'Les Miz:' Film vs. stage — and 10 ways they succeed

January 16th, 2013
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Which is better —“Les Miserables,” the film version now in theaters, or the original hit still running in London but not on Broadway?
That’s the question for “Les Miz” devotees, who probably know every song in the score, from previous productions, CDs or DVDs.
The film, certainly, has star power — Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean has the role of a lifetime in the show of a lifetime, and he brings emotion, depth, power and energy to the protagonist. Oscar buzz is real. He's already nabbed a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Musical.
And the movie (a dark horse for Best Picture) is peopled with other ammo — Anne Hathaway as Fantine, a surefire Best Supporting Actress in the upcoming Academy Awards, eliciting tears and seething with empathy; Russell Crowe as Inspector Javert, subdued and hampered with some vocal deficiencies; Amanda Seyfried, as a lyrical and sweetly delicate Cosette. Two lesser-known film revelations (but not for long) include Eddie Redmayne as the freckle-faced lovestruck Marius and Samantha Banks as the devoted Eponine with a painful crush on Marius.
The original stage production boasted Colm Wilkinson as Valjean and Terrance Mann as Javert, and touring versions here of the Tony-winning musical featured the indelible and dependable Craig Schulman as Valjean and the manly and menacing Merwin Foard as Javert. Even Diamond Head Theatre produced a stunning and memorable version, with Peter Lockyer as Valjean, so the "Les Miz" land- and soundscape are verh familiar.
I’ve seen the film twice so far and have become somewhat of a fanatic of the stage version after more than two dozen visits, mostly in Honolulu but also on Broadway and in Canada.
So how does live-on-stage compare with oversized film spectacle?
Let's evaluate and review the voltage of each version ...

10 Reasons Why The Stage Is Superior

1 — Turntable. The oversized lazy-Susan is the essence of “Les Miz.” Turning, turning, turning ... scenes and characters.
2— Barricade. Yep, that jumble of junk — old furniture, scrap boards, broken cabinets, etc. — is another trait of “Les Miz.” Part of the essential visual climate; dark and confusing with purpose.
3— Immediacy of the tension of dissent and hope, angst and pain, redemption and renewal in a proscenium stage. From the black box, a whole world — and war — emerges.
4— Colm Wilkinson on Broadway, Craig Schulman here, as Valjean. With voices that accompany their redemption spirit, suited to the role.
5— The Thenardier tavern scene. Far better, with the original interplay between Monsieur et Madam guiding the harmless crookedness.
6— “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” — haunting with “ghosts” (the vanquished soldiers) appearing while Marius sings. Emotional. Moving. Unforgettable.
7— Javert normally is cast with a performer with a lower, deeper voice tone and thus creates a much meaner and menacing presence. Especially on “Stars.”
8— The wedding scene: As uninvited guests to the nuptial celebration of Marius and Cosette, the Thenardiers — who steal silverware, remember? — are the poster people of folks you don’t want at your party.
9 — The red flag. It embodies the protesting students’ creed and portends their fate. “Red, the blood of angry men ... Red, the color of desire ... Red, a world about to dawn.” And on stage, the waving punctuates power.
10 — Do you see the people dance? On “One Day More” and the finale, “Do You Hear the People Sing,” the choreography — remember, this is a musical embracing dance, even with warfare — is yet another iconic trademark. Rhythmic. Rousing. Rapturous.

10 Reasons Why The Film Soars

1 — Fantine. Fantastic – desperate to provide for and save daughter Cosette. And Anne Hathaway is a runaway winner for Best Supporting Actress in the Oscars, to complement her Golden Globe statuette. Even with horrid hair, shorn live while singing and filming; but oh, what a touching “I Dreamed a Dream” centerpiece. (Sorry, Susan Boyles, your 15 minutes of fame is over; but you still have your hair).
2 — Grittier. This is, after all, a musical based on the French Revolution, and the revolt is mean, vicious, realistic — something the stage can’t replicate. As huge as Victor Hugo, the author on whose book the play/film are based, might have imagined.
3 —Vive le Valjean! You can’t get anyone better than Hugh Jackman, who looks great (except in the opening “Work Song” — “look down, look down” — where his weight loss and butchered hair buzz makes him appear to be the slave he is). Part of his appeal is his engaging presence, with that captivating voice.
4 — Colm Wilkinson as the bishop — the lone notable from the original stage cast, in a lesser but luminous cameo. (He’s the soul who defends the “thief” Valjean, who steals silverware from the church, and upon capture, throws in the candleholders, too).
5 — The Thenardier tavern scene. On film, you get to see those pickpocketing thieves in all their closeup glory, rooking the guests and making their haul; Sacha Baron Cohen and Helen Bonham Carter put their own spin on this segment. And how coincidental, to book two three-namers as “Masters of the House.”
6 — There’s an elephant aboard. Huge, eye-filling, and providing a hideaway for Gavroche, the street-smart kid. Nothing to do with the plot, but a dandy landmark in the warscape.
7 — A Javert with humanity – when he sees fallen soldiers after the final confrontation, he recognizes Gavroche among the dead, and takes his medal off his chest and places it on the body. Not a scene on stage, so this is a spot-on bonus. See, there's goodness in an evil spirit.
8 —Rain. On her “On My Own” number, Eponine (Samantha Banks) strolls, and rain falls, an effect not on stage, reflecting the lyrics (“In the rain, the pavement shines like silver”), and the rain becomes a river of tears of hurt and rejection.
9—Eponine and Marius. Banks is a certified “discovery” of awesome talent (and not surprisingly, she previously had a stab at the role on stage in London — and thus won the part from a field that included Taylor Swift and Lea Michelle.). And Eddie Redmayne is one of the most freckled newbies as Marius — with a sweet, sweet voice to boot.
10 — Bonus song. Jackman performs “Suddenly” in a coach, taking young Cosette from the Thenardiers to his own home. Not really a vital addition to the score, but a ballad that has been nominated for Best Song (lost to “Skyfall” in the Golden Globes), even if Adele and James Bond likely will pull another statuette for her trophy case.

Agree? Disagree?

One Response to “'Les Miz:' Film vs. stage — and 10 ways they succeed”

  1. Robyn Herbig:

    I AGREE with all of your observations. I enjoyed the film version and loved, as you say, the "Grittiness". Hugh Jackman did an outstanding job and so did many of the other actors. It made the story much more real and evoked a strong emotional response. However, I also agree that Javert was not a strong enough character. I like Russell Crowe, but I felt that in this role he was subdued and timid and of course his voice was lacking (to say the least). I missed the stage version of Javert and felt the need to go home and watch the PBS 25th anniversary special just to remind myself how tormented Javert really was.