Guest Post – Will Tom Hooper Be Able to Tackle Les Miserables?

Hey all! I’ve been in need of a serious break from blogging, so today, my sister, Jennifer, will be guest posting on the Tom Hooper’s upcoming adaptation of Les Miserables. The first half of the post is more introductory on the story of Les Mis, and the second half is a “Recast Edition,” a fun type of post where the author will recast a film if he or she thinks there is a cast who can better fill the roles. Feel free to chime in and share your opinions below. Scroll down to the bottom of the post to find out more about Jennifer!

–Kristin

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By Jennifer Griffin

A Little Introduction to Les Miserables

There’s been a great deal of hype regarding the upcoming film adaptation of the novel (Victor Hugo) turned musical Les Miserables (Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg). According to director Tom Hooper and cast member Hugh Jackman, the casting is still being finalized, and the actors are just being to learn the music this month.

Les Miserables has been credited as the most successful musical ever written. A little over three decades ago, Boublil and Schönberg finished adapting the novel to musical format and premiered the musical in Paris. Five years following the premiere, the musical opened in London as a 3-month touring group engagement. The show sold out within the first week, and the box office received several record orders. Two years later it hit Broadway and did not close until after 6,680 performances. Les Mis is the third longest running Broadway show today and has been since revived on Broadway as one of its most successful shows. Altogether, the musical has been produced in 38 countries and translated into 21 languages, with over 70 different official recordings.

All of that to say . . .

Hooper obviously has a huge legacy to live up to in his bold decision to make this musical a successful film. Despite already having 6 film adaptations, Hooper’s version will be the first to actually have the musical–not just the book (or dialogue only)–adapted for film. Converting Les Mis to a musical film production will be an incredible task for Hooper to take on for several reasons:

  1. The music is extremely hard for actors who are not trained singers to perform.
  2. The novel is one of the most well-known pieces of historical fiction, and like adapting any novel to the film format, doing it justice is not easy—(it was debated that writing a musical based on the novel would be “sacrilegious”—there are many negative reviews in England and France if you look at articles from the 1980s!)
  3. The musical itself is extremely beloved, so living up to it in film with singers who can equally sing/act the roles is a challenge.
  4. Finding a cast that have ample acting experience both on stage and screen is normally necessary when making this sort of film—actors like this are not as common as they used to be.
  5. A great nonmusical film adaptation of the book with Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush came out in 1998 and was very successful, possibly making this film version look unnecessary until more time had passed.
  6. The resources—the elaborate prison, battle, and abbey sets, the rights to the music, the large stage and off-stage chorus needed, the orchestra, etc.—are very expensive.

While I look forward to seeing Hooper’s take on Les Mis, I have two major reservations:

  • the cast
  • the way Hooper has decided to film/record the singing

Recast Edition: Tom Hooper’s upcoming Les Miserables

Below is Hooper’s main cast, and who I would cast in place of them:

Jean Valjean: Hugh Jackman

Character Description: Dramatic tenor—very, very high voice in this musical—burly French peasant imprisoned for 19 years who vows to turn his life around after he escapes prison and in so doing helps Fantine and later adopts her daughter, Cosette.

Hugh Jackman actually does have screen and stage experience as well as singing experience, but Jean Valjean is probably one of the top 2 hardest tenor roles in all of musical theatre (the other one being the Phantom in the Phantom of the Opera). Perhaps Hooper feels like he needs an actor with a big name in the title role in order to successfully market this movie, but in the case of casting this particular character, he would actually do well to err on the side of screen experience because of the difficulty level of musicality as well as vocal range and ability the role demands.

My first choice for casting Jean Valjean would be Alfie Boe because he has a great deal of screen and stage acting experience, and he played Valjean in the London 25th Anniversary version of Les Mis (check out the video here). Other singer-actors I would choose include Matthew Morrison (Glee) and James Marsden (EnchantedHairspray), although both would have to buff up.

Inspector Javert: Russell Crowe

Character Description: Baritone—high officer of the law, sets out to bring Valjean to justice.

I believe Crowe is miscast altogether. The police inspector is a commanding force in the novel and the musical, but not physically. He is commanding because of his reputation as a successful inspector, his reputation of dedication to the law, and the nobility as well as the rest of the police force supporting him. Javert needs to be smaller than Valjean, not bigger; plus, Javert is a vocally-demanding role. I have never heard Crowe sing, and I fear that this will remind us all of the “lovely” singing of Pierce Brosnan in Mamma Mia (2008).

Norm Lewis (25th Anniversary edition as Javert) or Michael Ball (the original London cast of Les Mis as Marius) tie for my first spot in casting Javert, because both have a great deal of screen acting experience. Philip Quast would also be an interesting choice, despite his older age.

Fantine: Anne Hathaway

Character Description: Mezzo-soprano or alto—sickly woman that sells everything, including her body, to support her daughter Cosette after Cosette’s father leaves her.

Based on a couple of instances on SNL, the Oscars, and Princess Diaries, I think Anne Hathaway sings decently. The role of Fantine, however, is known as one of the toughest belter roles in all of musical theatre, including the iconic “I Dreamed a Dream” song. I wish Hooper would have picked someone with more singing experience. The only trait about Hathaway that matches Fantine’s description is the that the character looks like she is dying of consumption or suffering from anorexia.

My first choice for Fantine is Kerry Ellis. She was in one of the original casts of Wicked as Elphaba and in the televised version of Chess in London a few years ago. Depending on the age of the Valjean casted, other options I would consider include Lea Salonga, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Idina Menzel.

Eponine: Taylor Swift Samantha Barks

Character Description: Belter or low alto—daughter of the Thénardiers, peasant, tom-boy in love with Marius.
As of January 31, Taylor Swift is no longer in the works to play this role. In her place, Hooper has chosen Samantha Barks to fill the role of Eponine. Barks’s experience includes screen acting on BBC television as well as playing Eponine in the 25th Anniversary edition performance of Les Mis.

Despite Swift no longer filling the role, I did want to give my opinion on the casting: most well-trained singers and musicians do not like Swift for the sheer fact that she is rarely on pitch when she sings live, her voice is weak, and she tends to whine. I won’t say any more as to not offend anyone who is a Taylor Swift fan, but nevertheless, it was a 100% miscast if nothing else.

Aside from Barks, my next choice for Eponine would be Lea Michele (Glee, Les Miserables).  Other options I would consider include Amanda Bynes (Hairspray) and Felicia Day (Dr. Horrible). I’m sure there are many others that would be better for the role than Swift, but these are the first ones that come to my mind.

Cosette: Amanda Seyfried

Character Description: Soprano—innocent, beautiful, cultured daughter of Fantine, adopted by Valjean, in love with Marius.

I am extremely excited about this casting; Seyfried is typecast and sings very well.

If Seyfried couldn’t play Cosette, other people I would consider include Emmy Rossum (Phantom of the Opera, film version), Hilary Duff (Raise Your Voice), and Katie Hall (25th Anniversary edition).

Marius: Eddie Redmayne

Character Description: Baritenor—student revolutionary, friends with Eponine, in love with Cosette.

I have never actually heard Redmayne sing, but he has both a big screen acting and musical theater background, so I will be eager to see what he brings to this role.

My first choice in casting Marius would be Josh Groban, because he is absolutely typecast in looks and voice. Darren Criss (Glee, How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying) would be my runner-up, and other considerations include Zac Efron (Hairspray), Ben Feldman (Drop Dead Diva) and Jamie Campbell Bower (Sweeney Todd).

Enjolras: Aaron Tveit

Character Description: Baritenor—leader of the student revolutionaries, good friend of Marius.

