Thursday, 28 March 2013

It is a truth universally acknowledged...

...that adaptations of books to another medium, stage or screen, tend to be littered with potential  pitfalls and are rather difficult to pull off.

One person who I'm afraid did not really succeed in getting his adaptation to work is Mr. Bernard J. Taylor, responsible for the musical adaptation of Pride & Prejudice which I saw performed last friday by the Bradford University Society of Operettas and Musicals.

I suppose I should make some comment on the quality of the production as well as the adaptation. For all that I didn't like the way the work had been adapted, I thought the company did a decent job with what they had. Some of it seemed a bit more static than I might have liked. I feel some of the actors could perhaps have given a bit more, and others maybe could have done a bit more with additional direction. And despite the fact the music was for the most part fairly simple, I definitely noticed some wrong notes here and there. I felt most of the cast were considerably better actors than singers. Oh, and the energy was a bit variable. It definitely took a little while to get going, and then the second half was also a bit lacking at some points early on.
Specific performances - Mr. Bingley was excellent, and I'm not just saying that because he's a good friend of mine. I believe he has a lot more acting and singing experience than the rest of the cast, and it shows - he knows what he's doing at all points. Caroline  Bingley also impressed - singing perhaps a bit shaky on her solo, but she had just the right manner in her acting. Mr. Darcy's superior acting was likewise superb, though I can't recall what I thought of his romantic acting later on. His voice seemed more suited to pop singing than what I would have expected, though in some cases that suited the music well enough (Whether I think it should have is another matter, but that's a quarrel with the adaptation again). Lydia was wodnerfully energetic as the character should be, and served as a nice antidote at times to the static nature of some of the scenes, which I've already mentioned. Lady Catherine's singing was very good  (allowing for the fact I didn't think so much of the music), though I felt her acting lacked somewhat of the authority she should have. Mrs. Bennet and Mr. Collins, though good, I felt could have been more over the top - Mr. Collins in particular suffered a little from the fact that the adaptation didn't include enough of the character's overblown sesquipedalian dialogue, and so I feel or more overblown perofrmance could have helped compensate for this.
...I realise I've come up with nothing to say for four of the main characters, and I'm struggling to come up with anything. I fear I must plead my tiredness on the day, and my patchy memory almost a week later, as my excuse. Certainly I thought they were good. I may have had some criticisms also. Though some of them might have been attributed to not being so well fitted to the (in my opinion) poorly written material they had to work with. Should the actors in question ever read this blog post, I apologise; but in any case I never really intended this to be a serious critical review - if I had, I would probably have tried to take notes during the performance, and certainly I would have written it sooner, while I still remembered what I was talking about.

Alright, so on to the bigger point - that of the adaptation itself.
One of the first negative points I noted while watching the performance was that the scene changes were taking up more time than I would've liked. Of course, one must consider that BUSOM are a student society, that their resources are limited, and that the theatre they use is not the best set up for such scene changes. But a more significant point is that I don't feel the show should have been written to have so many scene changes. Or if they had to be there (Which might have been the case for a few of them), things should have been shifted so the scene change could have been, say, partially covered by a song. Thinking about it now, this probably didn't help with the energy taking a little while to get going - constantly stopping and starting inevitably breaks the flow, making it more difficult for the cast to get into it as well as the audience, and the cast's performances may then be affected, making it still more difficult for the audience. Bernard J. Taylor seems to have made no allowance for the need to keep the show flowing in writing this adaptation. In fact, it strikes me it seems like it might have been written for TV or film, where one can easily cut between different scenes rather than having to halt the action to move scenery. I wonder what the flow was like at the first read-through of the script, where that wasn't an issue.
On this point of scenes, the decisions on what elements of the book to cut and what to keep seemed sometimes odd to me. Some things I would have thought more plot-relevant were cut out, while other moments were kept which, though amusing, were unnecessary. Nothing I would want cut, there were good character moments and humour in there, but given how much was cut out, I would prefer for the integrity of the story to have a bit more emphasis on the main plot. Make sure someone coming to see the show without knowing the plot in advance would still understand it. In the end, it is a rather lengthy plot, and thus difficult to fit into the length of a musical. For the first time, I'm a bit curious to see the more recent film version, since that will have been in a similar time-frame, and I wonder how well they managed it (Of course, one of the reasons I didn't want to see it when it was originally in cinemas was because I didn't think they could compress the story enough without damaging it)

