'Les Misérables': Will it succeed as a movie?
In the flashy and dangerous intersection of Hollywood and Broadway, many crossover dreams have been squished.
For every "Chicago" smash, a "Rent" and a "Rock of Ages" flame out. For every "Sweeney Todd" and "Dreamgirls," the trash piles high with rubble from catastrophic movie versions of (add your own favorite disaster here) "The Phantom of the Opera," "A Chorus Line" and (the movie of the musical of the movie) "The Producers."
Clearly, the quality or popularity of the Broadway original has little to do with the success of a transfer to the big screen. And this doesn't even begin to catalog the vagaries of the reverse action -- Broadway's ongoing obsession with ripping off stories and brands of hit movies for the stage.
But "Les Misérables" arrives Tuesday with even more anticipatory hoopla than that little collision between Madonna and Eva Perón in 1996. Tom Hooper, the seriously smart Oscar-winning director of "The King's Speech," has been set loose to make movie sense out of one of theater's biggest global blockbusters, itself an adaptation of Victor Hugo's 19th century novel about France's revolution of 1832.
The epic runs more than two and a half hours and spans 18 years of abject poverty and cruel power through nonstop song -- no dialogue. In the huge cast are Hugh Jackman as the heroically suffering ex-convict Jean Valjean, Russell Crowe as his police nemesis Javert and Anne Hathaway as the tragic Fantine, who gets to join Susan Boyle in the annals of interpreters of "I Dreamed a Dream." Colm Wilkinson, who created Valjean in London in 1985 and on Broadway two years later, plays the good-hearted Bishop who changes the hero's desperate life from crime to goodness.
"It's all about the casting," says Hooper in a phone interview during the holiday rush for nominations and awards. "We needed singers so comfortable expressing themselves through song that the process of singing unlocks an emotional power we seldom see on the screen."
The songs! The style! The teeth!
What makes this "Les Miz" dramatically different from other movie musicals is the live singing. In all the beloved/reviled movie musicals before this one, there has been a gap between the musical numbers and the storytelling. Instead of lip-synching to recorded songs, these actors wear mikes that let them sing live and wear earpieces that let them hear a live piano accompanist, a technique Hooper compares to making the actor "the author of the song at that moment." He also smooths out awkward transitions by shooting in long uninterrupted takes.
"Even in great, great musicals, there is always something artificial. You know it in your bones," explains Hooper, not needing to mention that feeling in the bones while still loving "West Side Story" and "Oklahoma!" As he sees it, "the constant gear-changing makes audiences feel a bit embarrassed. When you're trying to create an alternate reality communicated through song, it's a high stakes game. If it's not fully convincing, all is lost."
And about those teeth. Hooper intensifies the immediacy with extreme close-ups, which means the masses of poor have impressively bad teeth. "It's no small thing," he says, clearly proud of the difficult engineering that allowed singers to wear prosthetics "that don't interfere with vocal projection."
He is equally meticulous about realistic dirt and the look of disease in a story he sees as "sadly timely" in our world of popular uprisings in the streets and "rising economic inequity." When he first saw the stage show in London two years ago, he says, "I struggled with the look of the poor and their little dabs of dirt."
The impact on Broadway box office
For years -- in fact, specifically, until the "Chicago" movie hit in 2002 -- Broadway producers feared that film versions of their hit shows would kill their business. If the film was good, nobody would want to spend big bucks to see the show. And if the film was rotten, nobody would want to spend big bucks to see the show.
That fear became laughable when "Chicago" boomed on Broadway along with the popularity of the movie. According to producer Barry Weissler, the film "made an indelible impact on the longevity of not only our Broadway production but the show's worldwide brand." He adds, pointedly, that show became the third-longest running show in Broadway history on Dec. 21 -- "surpassing 'Les Misérables.'"
Even the terrible film of "Phantom," which died in this country but made $155 million mostly overseas, had a positive effect on the Broadway production. Marc Thibodeau, publicist for the show, says, "'Phantom' saw a 20 percent increase in its annual box office gross in 2005, the year following the film's release, which we did attribute, at least in part, to the very strong promotional campaign for the movie."
Thibodeau also said that Cameron Mackintosh is thinking about bringing the "newly reconceived" road production of "Les Miz" to Broadway "not too far down the road." Mackintosh, the marketing wizard behind most of the '80s mega-musicals, first saw the show in Paris as a limited-run stadium show in 1980 and catapulted young French composers Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyricist Alain Boublil into musical history.
Mackintosh also plans to revive the team's "Miss Saigon" on the West End. He recently told London's Telegraph that he might then make that one into a movie -- "if 'Les Misérables' is a box office hit."
Look out. Can "Cats" -- with close-ups of sharp little feline teeth -- be far behind?
The classic tale still fascinates
For a story of endurance, "Les Misérables" has always lived up to its theme.
Victor Hugo wrote his novel in 1862. Reviews were mixed, but it was immediately popular.
It has been adapted for at least five movies, including the 1935 version starring Fredric March as Jean Valjean and Charles Laughton as Javert, and the 1998 film with Liam Neeson as Valjean, Geoffrey Rush as Javert, Uma Thurman as Fantine and Claire Danes as the grown-up Cosette.
The musical, with a score by French composer Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyrics by Alain Boublil, opened in London in 1985. Reviews were mixed, but the show, directed by Trevor Nunn and John Caird, paid back its investors in an unusually short six months. It is still running.
The Broadway production opened in 1987. Reviews were mixed as well, but the show won eight Tonys, including one for the spinning turntable set by John Napier. The show ran from 1987 to 2003. A 2006 revival ran for about 14 months.
The musical has been translated into 21 languages, including Mauritian Creole. It has played in 42 countries and more than 300 cities and has been seen globally by more than 60 million people. There have been more than 40 cast recordings and "Forbidden Broadway," the satirical institution, has done a priceless parody of the show's plot, vertiginous turntables and extremely high vocal range.
The movie of the Broadway musical, directed by Tom Hooper, opens Tuesday, with a cast that includes Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Aaron Tveit, Samantha Barks, Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen. -- Linda Winer