Tveit is the other cast member I have yet to hear sing, but he has a nice resume as well including both screen acting and musical theater.

Ramin Karimloo (25th Anniversary edition) is the first person I would cast as Enjolras. Other people to consider include Adam Pascal (RentChess), Norbert Leo Butz (Wicked, original cast), and Neil Patrick Harris (Rent, Dr. Horrible).

Madame Thénardier: Helena Bonham Carter

Character Description: Alto—married to Monsieur Thénardier, Eponine’s mother, Cosette’s aunt, despicable pickpocket and thief who manages the inn with her husband.

I am also excited about Helena Bonham Carter in the role of Madame Thénardier. She’s also typecast and sings well (Sweeney Todd).

After Bonham Carter, other options to consider for the role include Bernadette Peters (Mack and Mabel, Annie Get Your Gun), Brooke Elliott (Wicked touring cast, Drop Dead Diva), or Dot-Marie Jones (Glee).

Monsieur Thénardier: Sacha Baron Cohen

Character Description: Baritone or tenor—married to Madame Thénardier, Eponine’s father, Cosette’s uncle, despicable pickpocket and thief who owns the main inn in town.

Sacha Baron Cohen fits the role characteristically and physically; however, has anyone even heard him sing? I just don’t know about this one.

Jason Alexander (Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, The Producers) has an incredible singing voice, so he would be my first choice to play Monsieur Thenardier. The only other option that came to mind was Johnny Depp (Sweeney Todd).

The second issue is due to the way Hooper has decided to record the singing. Hooper plans to record the scenes with singing live as opposed to pre-recording with lip-synching in the actual scenes like most musicals are filmed. Normally, as a singer myself, I would be all for this; however, when you have a cast in which most are mediocre singers and fairly inexperienced musicians, I don’t think it is such a good idea. Those who are Broadway vets are obviously used to having to sing, dance, act, and do crazy staging all at the same time. Those that are not used to all of these aspects will struggle though, and it will come out in the recording process.

Again, I am very excited that they finally are making a film version of this awesome musical, but unfortunately I do not have the highest hopes of it coming close to measuring up to actually seeing it in a theater live with well-experienced singer/actors. I hope Hooper and the rest of the cast prove me wrong.

The seventh film adaptation of Les Mis will hit theaters December 7.

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Jennifer Griffin is an Adjunct Music Professor at Northern Illinois University. With two Masters degrees in Vocal Performance and Musicology at the ripe age of 25, she makes music a priority in her life. In her free time, Jennifer teaches voice and piano at private studios, accompanies singers and instrumentalists, and daydreams about making it big someday at the Lyric Opera. You can follow Jennifer on Twitter at @jgprimadonna

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18 thoughts on “Guest Post – Will Tom Hooper Be Able to Tackle Les Miserables?

  1. WOW, great post, Jennifer! I have yet to see the stage production but I definitely will next time it’s touring in my city. Oooh I love that you mention Ramin Karimloo, he blew me away when I saw him on London West End in the now canceled ‘Love Never Dies,’ the follow up to Phantom of the Opera. His voice is incredible and he’s so easy on the eye, too. Btw, did you read my review of LND? I’m glad I got to see it whilst it was still playing.

    As for Hooper, well it remains to be seen I guess. I love The King’s Speech but it’s such a different beast. I’m stoked about the male cast though, but still on the fence about the female cast. Btw, didn’t Lea Salonga do the stage version of Les Miz at one point? Or maybe it’s something else.

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  2. I think Lea Salonga did the stage version of Les Miserables as Eponine actually in London. She was Fantine in the 25th Anniversary edition.

    I just love Ramin Karimloo too–wish I would see him in more!

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  3. Tom Hooper wants a fresh cinematic vision, not a clone of the stage musical. If you want a singing Olympics, go watch any of the celebratory concert versions! Sorry, but your alternative choices seem to reflect a lack of full appreciation that the focus of this movie is the dramatic tale, well-acted and well-portrayed, presented with the power of cinema and beautifully told in song! It is not so much how the music is sung but how the characters are made to come to life, whether in tenor or baritone voice. Besides, doesn’t it seem incongruous that a prison convict coming from humble origins will sound like an opera tenor? Had you chosen Colm Wilkinson, I might have agreed because his rock-tenor voice and physical image may do well on screen with the role. His acting is passable, too. But, alas, he is too old! Alfie Boe – he is as wooden as a post! Matt Morrison and James Marsden — you know not what you are talking about! And…have you ever even seen Hugh Jackman perform live, in musical theatre materail – both in terms of his acting chops and how he acts out a song?? Tsk, tsk – do not dismiss him so easily. Universal Pictures and Tom Hooper pursued him for the role!

    This is FILM .. not musical theatre!

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    • I totally agree with you (Mr ou Mrs Applause). This is FILM not musical theatre and to convince producers to give a lot of money of a movie (specially in this era of movie superheroes) they really need bankable stars. And what is truce on stage with make up and long distance between actors and audience is not true with a close up on screen. Hugh Jackman is the PERFECT BANKABLE screen and movie star. He will be a perfect Jean Valjean even if his voice is baritone not tenor. This part is the dream of his life and he struggled to get it and he’ll work hard to convince all of us . I had the chance to admire Hugh Jackman perform live last year in Toronto. He is amazing and has a very powerful voice, he has a little daughter: his rendition of “Soliliquy” is one of the most memorable moments of my life.
      By the way, as you can understand I’m a huge fan of Mr Jackman’s but I’m fond of musicals too and I had the chance to attend “Les miserables” on stage in 2010 at le théâtre du Châtelet with John Owen Jones as JVJ. The show was fabulous ans John Owen Jones was fantastic….
      But for everyone who wanted a movie version of “Les Miz”, 2012 is the best moment because Hugh Jackman is available: he is THE bankable stage and movie star (and his huge success on Broadway is another proof) producers had always waited for.

      Sorry for the bas English – I’m French – and as a French woman I do love this story and these caracters. My memory is full of the book and French movie adaptations with such great French actors as Harry Baur, Jean Gabin, Lino Ventura or Gérard Depardieu playing JVJ. And I’m convinced both London and Broadway stages had wonderful JVJ as Colm Wilkinson or Alfie Boe or…… But in this case, Hugh is PERFECT.

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      • @Jane Goodall Thanks for visiting All Eyes on Screen. Glad to hear some feedback from Jennifer’s post! Do keep in mind that this is an opinion post. Not everyone feels the same about Hugh Jackman’s voice. I’m glad to hear you like it though! I think it will be a lot of fun to find out how it all goes down when the film comes out this December.

        Also, keep in mind that just because it is a film, that it’s no longer a musical. It’s a combination of formats when a musical is being displayed through film. I have to agree with Jenn in that JUST because it is a film first, doesn’t mean that the music should suffer in spite of great acting.

        I appreciate your thoughts!

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    • @applause Thanks for visiting the blog and leaving some feedback. While I do appreciate your thoughts, please respectfully articulate what you’re thinking if you choose to comment again. Clearly, you have a large knowledge based regarding Les Mis, and I’m happy to see some banter about it. However, I will delete comments if a person gets out of hand. You have full permission to disagree and have your own opinion, but please be careful in how you choose to express your disagreement.

      I also wanted to mention that this is an opinion post. It’s actually sort of a dream-like idea–if you were in the casting director’s chair, who would you cast?–type of post. This is Jennifer’s opinion. Everyone is going to have his own opinion. This is hers.

      I’m of the same mind that as compelling and talented an actor Hugh Jackman is, that he does not possess the vocal chops for the role. Luckily for you and many others who feel differently about him, however, he will be playing Jean Valjean. I, too, look forward to seeing the film and hope to be proven wrong!

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

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  4. @applause Totally agree with you on some points–I agree that it should definitely not be a clone of the stage musical, and I am eager to see what they do with the film cinematography-wise and with the costumes and sets. I also look forward to the idea that much of the book will be seen in the film which is not as easily seen in a staged musical. I am merely saying that it detracts from the power and professionalism of a film when sorry, the medium is music, and the actors sound horrible singing. That is not at all directed at any of these cast members.

    I believe that when actor/singers have the best possible people to work with in the business and are getting paid what they are getting paid, and on top of that, have world-class technology on their side (even though I am so not for auto-tuning), that these actors in the film should be as good as, if not better than a stage cast of this musical. Unfortunately, I see this in almost (almost being the key word) no musical film adaptations today. I want to see a film extremely well-acted, but why should we have to see the singing ability sacrificed? The truth is, we don’t have to, but directors try to get big-name actors in the film so it sells (kind of like putting Minnie Driver who doesn’t even sing her part in the Phantom of the Opera film).

    I love Colm Wilkinson, by the way–too bad he is too old–but that is why I haven’t listed him here. He is also a classically trained singer as many of the people I have listed here.

    I love Hugh Jackman too by the way–he is one of my favorite actors. I also think that he does well in the stage acting/singing scenario. I was merely saying that the difficulty level of Valjean gets the best of many professional singers. Also, Jackman is not really a tenor, and Valjean is one of the highest tenor roles in all of the musical theatre repertory.

    When Ebert reviewed the Phantom of the Opera movie back in 2004, he said that the director “knows more about making a movie…and he simply goes off on his own, bringing greatness to his department and leaving the material to fend for itself.” I just hope that doesn’t happen here.

    What is great about the blog format is that we can all express our different opinions. I truly hope that Hooper proves me wrong, as well as Jackman.

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  5. Thank you for your open-mindedness in noting my comments!

    Re the role of Valjean – did you ever read the book of Edward Behr “History in the Making: Les Miserables” which chronicles the journey of this musical from its origins in Paris to its status as well-loved musical worldwide.

    This is particularly interesting —

    “One of the basic rules of casting is that it’s fatal to make up one’s mind hastily, on the spur of the moment, or on the basis of a vague hunch; endless patience, a gambler’s luck, and a fatalistic streak is required. Shortly before rehearsals started, Trevor Nunn asked Tim Rice for advice. As Rice remembers it, Nunn gave him a thumbnail description of the character of Jean Valjean as follows : ‘What’s needed is someone who looks like a convict, is very strong, can carry a guy weighing thirteen stone on his back around the stage and still sing beautifully’. Rice immediately said ‘That’s Colm Wilkinson.’

    At this time, Wilkinson was best known as a kind of an Irish troubadour…

    ‘The minute you started to sing at the audition, Trevor told Wilkinson later, ‘we all know we’d found Jean Valjean.’ He sang the ‘ Anthem’ song from Chess, then Schonberg took him through some of the Les Mis songs in Act One. Wilkinson’s natural golden tenor voice excited all those present, though Schonberg was aware that there would be considerable musical rewriting to be done : originally Valjean had been cast as a deep baritone. Martin Koch, the musical director, and John Cameron, the orchestrator, rewrote large chunks of the music, putting it in a higher key.”

    In fact, if you have listened to the original French concept album, the original and very first musical Valjean is a baritone, Maurice Barrier! What is important is that the story and journey of Valjean is presented on screen as its compelling template from its Hugo’s book, musically well-sung and fully acted. Film compels great acting for the character to be credible, not only because of the musical notes that he can reach at the top of the range.

    I have been a great fan of Les Miserables for a long time – since 1988 – and I have seen the show in four different countries – Broadway, the West End in London, Paris and even here where I live. I do care about preserving its musical and story-telling heritage. But I am also excited that a fresh interpretation using the power of cinema and a cast whose acting credentials are impeccable ( with natural singing ability, at minimum) portays those fascinating characters from Victor Hugo’s book.

