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A voice teacher's review of Les Miserables

Jan. 8, 2013
Posted in: Singing
A voice teacher's review of Les Miserables
Musical movies often cast based on name-recognition rather than singing abilities and Les Miserables follows this rule. Several performances in this movie serve as good examples of why I think the opposite should be true.



Musical movies

When one thinks of movie musicals, live singing is not necessarily the first thing that comes to mind. In fact, movie versions of favorite stage musicals have a long history of altering the natural form of the music, particularly that of the voice, to fit with the director’s ideal, as well as to hide any faults on the part of the actors. For instance, not only did Natalie Wood not really sing during her scenes in both West Side Story and The King and I, but the voice dubbed over the film was not even hers. All the singing on the soundtracks was done by Marnie Nixon.

Generally, soundtracks to movie musicals are pre-recorded, allowing time for editing by sound engineers. The actors arrive on set having already made all their musical choices in a recording studio. This recording is then played on set, while filming occurs. Actors must adjust their acting based on their vocal choices (which possibly occurred months prior, before any filming). In this way, it is rather limiting.

The effect on film is a singer who is obviously lip-synching along to his own recording. It is for this main reason that I often have trouble watching movie musicals, and prefer live performance.

However, with this year’s blockbuster musical production of Les Miserables directed by Tom Hooper has sought to change the way movie musicals are produced. By using live singing on set for each take, a varied diversity of effects can be created in the moment by the actors. All the singing recorded on set was then used for the soundtrack- no additional studio time required for the actors.

While many tools still remain for the sound engineers (Autotune the most obvious of all), the movie version of Les Miserables was more or less an honest representation of the powers (and limits) of Hollywood actors in the arena of singing.

For more information on the process of used for this movie, check out this fantastic behind-the-scenes video.

Critiquing "Les Miserables" (2012)

Before providing a review of the aforementioned singing, I would like to admit that I am happy to accept imperfect singing if there is true dramatic intent and commitment to the text. As a voice teacher, I strive to help my students improve their technique, but feel that they must also use interpretive skills to fully perform their pieces. I have seen all of the main actors in Les Miserables in other films, and have been impressed with all of their abilities, so I knew going into this production that the acting should have been likewise impressive. Les Miserables is almost completely sung through, with very little dialogue at all. Almost everything is notated in music, which creates quite an operatic effect to the flow of the piece. There is little downtime between numbers, and often a musical interlude connects scene changes, rather than creating clear dichotomy of starting/ending points.

Let me also preface this review by admitting that I know Les Mis well. Like, really well. As in, “listened to the original cast recording on repeat on my Walkman on family car trips when I was a teenager” well. That original cast recording does have some not-so-great moments vocally, which I fully recognize and accept for what it is. I still think it’s a great recording of a great piece.

Prior to seeing the film, I was familiar with some of Hugh Jackman’s musical theatre work, particularly in the PBS-broadcast production of Rogers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! I suppose that because of that, my expectations were a little higher for him than the other actors in the film.

Unfortunately, I think that perhaps his full potential was not met in his interpretation of the Les Miserables’ hero, Jean Valjean. From the opening scene, carrying through much of the role, he often seemed to be chanting or intoning the words rather than singing through his phrases. While I certainly respect the necessity for this kind of driven singing to push the plot, I felt that even the more lyric sections of Valjean’s solos were missing the fullness that I know Jackman’s voice to possess. His soliloquy at the beginning of the piece, which starts frantic but should eventually lead to a melodic resolution, remained on the same level throughout. For those familiar with operatic works, it gave the effect of recitativo singing even in more lyric sections. Imagine Figaro singing in recitative for three hours, instead of singing his beautiful music with a legato sound!

Over the course of the movie, there were some really lovely moments when Jackman let his voice truly ring out, and I found those to be extremely enjoyable. However, the inconsistency of these moments was a real let down.

Perhaps his worst offense, in my opinion, came during the prayer towards the end of the movie. In the scene, Valjean is observing the man his daughter loves, and is praying to God that this man lives through the coming battle, even if he himself does not. The tone of the piece was lost to me, because Jackman chose that particular moment to sing full-voiced. It completely broke the atmosphere of the song for me, and was one of the biggest disappointments of the whole movie.