Let's move on to the music. A point which must be noted is that in a musical or an opera, a lot of songs will do little to advance the plot, instead restating and expressing a character's emotions on an event which has already happened immediately before. And of course, when a work is of considerable length, such songs are things which may be more easily cut to make way for a bit more of the plot. Bernard J. Taylor's Pride and Prejudice has 30 songs in it (to start with, that's more than I would expect in a show full stop, though perhaps the shows I'm used to have longer songs), of which I think at least 10 serve no real purpose and could be cut without damaging the audience's understanding of the plot. This is not to say they should all have been cut, some of them I rather enjoyed, but some of them certainly could have been removed. And if they had been removed, there would have been more room in the show for additional dialogue, which given the intricacies of the plot of P&P, must be a good thing (especially in light of what I've already said above about chocie of scenes included or cut from the book).
My other point on the music is a stylistic one. I'll withhold criticism for the general lack of harmony or counterpoint, as I'm sure many other musicals wouldn't hold up to my tastes on that point either, and in the end it is a matter of personal taste. I will, however comment on the general style of the music - I mentioned above that Darcy's voice seemed more suited to pop songs that I might have expected, but that this fit some of the music fairly well. It's my personal feeling that this shouldn't be the case. Of course I must allow that my own stage experience comprises almost entirely of Gilbert & Sullivan, but other styles are equally valid, including what would be termed showtunes or more poppy, modern music. However, a story such as Pride & Prejudice, steeped as it is in 19th century values, should to my mind have music which would not sound out of place in the period in which the story takes place. As such I feel Mr. Taylor went severely wrong in some of his composing. I could probably come up with some more criticisms given a look at the sheet music, but such a thing is not feasible, and in any case I think that's enough.

Finally, the words. Starting with the words of the songs, to follow on from the music, and then we'll tackle the dialogue. The one point I really have to make about the lyrics is that in some cases I didn't think they expressed the intended ideas and emotions as well as they might, and in some cases they expressed ideas and emotions which were not present in the source material being adapted. Obviously in adapting a work you can take the opportunity to put your own stamp on it, but I was still mildly put off, and I would say in general that, particularly with a story as well known and popular as this one, it's best to change things a lot or hardly at all - a point to which I'll return in a minute.
And now the dialogue. Here is where my feeling of the stylistic dissonance really kicked in in a massive way. Because naturally, some of the dialogue was taken directly from the book, and this was all well and good. Other bits of the dialogue, however, were written by Bernard J. Taylor - in some cases specifically rewriting existing lines from the book - and in a distinct majority of cases which I noticed, he widely missed the mark of Victorian English, instead having the characters speak as if they might have been born... well, at about the time the actors playing them were born, in fact. Modern English in Jane Austen, mixed in with actual Jane Austen. A travesty if ever I heard one.
This is not to say that a modern take on Pride and Prejudice can't work of course. Such a thing already exists on the internet - I am exceedingly fond of the Lizzie Bennet Diaries. But this was not such a thing. Whereas the LBD are properly updated to the modern day and the story has been correspondingly adapted to fit in with modern sensibilities on the parts of the characters and so on, Bernard J. Taylor's adaptation was left in the original time period, and the characters simply speak as if they were in the modern day, some of the time. If it was all the time I might be able to let it pass. It would be odd, but allowing an anachronistic mode of speech in a story to put points in more accessible terms for the modern audience could be considered to make some sense. It would at least be consistent, and then my stylistic issues with the music would fall down as well, as the music would match the dialogue throughout. Such a thing would certainly not be without its problems, and perhaps would work better if played more for laughs in an over the top manner, but again I say, at least it would be consistent. As it is, the setting and the music clash, and the dialogue swings back and forth between them like the mutual best friend of two people who aren't speaking to one another, trying to adhere to both.

Overall,  as I said, I give my compliments to the performers, as they did fairly well with what they had (And I hope they pick a better show for next year), but not the writer/composer, for I fear anyone who had this show as their first ever exposure to Pride and Prejudice would be unlikely to move on and look into other versions. And that would be a great shame, because it's an excellent story. On which note, I'm now going to return to the book and/or the BBC TV version. Much better.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

"He was no longer Jean Valjean, but No. 24601"

Les Miserables, the movie. That is, the movie of the musical. I don't think I actually knew this was going to be a thing until I was trying to watch a youtube video, an ad came up and I was poised, ready to click "Skip Ad" until I heard a little girl singing the tune of Castle on a Cloud...
I'm quite glad about that, actually. If I'd known there was going to be a Les Mis film before seeing the trailer, quite apart from spoiling the surprise of it, I would've been rather worried about the potential for it to be terrible. As it was, the trailer just got me really excited about it. Two weeks ago (I need to be better at doing things in a timely fashion), I saw it in the cinema, and of course I have opinions to express.

Background for anyone who does not know this about me: Les Mis is hand down my favourite musical ever. I absolutely love it, and I'm quite particular about it - I will listen to the original London cast recording and go "He's singing that wrong." I'm pretty happy with the 10th anniversary concert version (It is my version of choice to listen to, as I am doing right now while writing this blog post), though there are still bits of it I might like to be a bit different. I went to see the show in the theatre, in London, twice - once in 2005 (Twentieth anniversary cast!) and then again two years later.
It's a pretty big deal to me.
I've also read the book - only once all the way through, but I dip back into bits of it as and when they come to mind for whatever reason; which they do, because I have a good memory for this sort of stuff. I love the book as well, and having read it I was fairly amazed at how well the adaptation into a musical worked. It's a neat point that a lot can be conveyed with music which on the page requires more explanation. Of course, also a lot of the detail in the book is a bit superfluous and can be removed without leaving significant questions as to the nature of the characters. On the other hand, some details I found utterly delightful, though I could still understand how they couldn't really be included in a musical version.

So, that aside, let's get into talking about the film.

For starters, an important point which I heard about before seeing the film was that the director got the actors to sing the songs live, rather than lip-syncing to studio recordings, so their acting came through in the singing. This obviously had a fairly significant impact on some of the performances, and the film as a whole.
In principle, it's something I agree with - it's the counter to a massive problem I have with most recordings of G&S I've heard: that is, the singers sing the songs as if they're purely music, with no heed paid to the words or the emotions behind them. Songs in musicals and operas should acted as well as sung.
In practice, I feel it had mixed success. There were certainly some points where I loved the more acted, less sung bits of performances as they really conveyed the emotions, and did so without detracting from the music. It wouldn't necessarily work so well in a stage production where of course they wouldn't be able to do all the great camera work, close-ups of actors' faces while they emote, impressive shots, sets, etc. But in film it worked well. The flip-side is that I feel some of the actors only thought of that as the one option of acting expressed through singing; missing that singing the notes properly, with varying dynamics and so on, can express different things better.
The other point is a criticism I've seen - that some of the actors perhaps didn't act as well as they otherwise might because, presumably because they were focused on the singing. If this were a point which was noticed at all, I certainly think there could be a case to be made for getting those actors, at some points at least, to pre-record their songs. To keep with the basic idea, said pre-recordings could still be done live, just do some takes of scenes with singing and copy the audio from them over to ones without if that would get better overall performances (Personally, I wouldn't think lip-syncing would require that much less focus than the actual singing, but I'm used to singing).
The general negative points I noted on the singing were that perhaps a few sustained notes were not sustained as they should have been, and some things weren't sung with as much power as they should have been - this relates to my point above about how singing properly can feed into different elements of acting. Given the weighty subjects they're singing about, fighting revolutions and so on, emotions running high, something as simple as belting out a note at full volume and holding it on for the full duration (Not even particularly long notes as I recall) can really express the characters' passion. If they're weaker, and cut short, then that feels a little bit lacking (Though it was still good, and it should be noted that I can't remember the film in enough detail to pick out specific instances of where I noticed this).

Oh, the other thing I noticed with regards to the singing is that the music had some very flexible timings. Allowing the actors, essentially, to put in dramatic pauses as seemed appropriate. With the amount it happened, it seemed a little odd from a musical point of view, but again, in principle I liked it, because the whole point was making the music serve the telling of the story, as it should.

So, the performances. I'm not sure what order I'm going to do these in, just as they occur to me. So let's just say to start us off, that Colm Wilkinson as the Bishop of Digne was just the best. That was casting I loved when I heard about it in advance, and it worked perfectly in the film. For those who don't know, Colm Wilkinson was the original Jean Valjean, still pretty widely regarded as 'the' Jean Valjean. And to have him as the Bishop is perfect, because essentially Valjean's character arc is that he spends the time-span of most of the show trying to be as good a man as the Bishop who showed him kindness and redeemed him all those years ago.

In one respect I'm still undecided as to how I feel about Aaron Tveit and Eddie Redmayne as Enjolras and Marius - that being their appearance. In an early group scene of all the students, I couldn't tell which ones were Marius and Enjolras until they started singing. On the one hand, they shouldn't really look so different to the others, but on the other hand, generally one does want the significant characters to stand out even before you know who they are. So, as I say, I'm undecided.
A further point on Tveit's appearance is that he wasn't like a typical stage Enjolras, but it still worked. To take a brief tangent - comparisons can easily be made between Les Miserables and Terry Pratchett's Night Watch, in which the Enjolras equivalent is the idealistic revolutionary Reg Shoe. He has the same sort of fervour, but less the practical ability. Aaron Tveit's Enjolras, to me, underlines this comparison - at first glance, he gives the impression more of the visionary than of the fighter, though he demonstrates his fighting ability later on. This brings me back to my original point about him and Redmayne - they may not immediately look like a dashing revolutionary and a romantic lead, but they act out the parts excellently. And so rather than appearing to be these things, they are instead just ordinary people who did these things, which I imagine was the idea.

Continuing on Redmayne, we must also come to Amanda Seyfried as Cosette. Now, at least among people I know, and I think others feel similarly, there is a bit of an issue with the love story in Les Mis - that being that no-one really cares about Cosette, whereas everyone loves Eponine. That's pretty difficult to overcome, but I did like Seyfried's Cosette. Not enough to avoid the question of why Marius chooses her over Eponine, but we mustn't expect miracles here (:P). In contrast to Redmayne not immediately looking like a romantic lead, the way she was made up and costumed did fit well enough to a character who provokes a 'love at first sight' reaction. Now, as I recall, I was a little uncertain about Redmayne's singing at some points (Not sure exactly when - this is why I should get these blog posts written faster). I think I possibly thought he was a little nasal? Not sure exactly what it was. He was still good though, and Seyfried was suitably sweet and so on for Cosette. Acting-wise they were both at their best in their love story, which is obviously good. I have a distinct memory of Marius' section of In my life, with him excitably running around, swinging on lampposts and generally giving a very good portrayal of giddy first love (I also got the concomitant music stuck in my head, which was a bit annoying since it's not that long a section, but never mind).
Which, by a point I mentioned at the start of that paragraph I suppose brings us to Samantha Barks as Eponine. Now, along with Les Mis being my favourite musical, Eponine is one of my favourite characters in it. I was happy. Not a lot more to say really. Of course, she's played the role on the stage, so obviously her singing was going to be top-notch, and the only real question was how she'd adjust to film acting as opposed to theatre. I think she was pretty amazing.

