Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Spring Fund Drive: Keep CounterPunch Afloat
CounterPunch is a lifeboat of sanity in today’s turbulent political seas. Please make a tax-deductible donation and help us continue to fight Trump and his enablers on both sides of the aisle. Every dollar counts!
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Les Misérables and the Paradoxes of Musical Theater

Every time Russell Crowe appeared on screen in Tom Hooper’s new film of Les Misérables all I could think was: Thank God The Gladiator wasn’t a musical.  Imagine if Crowe’s lean, mean, fighting machine Maximus Decimus Meridius, Roman General turned justice-seeking gladiator, had broken into song on the sands of the Coliseum, twirling his iaculum and moonwalking across the arena as he faced a descant chorus of Nubian giants and roaring African lions. Luckily Crowe’s Gladiator, for which the Australian received the Oscar laurels for best actor back in 2000, was a man of few words.  Even more luckily, none of them was sung.

When I followed the holiday lemmings—among them my two teenage daughters—into the local multiplex for Les Mis on its opening night in the provinces of Upstate New York last week, I thought I knew what I was in for.  Proven musical theater stars would offer up storm of surges sentiment, singing their way through love and death, strife and solace: Hugh Jackman as Jan Valjean, the convict turned saintly hero; Ann Hathaway as the young mother and turned prostitute, Fantine. Each had sung set-piece numbers when they hosted the Oscars in 2009 and 2011 respectively; with their duet as Nixon and Frost at the start of the 2009 show, they even warmed the cold hearts of all those jaded Hollywood stars.

Both Hathaway and Jackman exude the kind of charisma that the intrinsically hokey genre of the musical—and its distant stepfather, opera—demands in order to win over the audience and make them forget that people don’t sing their way through life. With the aid of sumptuous sets and an invisible orchestra, the actors must overpower the nagging memory that in the real world, song is, sadly, the exception rather than the norm. That potential for unease becomes even greater when the figures on stage or on screen are the starving and oppressed, the unwashed and unshaven, the toothless and diseased—the miserable ones of Les miserable. No one is less prone to let loose on the high notes than wretched of the earth.

The score of Les Misérables is by Claude-Michel Schönberg, whom one could be forgiven for thinking of as the French Andrew Lloyd Webber, and it harbors operatic pretensions that only stoke such doubts. The show is almost fully sung, the big-hearted solos erupting periodically from seemingly interminable stretches of monotonous recitative. While a few chords go a long way in what one might charitably call the arias of the show, recitative requires a knack for the unexpected harmonic punch, the emotionally charged melodic turn, and the pregnant pause followed by the relief of an assuaging cadence. Recitative was invented by Florentine humanists in the attempt to revive what they thought was the sung drama of Greek antiquity. But Schönberg is no Monteverdi, and his approach to recitation is to have his characters drone away above stagnant harmonies. This limited musical language doesn’t do much to help the doggerel of Herbert Kretzmer’s English-language libretto, freely translated and reformulated from Alain Boublil’s French original:

And now I know how freedom feels
The jailer always at your heels

As the beleaguered but dauntless hero Jean Valjean, Jackman is made to bewail his fate high up in his range, a musical strategy for setting the text that may have been intended to accentuate the character’s grim fate. But the approach elicits aggravation more than empathy. Even Valjean’s early aria “What Have I Done?” is merely incessant in its single-note plaint rather than achingly exasperated at the injustices of the world. Even if his death prayer at the end of the show evinces somewhat greater melodic imagination, it also lies too high in his range, forcing Jackman to quaver and strain like a dying man might if he were singing his way into the grave. It makes for neither compellingly ugly nor sincerely beautiful music. In spite of this mediocre material, Jackman brings it off with his strong jaw and gentle brown eyes, and his unstinting commitment to the part.  We root for him not only because the predicament the plot has put him, but also because of his brave, relentless attempts to break free from the shackles of Schönberg’s score.

The showstopper in all this is Ann Hathaway’s rendition of “ I Dreamed a Dream”—Fantine’s lament for her dashed hopes and her imminent descent into prostitution, and soon after that, into death. She’s just lost of a couple of teeth to a dental dismantler and sold her lush dark tresses to a hair broker. In a rare moment of restraint, Hooper dispenses calms his hyperactive camera and dispenses with disorienting editing, and instead allows Hathaway’s face to fill the screen without interruption. She couldn’t look bad if she tried: the butch haircut suits her better than the frothy 19th-century do, and the pulled teeth were off-screen molars anyway. She leaves everything she has in this song, her voice sobbing and soaring, the camera close as if trying desperately to embrace her even as she occasionally lurches out of frame.

Schönberg goes to one of the most beloved of musical schemes for this heart-rending set-piece—the descending bass line used by the greatest composers, from Bach’s Goldberg Variations to Mozart’s Gran Partita (think of the passage that Salieri marvels at in Amadeus with the bassoon moving downward as the oboe and then clarinet rhapsodize above). I don’t blame Schönberg in the least for seeking recourse to well-trodden tradition; greater and lesser musical minds than his have done the same. Rarely a composer of restraint, Schönberg takes the bass-line still farther down—almost the entire major scale—to get maximum bang for his buck. So ingrained in almost any listener, whether a devotee of pop or the classics, is the emotional meaning of this bass line, that she or he will immediately feel the currents of hope and sorrow that this figure ineluctably elicits. Schönberg’s modulation up a half-step towards the climax of the number is another cheap but effective trick. That is why one goes to a musical, in the cinema or in the theatre: to be played like a moderately priced violin. Even after her onscreen demise soon after this memorable number, Fantine’s Dream is reprised in various ways throughout the rest of the show. Each time the bass line tilted down, I saw the hankies come out as if on cue, white flags surrendering to the joy of tears.