    I hope it is not a matter of Hooper and Jackman proving your thesis wrong – I hope it is because you have revisited your assumptions on how this movie musical can retell the story of Valjean et al in a fresh and exciting concept. After all, this tale has had so many film versions in the past, albeit in a non-musical format. So, what must be compelling is the tale, not the medium!

    Thank you again for letting me join in these discussions.

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    • I have never gotten to listen to the French concept album, and I think it’s interesting that Valjean was a baritone on the first recording. I would have to look it up, but did they actually change the voicing around for the London performances? I think it would be interesting if they did, and then that the voicing just stuck because of its successful run in London. I guess that would be a total reason why you could cast someone with a lower voice in the role of Valjean (I agree that he should look strong–the tenor voicing does contradict that a little bit).

      However, because 6 non-musical versions of Les Miserables have been made quite successfully, it would be nice to have a well-done musical film. Hooper obviously wants to make the tale compelling–it is a very compelling story–look at how it has stood the test of time. But at the same time, he is also trying to succeed in a different way–with the musical version… As a musician and singer, whenever I have gone to visit a performance of Les Mis, Phantom, Wicked, Billy Elliot, etc., when the singers don’t measure up, they detract from the message of the musical (I am not at all referring to Jackman but others here). It’s almost like saying as a teacher here’s a bad example of this concept, but I still expect you to get it anyway or like in church when someone does not sound good singing at the pulpit, but I am still supposed to get the message out of it anyway–it’s very hard to take this away even when the singer has the greatest intentions and his/her full purpose is to bring out the meaning of the text.

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  6. Hi Jane,

    I had the pleasure of seeing Hugh’s BACK ON BROADWAY and your post reminds me of a small memory re SOLILOQUY. I happened to sit next to a middle-aged New York couple in one of the performances… and during intermission, the man told me: ” We have seen many productions of CAROUSEL in all our theatregoing years — but I have not seen a better interpretation of SOLILOQUY than tonight!”

    The secret was not a voice that can beat John Raitt or Gordon McRae or Robert Goulet ( and all the great voices who have ever sung this most memorable of male arias in musical theatre) — but the way Mr. Jackman offered his personal interpretation of those great lyrics from Oscar Hammerstein ( one of the greatest he has ever done – -and Sondheim has unabashedly said so). He visualized for the audience the feelings of joy, pride, angst, and the full realization of the responsibility of impending fatherhood! But musically-speaking — his last notes were full-throated, but with excellent voice control, and reverberated through the Broadhurst with such impact and drama! One of the most thrilling moments in musical theatre for me!

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  7. Good thing Taylor Swift didn’t get the role of Eponine after all! This looks like a great cast on paper but it will be interesting whether all the pieces match. If anything, I would rather see a non-musical version of Les Miserables.

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    • I know! Made me so happy. I will admit that I had quite a bit of fun putting a red X over her face for Jenn’s post 🙂

      Haha, well, Castor, I think you have like 6 options to see a non-musical version of Les Mis. This next one should be interesting.

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      • Good answer Kristin, there are AT LEAST 6 non musical versions of “Les misérables” but on screen there is NO version of “Les Miz”. Nobody in France use this word for it.

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    • I had already written the post, and then Kristin called me the next day and said we’re going to have to modify your post. When she told me why (that Taylor Swift was no longer playing the role) I was jumping up and down! Like someone on your blog said, “the chick can’t sing!”

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  8. I have no problem with casting Hugh Jackman as JVJ. He will bring his own interpretation to the role, as have all the others. I do have a big problem with saying Alfie Boe is “wooden as a post.” Based on the 25th Anniversary Concert, Boe did a great job of showing emotion on his face and through his body language (and, of course, his vocal interpretation), without chewing up the scenery which some folks may think is “acting.”

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