LES MISERABLES Superfans Compare The Casts - Part One!
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Theatre director Amy Hanson is the first to give her verdict...
As one of the most successful musicals in the history of theatre, it is unsurprising that LES MISERABLES has received more than a few recordings. To be precise, there are over 40, in a wide variety of languages. Now, trying to sing along to On My Own in Korean or Polish may not be to everyone's tastes, but let's take a look at four of the most accessible and best known recordings of this musical...
The Original London Cast Recording
One thing that makes me consider the original cast recording an indispensable part of my collection is that I utterly adore the original arrangements. It seems, since the nineties at least, that there has been a drive to make the sound of LES MISERABLES more classic; more emphasis on strings, fewer thumping bass parts and the electric guitar becoming unnoticeable.
On listening to this CD, however, any fears that the orchestrations would sound dated nowadays are quickly shown to be unfounded. These arrangements are, of course, supporting performances that are really iconic, setting the standard for the thousands of performers who would step into the shoes of the likes of Roger Allam.
The added bonus of two songs that you would not find in the show nowadays - Cosette's solo I Saw Him Once and the full version of Little People, now reduced to a short chorus - make this something of a must for anyone keen to get the full experience of the show. Alas, despite the inclusion of these, with a musical as lengthy as LES MISERABLES, there are still cuts of lovely transitional moments made to fit everything on to two CDs.
Obviously, the original London cast recording has one major drawback - it is only an audio recording. Some of the performances may be more harshly judged because of the lack of a visual dimension. Perhaps controversially, I have always found Patti LuPone's Fantine rather disinterested, but it is impossible to truly appreciate an actor based on only one aspect of a performance.
Nevertheless, the audio offers plenty to appreciate - based on the singing alone, you may, like myself, want to cry your eyes out at not having been born in 1985 to witness the original cast as much as at any of the tear-jerking numbers. Either way, a listen to this recording will definitely let you hear the people sing in the way that first took the West End by storm.
The Tenth Anniversary Concert
The only available video of any form of LES MISERABLES for many a year, the Tenth Anniversary Concert held at the Royal Albert Hall is dear to many. However, much as I love the concert, I insist on not using it to introduce anyone to the show. The script cuts do seem to make the already challenging story less comprehensible, further hampered by the fact that the show's clever and effective blocking is reduced to standing at microphones singing.
Nevertheless, it has much to recommend it. Comprising a "dream cast" of favourite performers from the West End and Broadway, the performances are generally very strong across the board, probably offering the most consistently high standard of any major recording: Colm Wilkinson and Philip Quast are very possibly the best pair of lead actors that the show has ever had.
Despite the restrictions of the concert staging, the cast put a huge amount of emotion into their performance, with Michael Ball's grief in A Little Fall Of Rain a premier example. The use of a full orchestra and huge choir adds extra punch to the music and a sense of occasion to the whole event, which is absolutely worth getting a copy of if you are already familiar with the show.
The 25th Anniversary Concert
The 25th Anniversary Concert, shot at the O2 in London was handled in a similar way, with improvements of hindsight and technological advancements. The undoubtedly better quality of filming is nice, while the incorporation of more staging and fewer script cuts make it a little more accessible to those less familiar with the plot and huge cast of characters.
One of the delights of this concert for me was being able to spot so many performers I recognised in the ensemble from the show's history. While it was lovely to see them again playing sailors, whores, students and factory workers, the principal roles featured the likes of Alfie Boe and Matt Lucas, minor celebrities outside musical theatre and cast in an apparent attempt to give the world's most popular musical a broader appeal.
It's hard to say whether or not it did attract new audiences, though it had the definite consequence that mentioning the words "Nick Jonas" is likely to set most fans of the show twitching violently or foaming at the mouth. Those who were more experienced with the show put in strong performances - Jenny Galloway, Ramin Karimloo, Katie Hall and Hadley Fraser in particular.
My favourite part of the 25th Anniversary Concert is undoubtedly the finale section. After the show itself is over, the three Valjeans playing in London at the time (Boe, simon bowman from the Queens, and John Owen-Jones from the anniversary tour then playing at the Barbican) join together with the role's originator Colm Wilkinson to perform Bring Him Home in a tear-jerking, if slightly competitive quartet. This is followed by the original cast of the show taking a deserved bow and leading a rather special rendition of One Day More, admirably demonstrating that they could still give any of the concert's dream cast more than a run for their money.
LES MISERABLES: The Movie
After years of hype - we have a programme at home proudly proclaiming that a LES MISERABLES musical film will be on the big screen in 1992 - Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper has finally brought the beloved stage show to cinemas everywhere, together with a cast of big name actors. LES MISERABLES is unsurprisingly rather theatrical in its form, making it a challenge to adapt numbers like One Day More for the more naturalistic medium of the silver screen. However, film offers an opportunity to really put in detail that a stage show, especially one where the pace hurtles along with a maximum of efficiency and actors constantly moving into different roles.
This allows for some really striking moments in Hooper's adaptation - Fantine having her hair cut off for real, corpses in the streets of France, the disease clear under the pealing makeup of the whores and the glassy eyed stares of the dead at the barricades - that really emphasises the grim social situation in which Hugo's characters found themselves. The choice to record the singing live has been much hyped, but probably does add to the effect, given that it would be a strange juxtaposition to hear perfect auto-tuned warbling coupled with the gritty nature of the visuals. Interestingly, the singing in the ensemble numbers could perhaps have been more epic, particularly when comparing with the large choirs used in both of the concert versions. The arrangement of the familiar score is nicely handled, with some lovely string counterpoints adding a new dimension to several songs.
The new order of songs works very well and new material is generally well incorporated (the rather stilted exchange between Valjean and Javert at the factory being one exception that stands out). In particular, the new placing of I Dreamed A Dream adds an even larger dollop of gravitas to an already emotive number, as we now see Fantine at her very lowest point. Though none of the performances make me want to stick my fingers in my ears, it is clear at certain points that several of the principal actors lack much ability to utilise their voice musically to convey meaning, as well as vocal chops, of previous performers who have played the roles on stage.
I thoroughly enjoyed the film, even if some of the vocals fall a bit short of some that are offered by other recordings. Still, the strong script and beautiful attention to detail, full of touches to the original novel, keep it true to the spirit of both the musical and to Hugo's magnum opus, ensuring that it will be something that I will happily watch over and over again.
So which of the main versions of LES MISERABLES is the best? What is the essential version that every budding fan must own?
In truth, they are all essentials. Each offers up something different with its own advantages and drawbacks. Each has performances that will be yardsticks for performers for a long time, along with odd niggles that will annoy you if you get to know the musical well, whether it be performances, cuts or the lack of an iconic endlessly spinning stage.
There is undoubtedly a fifth crucial aspect of the LES MISERABLES musical experience - the original stage production running at the Queen's Theatre over 27 years after it first stormed London. It is, beyond any of these recordings, the musical as it was intended to be experienced. Take a trip there and you can expect top notch West End performers, Trevor Nunn and John Caird's exceptional staging and the live dimension that can never be replicated in the comforts of home. Between that, these four recordings and the many more versions out there that immortalise this classic show, you will likely be humming these tunes for far longer than one day more.