Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Memoir: Joe Vermeulen and Les Mis

Do you hear the people sing the songs of my childhood?
How I grew up with Les Mis…
by Joe Vermeulen

It’s 1989, and I am at the Royal Alexandra Theatre with my parents. I am three years old. We are sitting in the follow spot booth looking down at the stage. This is my earliest memory. The barricades are just tracking onstage and the iconic “Red and Black” theme is playing. I asked my mother how the barricades were moving onstage and she said that someone was driving them. My only experience with driving at age three was in a car, so I imagined someone sitting in the barricade driving it onto the stage. We had just moved and my father was working on Les Misérables.

It is now early 2013, and I am thousands of miles away from my family, the Royal Alex and the city where I grew up. I am separated from that little boy sitting in the booth with my parents by 24 years. I’ve been looking forward to the movie version of that same musical ever since I heard about it.

Immediately it becomes clear that the decision to record the vocal track live on set is absolutely the right decision.

I have high hopes for the movie version. I am hoping that it keeps the sound and spirit of the musical, but I am also hoping that it adds something to the show, answering questions that are unresolved in the musical. Why is Jean Valjean allowed to escape from the courtroom where he reveals who he is to save an innocent man? How is it that Javert is conveniently posted so as to shadow Valjean all across France? How is it that Valjean is strong and healthy during the revolution and yet dies conveniently on the same day as his daughter’s wedding a mere few weeks later?

The movie opens powerfully, with the chain gang to which Valjean is imprisoned pulling massive warships into huge dry-docks during the first rendition of the “Look Down” theme. We see Valjean demonstrate his immense strength which firmly cements him in Javert’s mind.

Immediately it becomes clear that the decision to record the vocal track live on set is absolutely the right decision. In most other filmed musicals, the picture and the vocals are recorded separately, so that the cast is either lip syncing on set, or trying in studio to align their lip movements with the screen performance. This leads to the occasional lip moving without the voice, or even worse to my mind, an intense vocal sound without resulting movement of the performer’s lips. If you are belting but your mouth is hardly open it becomes jarring. In Les Mis, if they are singing they are really moving their mouths to get the sound, and it flows perfectly. It also leads to very moist mouths, which become apparent with the non-stop close-ups.

The act of kindness shown to Valjean by the Bishop drives everything that he does for the rest of the show.

After Valjean is paroled we are treated to music that I have only found in the complete symphonic recording, which details Valjean’s struggles to find employment or even a safe place to stay. He has to show his parole papers everywhere he goes. Frozen and starving, more animal than man, he finds himself confronted by the Bishop of Dinge. Nice cameo by Colm Wilkinson, the original Broadway and West End Valjean. Valjean is caught stealing from the Bishop and is subsequently forgiven. His guilt, and remorse lead to a desire to change his life which is very evident in Hugh Jackman’s performance.

For me, this is where the musical really starts. Everything up to that point was prologue. The act of kindness shown to Valjean by the Bishop drives everything that he does for the rest of the show.

Javert is much more suspicious of Valjean’s true identity, in the film, than in the musical. I was a bit disappointed that the segment of the runaway cart, which raises Javert’s suspicion, was cut apart and scattered throughout the events at Montreuil-sur-Mer. However, I was happy that the filmmakers at least acknowledge the coincidence that Javert just happened to be posted to the same city where Valjean is now the Mayor.

Hugh Jackman gives another winning performance with the song “Who am I”. This song is one that I learned to sing as a young child. I started singing it by rote to amuse my mother and to entertain at family gatherings. (It was awkward being trotted out to sing in front of your whole family, but now I am proud of it, and have a rather large repertoire of songs from shows. And yes, it still happens even though I am now almost 27…)

With nowhere to go the producers decided to stay in Toronto.

When I was in second year of University, the Les Mis Tour came to Toronto. They originally played six weeks at the Princess of Wales theatre, and then got ready to head off to their next destination, which was to be New Orleans. Sadly, just as their Toronto run came to a close, Hurricane Katrina devastated that city. With nowhere to go the producers decided to stay in Toronto. The Princess of Wales was slated to have another show so Les Mis moved across town to the Canon Theatre (Formerly The Pantages, currently The Ed Mirvish Theatre) where I was working.

During my first scheduled shift in the auditorium for the show, the actor playing Valjean put a special emphasis on the question of the song. “Who am I”? I was struck by it. Until that point the song was just words, an interesting thing that happened between “At the end of the day” and “Confrontation”. It became a philosophical inspection of Valjean.

Who is Valjean? To be sure he is living a different life than eight years earlier when he stole and was forgiven by the Bishop. Yet, he allowed Fantine to be turned out from his factory, and did not recognize her later when he saved her from Javert. He is living a comfortable life, and has a duty still to those who work for him. How can he live with himself if he allows an innocent person to go to prison in his name? He is not satisfied with who he is until he adopts the dead Fantine’s child Cosette.  When Valjean takes Cosette away, a new song has been added that was not in the musical detailing how this act changed Valjean’s life once more, thereby filling another hole in the original musical.

Anne Hathaway’s Fantine is certain to land her an Oscar. Most remarkable to me was the performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” which was filmed in one shot. I have to note the excellent performances in the film of Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the Thenardiers, who own the inn where Fantine’s daughter Cosette is staying (and being abused) before Valjean comes to her rescue.

When I was young the love story in the show had little meaning for me.

