The release of Les Miserables (the film) has been eagerly anticipated by many adoring fans. After a record 27 years of the stage show, a rather impressive production team and cast have been assembled to transfer it to the big screen. However, for those who ‘hate musicals’ this is rather less appealing. The idea of Wolverine spontaneously breaking into an over-dramatic song is nauseating. Perhaps going to see The Hobbit for a third time would be better?
When people hear the word ‘musical’ it can conjure up various distasteful images (and sounds). Faced with memories of Glee Club members with cheesy grins painted on their faces, or the squeals of countless girls attempting (and failing) to sing ‘Defying Gravity’, understandably some are put off. Even despite these extreme stereotypes, on the face of it there is still something very fake about musical theatre. A spectacle – yes – some nice music – of course – but ultimately unrealistic. It seems utterly ridiculous that during normal dialogue a character should suddenly start singing.
Certainly, many musicals have ridiculous story-lines, with feel-good hits which tend to add little or nothing to the plot or characters. For many years show tunes from different musicals have been enjoyed by entire generations of people and, similarly nowadays, light-hearted productions such as The Producers and Wicked have been incredibly popular. These musicals have their place, reaching their goal in entertaining the audience and providing the perfect form of escapism. Often musically and visually impressive, many of these shows include timeless classics which are widely adored, and rightly so.
But musical theatre can be far more than the jolly song and dance that it is so often seen to be. So much more can and has been achieved. For a start, just like in plays and films, most musicals include characters which are believable and with whom we can relate on a level which is not superficial. Take Les Miserables, for instance, in which Eponine’s unrequited love for Marius is something with which everyone can identify.
In order to bring across these very real, human emotions, music and lyrics can be the most powerful means. This is almost paradoxical; something so real being portrayed in such an unnatural way. In theatre and cinema, speech is usually completely realist, and with that comes huge benefits. Above all, the feelings which it portrays are incredibly direct. But music also has various ways to unlock these feelings, like a state of excitement, a sinister undertone or – most commonly – the realisation of love. Speech has power through both its meaning and the sounds made in its iteration, and this can be utilized very effectively in a song. With lyrics which complement the music, and vice versa, actors have the potential to explore their characters in a profound way.
What is most intriguing about Les Miserables is the way in which the actors performed their songs live on set in order to make them as real as possible; the music is not separated from the characters or their feelings. This leaves them open to criticism from both those demanding more polished vocal performances, and those who dislike the idea of seemingly realistic characters breaking into song. Though judgement must be reserved until having watched the film, their attempt to bring the characters to the audience in such an intimate – and genuine – way is to be applauded.
A musical, done well, has the ability to combine compelling music with convincing characters. And that should not be too hastily dismissed.