So Christmas is over, you have a bit of free time before the world amps up again, time to look at some music theatre entertainments on film, DVD and CD that you might get a chance to enjoy during the annual silly season…
First and foremost, the eagerly anticipated film of Les Miserables. Some weeks back I wrote a lengthy column expressing concerns and detailing the rather tragic history of stage to screen adaptations of hit musicals over the last 30 years. So to be able to report that the film of “Les Mis” is more success than failure is something of a relief. Early reviews suggested the film (as Huffington Post in New York stated) was pretty much the greatest movie since pre talkies. More recently the more cynically jaded and music theatre hating critics have dealt the movie much harsher critical blows, many of them based on ignorance of the stage show and in some cases the book itself (such as saying it is set during the French Revolution).
Film critics with their high minded idea of what is film art and what is not, have never been friends of music theatre on film, so let’s forget them and say overall, as a film, Les Mis is a buoyant, powerful and realistic interpretation of the play that remains faithful to its source while still translating it into the language of film.
There are some problems; yes Russell Crowe’s singing is not exceptional, but again this is a film interpretation – his acting is superb and deeply moving especially toward the end. The supporting cast are most acceptable (even the hamming of Sacha Baren Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter) and in the other central roles – Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway and Eddie Redmayne are spectacular and all three deserve Oscar nominations,
Hathaway’s ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ is so gritty and real that one feels like you are watching the total annihilation of a soul; it is almost too much to bear. Redmayne is a heroic and handsome Marius and his ‘Empty Chairs’ is the best and most heartfelt interpretation I have ever seen. Finally, Jackman just holds the whole thing together. His is such an honest, committed and intense performance it is hard to find words of praise strong enough. A word must be made of Colm Wilkinson as the Bishop, such a vital character that makes the entire story possible. Wilkinson was, of course, the original stage Jean Valjean and his role has been built up to feature more importantly in the action, which is simply great considering the amount of times he played the central role.
You will feel the need to come up for air on occasions. It is long, mostly very heavy and mostly very real. The movie cries out for an intermission and it is criminal that exhibitors these days refuse an audience this privilege. As with the stage show, it needs a break after ‘One Day More’ and it would be a more enjoyable experience if that was allowed.
Do not be put off by the more ignorant critics, nor be concerned that the film is heavy with close ups and a lot of hand held camera techniques, it all works and I predict it will not go away empty handed from the next Oscar ceremony. As far as stage to film adaptations it is unquestionably the best since Chicago.
Footnote: The final five minutes is heartbreaking and features a twist that will mean more to those who know well the history of the show and that final chorus that always brings audiences undone – well just wait, it doesn’t disappoint.
Probably the most exciting live theatre DVD of the year has to be Jesus Christ Superstar – the arena version that has been touring the UK has been put on video for the world to enjoy. Expertly directed by Laurence Connor this version brings new life to what was for me, a very tired and dated old show. Suddenly we are in a new age of Superstar that sets it against the latest international trouble spots in modern dress and looking tough, bright and extraordinary. I gave this show up for the lost years ago and several flop revivals havent helped (the latest a recent disastrous one on Broadway), but Connor has found the heart of the show and toughened it up adding some bright Fosse-esque choreography along the way.
The star of the show is undoubtedly Australia’s Tim Minchin as Judas, who proves he is not only an amazing composer and cabaret and concert performer, but a stunning star in his own right. It is a solid cast all round and on blu ray it looks incredible with the sort of modern editing and sound technique we couldn’t have done even five years ago. This production is mooted to come to Australia in arena style very soon, watch out for it and try and get your hands on the DVD – it is truly sensational (It had a brief cinema release a few months ago as well).
With this and Love Never Dies, Andrew Lloyd Webber must be very pleased to see his work captured on film, at its best.
The recent revival in concert form of Company is also around and a lot of fun with Neil Patrick Harris in the leading role of Bobby and a star supporting cast including Patti Lu Pone, Stephen Colbert, Aaron Lazar, Kate Finneran, Christina Hendricks etc. This one also had a brief cinema release and looks terrific on DVD. The New York Philarmonic Orchestra are featured in a large concert staging. The humour of this piece is well delivered and all the Sondheim classics are there, at times the choreography and staging is a little messy, but overall it is worth seeing and owning this great musical in this form. It isn’t quite as powerful as the Raoul Esparza version of a few years ago (also available on DVD) but Harris is a competent singer and a great actor and his charm and personality make up for a lot. If you are a Patti LuPone fan she will not disappoint with her ‘Ladies Who Lunch’. For show lovers this is one for the collection.
This new recording of one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s rare flops is a delight and highly recommended. This version is the City Center Encores production and is recorded live in performance. This style of recording of shows is becoming the norm of late (it’s cheaper) but this is the very top end of live recordings and sounds fantastic with leads Will Chase (Smash) and Laura Osnes both sounding amazing. This is a terrific score which is very influenced by South Pacific with its strong male chorus numbers. This is a show that could well be revived in a full scale production and seems a must for Australia’s The Production Company to perform in the next few years, the best songs ‘The Next Time It Happens’, ‘All at Once You Love Her’ and ‘Sweet Thursday’ are now standards that many will be familiar with, highly recommended.
Finally, the soundtrack of the movie, which is something of a disappointment, mainly because it is only a highlights album which means it is a marketing ploy as a full two CD set is sure to follow and this one gets lovers of the show forced to buy both versions. The most annoying aspect is that this CD leaves off the main song from the show – ‘Do You hear the People Sing’ as well as ‘A Little Fall of Rain’ and ‘Who Am I’ all major Les Mis standards that should be on any highlights album and instead there is a lot of musical exposition and battle scenes which dont play well without the visuals and perhaps (for many) way too much of Russell Crowe. Still it has the heart wrenching epilogue and Hugh Jackman’s fine work on ‘What Have I Done’ and the beautiful new song ‘Suddenly’. My advice, however, if you are not in a rush but want a soundtrack memento of the movie, wait for the full version which is sure to follow.