Whereas Hathaway and Jackman transcend the limitations Schönberg’s score, Crowe, as the evil police officer Javert, is thoroughly defeated by it. The sharp lines of the Gladiator have, these dozen years on, become drooping jowls and ample haunches. The cornice of the brow threatens to crumble at any moment. Chained deep in the dungeon of his nasal cavity, Crowe’s voice barely escapes, pleading for help from behind all those moist walls of tissue. Though there isn’t quite enough vocal tone to be sure, everything sounds flat; the sonority pummels the audience’s ears in Schönberg’s droning recitatives.

In his early days in Australia, Crowe did plenty of musical theater; his first professional role as an actor was as Eddie/Dr. Scott in The Rocky Horror Show in the 1980s.  Even now Crowe is known to sing in clubs as he did Down Under back in the day. Perhaps the nostalgia for the anthems of his youth has clouded Crowe’s judgment, or maybe it’s just the curse of becoming a huge celebrity and losing the ability to recognize one’s own limitations.

One might imagine that there is Platonic sense in having the evil Javert sing poorly: if the voice opens up a window on the soul, then painful singing might be taken to reflect an immoral heart. But Crowe’s Javert is hoist on the paradox of musical theatre: the bad guys are far more hateful when they sing beautifully.

DAVID YEARSLEY s a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

More articles by:

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

May 24, 2018
Jeff Warner – Victor Rothman
Why the Emerging Apartheid State in Israel-Palestine is Not Sustainable
Kenn Orphan
Life, the Sea and Big Oil
James Luchte
Europe Stares Into the Abys, Confronting the American Occupant in the Room
Richard Hardigan
Palestinians’ Great March of Return: What You Need to Know
Howard Lisnoff
So Far: Fascism Lite
Matthew Vernon Whalan
Norman Finkelstein on Bernie Sanders, Gaza, and the Mainstream Treatment
Daniel Warner
J’accuse All Baby Boomers
Alfred W. McCoy
Beyond Golden Shower Diplomacy
Jonah Raskin
Rachel Kushner, Foe of Prisons, and Her New Novel, “The Mars Room”
George Wuerthner
Myths About Wildfires, Logging and Forests
Binoy Kampmark
Tom Wolfe the Parajournalist
Dean Baker
The Marx Ratio: Not Clear Karl Would be Happy
May 23, 2018
Nick Pemberton
Maduro’s Win: A Bright Spot in Dark Times
Ben Debney
A Faustian Bargain with the Climate Crisis
Deepak Tripathi
A Bloody Hot Summer in Gaza: Parallels With Sharpeville, Soweto and Jallianwala Bagh
Josh White
Strange Recollections of Old Labour
Farhang Jahanpour
Pompeo’s Outrageous Speech on Iran
CJ Hopkins
The Simulation of Democracy
Lawrence Davidson
In Our Age of State Crimes
Dave Lindorff
The Trump White House is a Chaotic Clown Car Filled with Bozos Who Think They’re Brilliant
Russell Mokhiber
The Corporate Domination of West Virginia
Ty Salandy
The British Royal Wedding, Empire and Colonialism
Laura Flanders
Life or Death to the FCC?
Gary Leupp
Dawn of an Era of Mutual Indignation?
Katalina Khoury
The Notion of Patriarchal White Supremacy Vs. Womanhood
Nicole Rosmarino
The Grassroots Environmental Activist of the Year: Christine Canaly
Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin
“Michael Inside:” The Prison System in Ireland 
May 22, 2018
Stanley L. Cohen
Broken Dreams and Lost Lives: Israel, Gaza and the Hamas Card
Kathy Kelly
Scourging Yemen
Andrew Levine
November’s “Revolution” Will Not Be Televised
Ted Rall
#MeToo is a Cultural Workaround to a Legal Failure
Gary Leupp
Question for Discussion: Is Russia an Adversary Nation?
Binoy Kampmark
Unsettling the Summits: John Bolton’s Libya Solution
Doug Johnson
As Andrea Horwath Surges, Undecided Voters Threaten to Upend Doug Ford’s Hopes in Canada’s Most Populated Province
Kenneth Surin
Malaysia’s Surprising Election Results
Dana Cook
Canada’s ‘Superwoman’: Margot Kidder
Dean Baker
The Trade Deficit With China: Up Sharply, for Those Who Care
John Feffer
Playing Trump for Peace How the Korean Peninsula Could Become a Bright Spot in a World Gone Mad
Peter Gelderloos
Decades in Prison for Protesting Trump?
Thomas Knapp
Yes, Virginia, There is a Deep State
Andrew Stewart
What the Providence Teachers’ Union Needs for a Win
Jimmy Centeno
Mexico’s First Presidential Debate: All against One
May 21, 2018
Ron Jacobs
Gina Haspell: She’s Certainly Qualified for the Job
Uri Avnery
The Day of Shame
Amitai Ben-Abba
Israel’s New Ideology of Genocide
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail