‘Les Misérables’ and the End of the Movie Musical
I love musicals. I (mostly) can’t get enough of them! I realize that they’re not everyone’s cup of tea, but, then again, I’m not particularly fond of sci-fi or fantasy films, so, to each their own! But I think it’s time to come down hard on the new wave of musical movies that have managed to shimmy their way onto the big screen in the last decade. Yes, Les Misérables, you have put the final nail in the coffin of this dying genre.
Here’s the thing about Les Misérables: even the show itself is not that great. It was part of the new wave of musical theater in the ’80s in which spectacle took precedence over good writing. As a friend told me recently, “Les Misérables is so dull and boring that they had to put a giant turntable in the middle of the stage just to keep people awake.” I’d like to blame the British for this, particularly producer Cameron Mackintosh who, like Andrew Lloyd Webber, turned Broadway into a string of poperas with tolerable music intermittently coming from an orchestra pit filled with cellists and violinists who were scared for their lives as explosions and fire pits and chandeliers crashed above them on the stage.
So now it’s on film, and it is bad. Well, it’s fine. It’s just fine! For every good part of the film (Anne Hathaway, the sets, the costumes), there’s a lot of bad (Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman, the direction, the cinematography, the CGI butterfly that director Tom Hooper seemed to think we would want to see as much as we’d like to hear Anne Hathaway’s sobs and dry-heaves during “I Dreamed a Dream”). It’s another example, of course, of the modern movie musical: overblown, overwrought, stuffed with moderately talented actors who, if not Autotuned, sound like they’re doing karaoke, and lacking any sort of levity and, well, fun.
But do movie musicals even work anymore? Perhaps they could, if only directors stopped trying to “turn the genre on its head.” The greatest movie musicals are, generally, joyous and and massive experiences: Singin’ in the Rain, The Music Man, West Side Story, The Sound of Music (which I begrudgingly include, as all of Rogers and Hammerstein’s catalog makes me want to rip off my own ears), Fiddler on the Roof, Oliver. In most cases, these great films were not somber occasions. Sure, a few of them have unhappy endings (for example, the exodus from Anatevka isn’t exactly cheery), but for the most part even a movie featuring singing Nazis can manage to leave an audience member in a good mood.
But remember in the ’90s when Evita was primed to bring back the movie musical? Madonna, who can sing and dance, couldn’t even make a melodramatic stage musical into a movie that wasn’t completely dull and dour. And then there were Chicago and Moulin Rouge, which are essentially musicals for people who hate musicals and, thusly, not to be respected. The former relied heavily on editing to give the illusion that its cast (other than Catherine Zeta-Jones, who is herself a seasoned stage actress) could dance, while the latter picked up on Broadway’s lead and just stuffed a bunch of already-popular songs into a musical narrative, because that way average moviegoers could say, “I know that song! And I know that song!” (This is why Glee is so popular and also so cloying.) I’m still blown away that even fans of musicals have accepted Chicago as a good film, even though it painfully pales in comparison to the postmodern anti-musicals Cabaret and All That Jazz, both of which take the conceit of putting all of the musical numbers onto a stage setting so that it’s not as jarring to the viewer. But Rob Marshall is no Bob Fosse, which I think the insufferably bad Nine proved just a few years after Chicago won Best Picture.
But as long as Broadway moves toward “serious” (read: somber) musicals, Hollywood will continue to adapt the crowd-pleasing shows into sub-par films. Tom Hooper, bless him, did his best with Les Misérables, and while I respect his decision to have his actors sing live, it mostly proved distracting. It’s one thing to see a natural singing performance on film, which is usually hindered by dubbing. But the singing should be pretty; it’s pretty much the foundation of musical theater. The sad fact is that it’s going to be pretty hard to get a good performer to be in a big-budget movie musical, because good performers are not famous enough to carry a film. If that were the case, we would not have seen (and heard) Russell Crowe desperately warbling through Javert’s numbers. Crowe himself defended Hooper’s vision, saying that he “wanted it raw and real.” But musicals are not real, because people do not burst into song accompanied by a soaring orchestra.
So what’s wrong with the movie musical? Well, we can blame it on a lot of things. The subject matter is too serious for an audience to suspend belief and accept that those sad characters would express themselves in light-hearted tunes. The Hollywood system has weeded out great talent, leaving the crop of A-list actors without the abilities to hit notes and land dance moves. Genre films aren’t respectable, so directors now eschew specific conventions for middle-of-the-road tactics to please as many audiences as possible. And we can’t forget the audiences themselves, whose attention span and gradual distaste for musical theater conventions have encouraged the demise of the genre. The bottom line is this: it may just be time that we accept the musical as a dying animal, and put it out of its misery rather than making it tap dance and fan-kick for our own entertainment.
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