Many are called but few are chosen

Hugh Jackman is interviewed for Universal’s official extended trailer of Les Miserables

The anxious interest and enthusiasm I am feeling from just about every person I know about the forthcoming film version of Les Miserables the musical, (turned into a movie 27 years after it opened) is very exciting.

Like everyone I am very impressed by the short trailer (made while the film was still in production) and also fascinated by the five minute interviews about the actors singing live on set. (Footnote to this, despite what Hugh Jackman says in that interview, this is technical;y not the first time it has been done, Rex Harrison sang all his solo musical numbers live for My Fair Lady).

I have an immense love of Les Mis as it is affectionately known. I lost track long ago how many times I have seen the show. I have had many clients play leading roles in the show at different times and just last year saw the new re adapted stage version which is purely wonderful and is the version we shall see when it is finally revived in Australia (I am told probably in 2014)

Yet despite the lovely trailer and all the exciting buzz I am cautious and  filled with a little dread about the movie. Dread? Because I love the show so much and have often thought about a movie version, but have really preferred to enjoy the many concert versions of the show than being overly anxious for a film version. Yet a film version we are going to have, with a star drenched cast and directed by academy award winning director of The King’s Speech -Tom Hooper.

Of course the main reason for my dread, is that I want to love it. I want to be thrilled by the performances, amazed at the way the material remains true to the original yet is presented in a filmic way that changes things, but never loses the heart and soul of this most remarkable of musicals.

My biggest reason for optimism is the fact that producer Cameron Mackintosh, some would say the father figure who has guided the show since its english speaking inception in 1985, has been closely involved with the film. He knows how very few successful film adaptations of stage musicals have graced our screens in the last 50 years and for Les Mis to reach the sort of immortality he wants for the show, the movie has to be very good as it will be the version of the musical which will be passed down into history when all the stage versions have closed (and when he and all of us are long gone).

The background history of stage musicals to screen has not been good. In fact since the early 60s I can name only a handful of stage musicals that have been stylishly and brilliantly adapted to the screen. Look at this list, its true none of these movies are perfect, but each captures some of the elements that made the stage show a hit, yet manage to make the shows palatable to a movie audience. I am thinking of West Side Story, The Sound of Music, Oliver, Cabaret, My Fair Lady, Grease, Funny Girl and Chicago .

Surely, that’s not all?, Well after that there is a lot of good movie adaptations that are also flawed or pulled down by one element or other.

Hello Dolly had some wonderful moments but unfortunately Streisand was really too young for the title role. Similarly Lucille Ball at the end of her career really brought down the film of Mame. Many people love Camelot yet it is over-long and has a truly awful performance from Franco Nero as Lancelot.

[pull_left]Gypsy remains fairly true to the original in many ways, yet despite a fine acting performance by Rosalind Russell as Rose, you cant get around the fact that the lady cannot sing[/pull_left]I personally love Bob Fosse’s film of Sweet Charity (especially the version with the happy ending), yet it is overlong, often flat and full of overwrought supporting performances. Finian’s Rainbow has its fans and has gained credibility over the years with a lovely performance by Fred Astaire (in his last singing and dancing role), but it made no money and proved Francis Copolla was never really a director for musicals. Gypsy remains fairly true to the original in many ways, yet despite a fine acting performance by Rosalind Russell as Rose, you cant get around the fact that the lady cannot sing.

Hairspray was one of the better stage to film adaptations, but then there was John Travolta so so miscast in the central role and never really understanding what the joke was all about. Dreamgirls was OK, had some great moments, but got lost in its own plot and ultimately an over indulgent length and way too much sentimentality.

Then there are the ones which missed the mark – and there are many of them. The ones that showed promise but were destroyed by directors who did not understand the material. I particularly think here of John Houston’s bloated, over written and over wrought film of Annie (I personally dislike that one: it played with the plot too much for my liking, despite a very capable cast), Richard Attenborough should have been ashamed of what he did to A Chorus Line with its disco style dancing and turning the key song ‘What I Did for Love’ into a love song for the two central characters.

