The theater is an extremely delicate realm of entertainment. As opposed to movies or animated features, productions with no artistic limits, thanks to post-production and the complexity of modern animation, the theater must rely on the talent of its crew, engineers and stage managers every night for many nights. Not only did the musical adaptation of The Lion King emulate the high-spirit of the movie it was based upon, but it also drew me into the world of the musical. Whereas the scene transitions and changes in camera angle of movies constantly remind you that you are merely a spectator to a fictitious world, musicals and theater performances draw its audience into the miniature universe that is created by the sheer fact that each and every night, real human beings recreate these events in front of your eyes for your viewing pleasure. The experience becomes so personal that it is difficult to remember that, in reality, you are simply an audience member.
It was these reasons, the magical properties of the stage, that I had been drawn into the majesty of musicals. Since, I would watch many other musicals, on stage and as film adaptations. Among them was the musical Les Miserables. I saw it on stage perhaps in the early 2000s. I could not fully appreciate the musical at such a young age, particularly because I had been more used to the upbeat scores of Andrew Lloyd Webber. However, very recently, my interest in the musical had been reignited. I happened upon my Dad's copy of the original Broadway cast recording and decided to listen to it. Quickly, I had been hooked. In addition to listening to the album constantly, I obtained a copy of the 10th anniversary concert DVD. However, there was little to no way for me to re-experience the majesty of the live performance.
Tonight, a glimmer of light emerges.
A favorite move website of mine reports that Tom Hooper of "The King's Speech fame has been approached to direct a movie adaptation of the musical. Tom Hooper has stated that he is adamant that this will be his next movie. However, one must ask how a director, even one as talented as Tom Hooper, could meet the standards that Les Miserables, or musicals in general, have set. While I must admit that I have yet to see The King's Speech, I understand that Tom Hooper excels at making historical dramas, making Les Miserables a very logical production for him to direct. The thing that concerns me the most, however, is that directing a movie adaptation of a musical means much more than creating a good movie. Such endeavors require a whole new level of artistic mastery to produce a believable product.
What I mean by this is best explained through examples. The Disney animated features, all essentially musicals by nature, are "believable" in that they exist in the realm of fantasy. Therefore, the tendency of (sometimes anthropomorphic) characters to spring into song and dance hardly seems a shortcoming. However, in live-action adaptations of musicals, much more measures must be taken into consideration. The first component that must be addressed is the sheer fact that people, in reality, do not sing out the events of their lives. There are two different ways that movie adaptations of musicals have handled this.
The movie adaptations of the two Andrew Lloyd Webber's musicals, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and the 1961 film West Side Story approached this challenge similarly, and yet had very different results. The musical hereby abbreviated as Joseph very much acknowledged the idea that people do not break into song. It should be known that this decision was made based on the fact that there is not one single line of dialogue in the musical in question. The musical is entirely comprised of songs - an impressive feat for one of Webber's first major productions. The movie adaptation, in my opinion, failed to successfully capture the aspects of a musical that make them so well received. The format of the movie was based around a component of the music: the inclusion of a children's choir in most of the songs. The movie begins with the character known as "Narrator" making her way through a very modern school, towards a gym, where assembled students await her arrival. The narrator begins singing "Prologue", a piece similar to an essay introduction: intended to draw in the audience's attention with a hook and a major theme of the following piece. The narrator then transitions into the world of Joseph, as the set transforms into a cartoony looking dessert, complete with palm tree props. This is yet another example of how the movie adaptation of Joseph attempted to embrace the unbelievable nature of musicals. The set of the movie was meant to evoke the stage of the Broadway production, which was created with very unrealistic aesthetics. The movie continues, using little to no post production effects and the student audience transforming into the children's choir. Joseph dissolves into a bloody unrealistic movie, and instead becomes a direct translation of the musical into a movie. However, Joseph did not retain the magical nature of the stage because it could not create a realistic world, implementing movie tactics into a production originally created for the stage. As it's already been established scene transitions, set changes and changing camera angles constantly remind the viewer that this musical is not real. Consequently, the world of Joseph dissolves into what looks like a low budget movie.
Meanwhile, the 1961 feature film adaptation of West Side Story took a similar approach, that resulted in very different results. While the movie adaptation of Joseph attempted to simply capture the musical point per point using movie techniques, West Side Story was a movie that used musical techniques. As a movie, West Side Story excels, as expert character development and a wonderful story allow it to create the sort of world one expects from a first-rate piece of cinema: seemingly real, but dramatically fantastical. The hip and happening gangs that inhabit the streets of the world of West Side Story are presented as cool, greasy cats, the kind you'd expect to break out into song, as are the romantics, Tony and Maria. Consequently the songs and signature dance sequences work to enhance the movie experience, rather than detract from it, as Joseph's did.
A different approach to the creation of movie musical adaptations involves the use of heavy creative liberties to create a world believable as both a musical and a movie. The movie adaptations of The Phantom of the Opera and Rent do this extensively. The Phantom of the Opera musical portrays the Phantom as an ethereal magical genius. The movie adaptation makes him more worldly, doing away with the supernatural aspects of the character in not only the actions he commits, but also in such subtle things as the costumes he dons. A prominent example is the confrontation between the Phantom and another protagonist, Raoul. In the musical, the Phantom, displaying his powers, shoots fireballs at Raoul, while the movie has the Phantom engage in a duel with Raoul. Also, the phantasmal ability of the Phantom to appear and disappear at will is done away with, as the movie shows the trapdoors and hidden passages implemented by the Phantom to do such things, while the musical would literally have the performer disappear in clouds of smoke or flaps of his cape, without explanation. To further sell the Phantom, and the world he inhabits, as realistic, the Phantom's visual appearance is much less fantastical, as the movie representation of the character rids himself of the menacing hat and the flamboyant guise of Red Death, substituting it with a much less theatrical costume.
Similarly the movie adaptation of Rent's taking of creative liberty in terms of directing (rather than plot) detracted focus from movie. The result was neither a good standalone movie, nor a magical adaptation of a musical. Two directing choices that I found poor were the choices to use the musical moments in order to visually depict past events, concurrent events, and/or events over a long period of time. While some music sequence take place in the immediate present, others are akin to a music video, wherein interspliced shots and somewhat cheesy effects cheapen the artistic experience. For example, during the song "One Song Glory" in which the protagonist Roger details his troubled past and his hopes for his bleak future, the shots shift from the singing actor to reenactments of the past events he is describing. The sequence for the song "What You Own" shows events that transpire over several months using the shots to tell the story, rather than the music. Furthermore, the shots use effects not dissimilar to those of an M. Night Shyamalan movie. Though the character Roger leaves to Santa Fe to find his song, and escape the problems of home, he cannot stop seeing those he loves. A crowded shot for example would show his lover, Mimi, only to have her disappear once a person walks in front of her. These poorly created musical sequences detract from an otherwise well constructed movie and also makes it ineffective as a musical.
With all this in mind, I bring us back to the point of this article: the movie adaptation of Les Miserables. Considering the nature of the story of Les Miserables, it very much is in tone with the "dark and gritty" nature of modern Hollywood movies, making me believe that it could be very effectively created as a movie, supplemented by the music, in the vein of the movie adaptation of West Side Story, the movie I consider to be the most effective adaptation of a musical into a movie. I have high hopes from this production, and am certain that Tom Hooper will handle this production with the same delicacy and finesse that the magical realm of theater requires.
AND the US tour is hitting LA the day before my birthday. Oh HELLZ yes.