

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