Actually, on that point, possibly my favourite performances, the ones I don't think I had any real criticisms for, were 2/3 made up of the Thenardier family. I've already mentioned Eponine. Fun-but-pointless-fact: Gavroche is Thenardier's son. I thought he was great. Indomitability of the human spirit expressed as an archetypal street urchin, yup. Nice job Daniel Huttlestone.
And of course, the Thenardiers themselves. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham-Carter. Given the performances of the classic stage Thenardiers I've listened to, they had some pretty big shoes to fill, but I'd say they did it well. Of course, the Thenardiers are interesting characters in that they're both the most significant villains in the show (Javert being an antagonist but not a villain), and also the comic relief. I've seen a couple of people complain that they were too comic, without enough of the dark elements - I kind of felt a little of the reverse: The way they went about their criminality made them seem like entirely despicable characters, where sometimes their dissolute nature can make them appear wretched and pitiable. In the film, it seemed to me that any appearance of wretchedness, anything which might prompt pity, or indeed laughter (them being the comic relief, after all), seemed as if it was deliberately crafetd by them in-universe to let them con people out of more money. All an act. Just like Baron Cohen's shifting accent, clearly picked to get the best reaction out of whoever he was swindling at the time. Actually, when he started singing Master of the House in an affected French accent, he reinded me somewhat of Lumiere from Beauty and the Beast,  which works for me - if you want to pretend to be an excellent host, you could do a lot worse than imitating he that sings Be our Guest.
One final further point - I've never seen anything else Sacha Baron Cohen has done. I've heard about them and seen occasional short clips, all of which led me to the belief I would find them really annoying. That was the attitude I had in anticipation of his Thenardier. Consider my praise of him in that light.

Now, as I said, the Thenardier family make up 2/3 of the performances I really liked and could think of no real criticisms for. The two who made up the remaining third were Colm Wilkinson of course, as already mentioned, and Anne Hathaway as Fantine. Looking at the wikipedia article for the film, it appears she won a considerable number of Best Supporting Actress awards for her performance, and I can see why. Of course, some of it is down to the nature of the direction - things I've already mentioned, sometimes sacrificing a little musicality for a load of acting expression, camera work, the magic of cinema allowing them to portray a hallucination, but in the end what they mostly did was point a camera at Anne Hathaway and play some music to accompany her as she broke the audience's hearts.
A significant element in my experience of watching this film was holding back tears, and that really began with I Dreamed a Dream. Anne Hathaway was amazing.

OK. I guess it's time for me to address the big one. The musical gap with which it seems everyone has taken issue. The terrible under-use of Grantaire. I mean, seriously, he was great!  He should've had more! Same kind of goes for the other students, but especially Grantaire. I suppose really this belongs more in my discussion of the adaptation because it's down to cuts, but I had to mention here that he was great.

OK, the actual big one is that it seems everyone and their mother has said Russell Crowe was terrible as Javert. Personally? I certainly don't think he was as bad as soem said he was. Independently of others' opinions, in fact, I would say that he was not amazing, but he was at least good enough for the majority of the film, with only two points where I really felt he was a bit lacking.
Unfortunately, those two points were two of Javert's three really big moments in the show. So, er, yeah.
The Confrontation was good. I liked that. Stars and his last song which I won't name at this point because I'm saving the spoilers for the next big section of this post... not so much.
Getting back to more general, his voice sounded good enough to me, but he lacked variation, expression, and power. His singing was consistent, and for most of the show, Javert doesn't need to be that expressive. He's supposed to be implacable, pretty much an embodiment of absolute Law, the face he presents to the public is that of dedication, reliability, tenacity, other such things... not emotion. Those two songs where I felt he was lacking are the exceptions. Where the mask is removed. In Stars we see his fervour, and zeal, and in his last song his inner conflicts at that point of the show, his first doubts of his life. This requires more expression and more dynamic variation, particularly towards the end of louder, which just wasn't there. I don't know if this was a problem he had with the singing, or if he was capable of doing it how I would consider right, but didn't - it wouldn't be the first time a film adaptation of a book has had a main character deliver something in the wrong way because they missed (And no-one else told them) that that particular point is an instance of the character acting out of character compared to the rest of the story.
Regardless of the reasons, those two songs were not as good as the rest and I was disappointed by them, but I was OK with his performance otherwise.