Nine years later we are brought to a time of simmering rebellion in Paris. Valjean and Cosette are the target of a criminal plot on the street when Javert appears to break up the brewing fight. He does not recognize the older Valjean, but Valjean recognizes him and promptly flees, bumping into Marius and Eponine on the way. Marius is a student and a flirting rebel, and Eponine is the adult child of the Thenardiers. Marius instantly falls in love with Cosette.

One summer I had that experience myself, and it led me on an 11-year journey of what Marius and Cosette, and finally, Eponine feel as we progress through the rest of the show. When I was young the love story in the show had little meaning for me. As I grew up and started feeling the passion of the young Marius and Cosette, whose age I was quickly approaching, it became more and more relatable. A 14-year old me would have skipped through “A Heart Full of Love”. To a 17-year old me every word that they sang reflected what I was feeling. The joy at finding your one true love. The certainty that you would be with them forever, and that you would fight for that love no matter the cost. I learned from Les Mis how to be in love.  

The love, 17-year old me thought he had has turned into loss like Eponine’s loss.

A 17-year old me would have skipped “On my Own”. Eponine is whining because she can’t have Marius. Big deal. Marius is in love, and so am I. A 25-year old me can’t stop singing the song because of the unrequited love that she so beautifully expresses. The love, 17-year old me thought he had has turned into loss like Eponine’s loss. Eponine walks through the streets of Paris all alone. I was walking down a beach in Nova Scotia on my own. The line “Every word that he says is a dagger in me” was exactly what I was feeling at the time. When I once thought Eponine was just a big drag on the love of Marius, now Marius is a cruel person for hurting Eponine with his every word to Cosette. With Eponine’s song I learned how to deal with the pain of unrequited love.

I have a copy of the French recording of Les Mis that I listen to frequently. Les Mis was written in French but it was not performed in the adapted-to-theatre version until the Montreal production in the early 90’s. After the success of Les Mis in French, the show was brought back to France where it was performed in French there for the first time. When love-struck Marius shows up late for a rebellion meeting in the English version of the show he is greeted by the line “You look as if you have seen a ghost”. In the French version the line is “Marius, mais tu souris aux anges!” Referring to the love-struck Marius as having seen an angel seems to make so much more sense to me. The French version of the show has many such changes in wording that seem much better than their English counterparts. If you speak French and like Les Mis, the French cast recording might be appealing to you.

Returning to the film, I found the best part of the revolution was the youth of the rebels. All the students were very young, and Gavroche was barely a child. In the stage version, everyone feels much older. In the film the death of these young people becomes so horrific and tragic that it’s almost repellent and brings home the awfulness of their needless deaths and their abandonment by the people who promised to stand with them. The most poignant example of this in the film is the death of Eponine in the arms of Marius.

Crowe’s version is flat and almost emotionless, which is in stark contrast to his non-singing performance.

The Suicide of Javert was the most disappointing song in the film for me. Russell Crowe certainly acts well, but his singing is so weak that it stands out like a sore thumb. I also found the orchestrations to be weak for this song. This was very sad for me because this is my favorite song in the entire show. We see Valjean’s journey from criminal to a good person over the course of several hours, but Javert’s journey takes three minutes. There is a lot of emotion in realizing how wrong you are. The saddest line of this song should be “And must I now begin to doubt, who never doubted all these years. My heart is stone and still it trembles. The world I have known is lost in shadows”. Crowe’s version is flat and almost emotionless, which is in stark contrast to his non-singing performance.

I am not sure what to make of the orchestral choices in the film. I know that I am biased from all the cast recordings that I have heard. I was expecting the orchestra to sound like the full Symphonic Recording, with a deep rich sound.  It does have that at times such as the opening. However, there are lots of times in the movie where it seems like the orchestral choice was “well lets just do the strings parts”. There is an excellent woodwind, brass and percussion section in the original score, and it was missing for many of the songs in the movie. This choice left the orchestra sounding flat. Not only was the sound of strings tired, there was nowhere for the orchestra to go as emotion built. The most tragic loss was the percussion and drum kit especially in songs like “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables” where the entire emotional climax is signified by the introduction of the drum beats of war. This was entirely missing from the movie.

Another sad change in the film from the original show was the removal of Eponine from the final scene of Valjean’s death. Fantine, Eponine and Valjean make the most beautiful vocal harmonies, but with Eponine missing from the scene you lose some of the texture. Also missing from the finale is Javert from the ghosts of the dead. In the stage version, it is very powerful when Javert and Valjean stand side by side, for the first time as allies, and sing for a better world. This loss was tragic.

(Well let’s be honest here, I was crying through lots of the film.)

I don’t usually get teary when I have seen a show 40+ times, much less memorized all the music and sang along, but regardless of its flaws I was weeping at the end of Les Mis the movie. (Well let’s be honest here, I was crying through lots of the film.)

When I was studying drama in highschool and had decided to study theatre in university, my mother gave me her original Les Mis production show jacket. Because professionally we both use our first initial and our last name, our names are identical, so my name was embroidered on the jacket. I wore it all through university and still wear it with pride. I still sing the songs from the show. Sometimes it’s to entertain and amuse my family, sometimes it’s to give myself strength to get through the day, other times it’s just for fun and inspiration.

I have to wonder why, now that I am almost 27, this story and this show has impacted on me so strongly. I was young through lots of other shows, and yet Les Mis is one of the shows I feel closest to. I think it’s because of the message. One act of kindness to a stranger may change the lives of thousands of people. Freedom is worth the sacrifices you make to fight for it. Love is the most holy aspiration one can achieve. Finally, even when things are toughest, hope will always be there to carry you through. It has entertained, inspired and comforted me. Les Mis has been there with me through the good times and the bad. I keep learning from it. 

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