‘Les Miserables’ Movie Can’t Beat Live Theatre

Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman in “Les Misérables” (Photo: Universal)

So, I’ve been pondering the worth of my comments on the movie Les Miserables. I’m not sure they are that interesting or worthy of print, and what on earth does that have to do with Theatre Tulsa? Well, they do… and, I have to get them off my chest, so here goes: (SPOILER ALERT: IF YOU HAVEN”T SEEN THE MOVIE YET, DO NOT READ THIS!)

A movie musical is a totally different genre than a stage musical. You shouldn’t compare. But, it’s HAAARD not to compare. Those of us theatre nerds who grew up listening to the original London and Broadway Cast albums of this amazing piece of musical theatre find it rather impossible, in fact. I mean, does anyone ever sing “On My Own” like Frances Rafelle? She’s not the best, there’s just no one who sings it like her. Does anyone out there know what I’m talking about, or am I alone in my dorky little 1980s musical theatre world?

So, the movie is fantastic. Well done in so many ways. Beautiful performances by a number of notable actors. Cinema has the ability to show detail that you just can’t get from the stage. It’s especially fabulous in displaying historic detail in Les Mis. Yet, even with that and the beauty of the work of the filmmakers and screen actors, I still felt that something was off and a little askew throughout.

And it hit me like a brick halfway through the song ‘One Day More,’ which in the stage show is the end of the first act. Here, in the film, there are these beautiful scenes edited together: everyone in the story, on the eve of the battle. Val Jean is singing in a carriage with Cossette, who is singing her overlaying part while staring out the carriage window. Marius is singing to Cosette as he prepares for battle, Eponine is wandering (again) singing in angst, the Thenardiers sing in their little criminal world, Javert sings, Enjoiras sings, the ensemble sings, everyone sings from desperation, hope, love, angst, madness… they all sing in their own environment. Alone. And the camera captures it and edits it together. Fine.

But, it’s not working for me. It does not match the power of an ensemble of equally talented performers singing their over-laying parts on stage together. Live. That moment in the live production is magic. It is beyond words. I cry just remembering it now.

In film, Boubil and Shonbergs’s Les Miserables cannot rise to the demand of it’s source material. It is a musical story of love and communion. In film, it lacks the very love and communion that the actors would feel with each other, on stage, breathing, singing, marching together and doing it all in the same room communing with a live audience! Thus, the audience will not feel it either. The material desires an energy that film simply cannot deliver.

And THAT — knowing what I could feel, that I wasn’t feeling, that I wished I was feeling — during the film is why I believe that live theatre will NEVER die away in favor of film, or sports, or any other form of modern entertainment. That certainly doesn’t mean that we can’t tweak, adjust and improve to fit with the changing society. In fact, we should! Those entertainment options are serious competition to theatre. But if we can give our audiences genuine emotions, set the bar high and meet it, we will raise expectations and elevate the product. Live theatre is special. There is nothing like it. It’s existed for thousands of years and I predict it will continue to thrive.

Maybe I’m an optimist. But I have experienced community theater productions that have done that to me… Made me feel ALIVE and wonderful or shaken me or inspired me. There are those special moments, sometimes unexpected, when you walk out of the theatre and you want to dance and wave a flag, or you want to discuss and ruminate. And those moments have happened right here in Oklahoma theatres, with great actors and directors, inspired by words and music and sharing it live with audiences. Whether professional or not, great artists are all over Tulsa, Oklahoma. The talent lives here. The desire lives here. And it will continue to live and breathe here in Tulsa, Oklahoma. 90 years down. Let’s go for 100.

2 Responses to ‘Les Miserables’ Movie Can’t Beat Live Theatre

  1. Sandra Flippo says:

    Les Mes – our absolute family favorite. Our family has seen it on Broadway, in London at the Queen’s Theatre, in St. Louis with the touring Broadway cast, and then finally at Cascia when the high school performed it. As fellow theatre nerds, we couldn’t agree more. Film can’t begin to compare. Loved the film, but it was still a far second place in comparison.

    Christopher is working with his vocal coach on Bring Him Home. A little humorous from a 9 year old -doesn’t quite fit the father figure praying over a son to be. But beautiful . . .

    Good luck with your kick off of Oliver tonight, Sara.

  2. Susan Apker says:

    I so agree with you, Sara. After watching the movie (which neither my husband nor I disliked) I spent a great deal of time explaining to Bill how the play was so much more powerful – the feeling of your body thrumming with the power of the orchestra and all those voices – how when they build the barricades your soul soars, and when Eponine dies, your soul sorrows. All feelings I just did not get from the movie because I was so distanced from them. It was a much more intellectual experience, and the stage was a more emotional one. For something like “Les Miz” I’ll take emotion every time.

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