Even with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s close involvement, a mess was made of the film of The Phantom of the Opera: with the poor singing Phantom and non charismatic leads (how did they go so wrong?), Tim Burton destroyed Sweeney Todd. Rob Marshall followed his triumph with Chicago by adapting Nine to the screen, a musical that just didnt have enough in it to make a good film.  Mamma Mia made a lot of money, but was sloppy, too frenetic and lacked the stage play’s warmth and simplicity and most recently Rock of Ages where a sweet, simple little satirical musical theatre sketch was turned into a truly overwrought, sleazy and confused heavy handed mess.

Too many of these movies were ruined by star casting that threw the tone and simplicity of the original off balance (watching Tom Cruise in Rock of Ages is an excellent example of this).

So when you look at this very chequered history, you can see why I wait with a degree of bated breath for Les Miserables. I really want it to be wonderful, Mackintosh has said he wants it to be a film that stands in the company of Oliver and that is a good movie to aim toward as both are powerful and often dark musicals based on classic novels.

If you want to prepare for the movie watch the magnificent 25th anniversary concert (marred by one obvious piece of miscasting but full of such splendour and superb performances that is hard to resist) or perhaps listen to what I think is the best recording of the score – the 1995 live recording of the tenth anniversary with a cast commonly referred to as “the dream cast’.

Lets hope this new dream cast of film actors will bring the truth and heart of this remarkable piece of theatre to life in the cinema in a way that we can still admire in another fifty years.

4 thoughts on “Many are called but few are chosen

  • I agree that NINE in its adapted form is certainly lacking. However, the second act of the musical was largely ignored, and this is where, I feel, the most effective moments occur. I think there was much potential in it!

    I too, though, am hesitant about the whole Les Mis affair.

    I think the 1991 Parisian recording is by far the best vocally.

  • Great article Les. I am trying to think of what is the missing ingredient or the ingredient that so many film makers get wrong almost more than 50% of the time… I think maybe it’s connected to the fact that big budget film makers are a different beast to theatre people. Some of these musicals don’t need a big name actor in the lead to make the story work, they often worked brilliantly on stage with lesser known but highly skilled performers. Fosse’s film of CABARET demonstrates ever so clearly that in most cases the film version needs to almost be completely re-invented as film is a different medium and tells its’ story differently. Another point of note is that in many cases where the transition has worked extremely well is when the lead or several actors in the film have either done the role on Broadway or at least are MT actors themselves. ie: Streisand in ‘Funny Girl’ Ron Moody in ‘Oliver’, Travolta in ‘Grease’ (he had done it on stage), Rex Harrison in ‘Fair Lady’, Julie in SOM, and certainly director wise we have Rob Marshall for CHICAGO, who is a B’Way hoofer from way back! These ingredients are looking good for Les Mis with Hugh in the lead – I just hope they don’t change the keys of the score too much – I can’t quite hear Hugh getting up there in Bring Him Home, but if they ‘Bring it Down’ (no pun indended to Forbidden B’Way) it might be a very different show. They changed the keys for the film of EVITA but lets not go there. Fingers crossed for Les Mis!!

    • I deliberately left out a few musicals because they didnt specifically fit into the two main “fail”categories I set up.”Evita” and “Rent'(the two I left out)are to me, better films that most of the really bad ones I mentioned, yet the pieces still didnt really jell and fit into place as movies; “Evita” always looked like a lot of busy MTV clips (though I never really minded Madonna,changed keys and all) and “Rent” I felt worked as well as a movie of “Rent” could work. It’s just that “Rent”was such a theatre beast it should never have been made as a movie.

  • What are your thoughts on the film of Little Shop Of Horrors? Apart from the changed ending, I feel it’s a very faithful adaption and a load of fun! Have to agree with your comments on the others though. I have a quiet feeling that Les Mis is going to be sensational. My only concern is Russel Crowe. So hoping he will surprise me.


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