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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

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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

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