I was extremely impressed and moved by Anne Hathaway’s portrayal of the tragic character of Fantine, whose stage time in Les Miserables is unfortunately short. The title of the piece suggests, to those who do not know the work, that there is not a happy ending. However, I felt that in this movie interpretation, the most emotionally moving part was not the end, but the incredibly delivered “I Dreamed a Dream,” Fantine’s reflection on the unexpected turns her life has taken. Not only was Hathaway able to showcase both a vulnerable, quiet tone, and build through her disillusionment to a strong, full forte voice, but she managed to do so while crying onscreen. Not an easy task at all, but not a single second was lacking in energy, passion or intent.

It is this scene that leads me to one criticism of director Tom Hooper’s choices about the way many of the solo scenes were shot. Almost every character has a deep, emotional song, and each time Hooper chose to film the actors up close in one, unbroken take. This worked extremely well for Hathaway’s solo, as mentioned above, but unfortunately, the bar she sets in that early scene was too high for most of the other cast to attain. In the end, it felt like each one was taking their turn for their big moment, and became less and less effective as the piece went on. The camera close-up became almost cliché by the end. While this choice likely had something to do with insuring that the microphones caught each quiet utterance, I do believe that more could’ve been done to show the variety in each character’s individual suffering.

For me, Russell Crowe’s subpar singing was the most expected weakness of the piece. He is clearly the least-trained singer, and seemed the most uncomfortable onscreen. In fact, I felt that his acting was nowhere near what he is normally capable of. Rather, he seemed to be simply standing and singing (and not very well). I’ve never felt particularly drawn to the character of Javert to begin with, and was not remotely interested in his plight in this film. In fact, I chose the middle of his big number to run to the bathroom (the movie is a whopping 3 hours long).

Likewise, Amanda Seyfried simply does not have the vocal chops to sing a soprano role such as Cosette. Not only was her vibrato incredibly fast (a telltale sign of an unnaturally high larynx and a dangerous vocal technique), but the digital sound of the Autotune required to fix nearly every high note in the piece was unacceptable. It is clear to me that she was only cast because she looked innocent and pretty enough to play the character, with no consideration given to the fact that she cannot meet the vocal demands of the role.

Eddie Redmayne has been a personal favorite actor of mine for a few years now, and each time I see him portray a new character, I am always drawn to his performance. Again, the character of Marius in Les Miserables is not my favorite, but Redmayne made me like him a little more with his interpretation. I was unsure, going into the film, what his singing would be like, as I had no clue he had any training. But, for the most part, I thought he sang well enough for the role, even though there were some moments of jaw shaking and froggy tenor sound (both clear signs of excess tension). Contrary to Crowe, he used the singing, to boost his emotions more, and for that I was willing to forgive some of his vocal imperfections.

In the roles of Eponine, Enjolras, and other smaller parts, were actors who were clearly well-trained in singing and acting. It is in these artists that the true value of the film fell. If only they had been given larger parts! Take every single line sung by Aaron Tveit in the movie. His natural sound and delivery left no doubt in the moviegoer’s mind that he would be able to hit any note. Not a sign of vocal tension present, his sound clear and consistent, and flexible enough to negotiate the range of both pitch and volume required for an interesting performance of the unsung hero Enjolras (my personal favorite character). Not to mention that his acting is stellar. The same can be said for Samantha Barks in the role of Eponine- who likely has the hardest role in pleasing Les Mis experts, with arguably one of the most popular musical theatre songs of all time, “On My Own.”

Rather than acting their way through the singing, both these artists are able to marry the two artistic forms into one cohesive unit. The result is that the singing actually seems natural. Unlike the struggles of Jackman and Crowe to superficially make it seem so, they are well-versed in how to actually make it seem as if singing the lines is the most natural thing in the world.

Both Barks and Tveit read extremely well on camera. Their acting can not only stack up against the Hollywood giants of the film, but is actually accentuated more than that of their more famous counterparts, thanks to their solid vocal abilities and trust of their technique. The biggest problem for me with the famous actors wasn’t necessarily the poor singing, but the insecurity of the singing, particularly with Russell Crowe.

Conclusion: consider training over name-recognition for musicals

What I take away from this film is a reassurance that a strong held belief of mine is true: singing well is a difficult, specialized skill that must be worked at immensely for true artistry to grow.

This movie, without a doubt in my mind, would have been better if there were lesser-known, trained singers cast in all the roles. To place actors who can sort-of sing into a piece that requires both strong vocal technique and emotional commitment through music is to do a disservice to audiences, the work of fiction, and the actors themselves.

Although there are exceptions - in this case, Hathaway - the truth is that Hollywood actors often don't rise the demands of the part. I hope that this example proves that we do not need A-list celebrities to tell a compelling musical tale.

Quite the opposite, in fact.

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