And lastly, of course, Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean. Just in passing, a point about his appearance -
of course in a film they can have a bigger change from imprisoned Valjean to wealthy Valjean, and that impressed me, but in the transition from Valjean to older Valjean (Skipping over Cosette's childhood), he really didn't appear to have aged. I think there might have been some grey in his hair, but I'm not sure even though I was looking for it, so it wasn't very noticeable ifit was there. Minor point, but it bothered me a little.
Now, the important stuff. Singing and acting. There were some points where he sounded odd to me. Bit of an accent coming through possibly? Or just the fact he wasn't doing it quite as Colm Wilkinson does it... There was definitely one instance where I was annoyed he didn't hold on a note long enough, only to discover the way he sang it is how it's written in the score, and it's just that Colm Wilkinson holds it on for longer and I'm used to that. I still think it would've been better if Jackman had held it on, but I find it harder to criticise him for it now.
I mentioned further up that there may have been a bit of a general issue with the singing sometimes lacking power. I don't think Jackman had this issue. In fact, at points he had the opposite problem. Most notably, in Bring him Home he really needed to be quieter. Subtler. The fact he couldn't turn the volume down a bit meant some of the intimacy of the scene was lost. He avoided this issue in the finale, fortunately, by the fact that acting a character who's terminally ill inevitably leads to weaker (and therefore quieter, if less musically precise) singing.
My other specific issue was with the end of the prologue. I think this was a point where I felt he was going too far with acting rather than singing, discarding some notes for expression he would've portrayed better with them. And again, I think there was a bit of lack in dynamic variation - singing quietly was a bit of a problem for him I guess? And actually at the end I think I thought he could've been louder for once.
In general, I thought he was good. He looked the part, he sounded good for the most part, he inhabited the role very well. The fact I'm picking out specific moments which I felt were problems rather than anything more general may be partly an indication of my memory having lapsed a bit in the two week gap between seeing the film and writing this, but I think it's more that these were the criticisms I have - that I'm nitpicking details (Some of them, admittedly, rather important details) shows that I thought the film in general was very good, but ever in such things I must aspire to perfection. Just as Jean Valjean is not content with being merely a good man, but must aspire to be as the best man he has known, so I am not wholly content with Les Miserables being merely an amazing film, but must wish it could have been as good as I could imagine it.
A fairly good note on which to head into my thoughts on the adaptation.

So, one of the reasons I didn't get this blog post done in a more timely fashion is that when I was originally going to write it, two days after seeing the film, I instead ended up just listening to the 10th anniversary concert and noting down every bit I noticed which was in that but wasn't in the film. Now, I'm not going to recount the entire list, but I will refer to it and talk about the omissions I feel were more significant. The ones which bothered me, and made me hope there's an extended version of the film with those sections in that'll be on the DVD.

Now, the first point to note about the film is that while it is a film of the musical, it's an adaptation of the musical and the book. Obviously the musical is already an adaptation of the book, but they included a few additional bits of the book in the film, which was interesting. In some cases it worked, in some I think it didn't. In some I think it worked, but could have been done a bit better. The issue, of course, is time and music constraints. They obviously couldn't make the film too long, and they were mostly sticking to the original music, making additional plot elements difficult to accommodate. Having Gavroche emerge from a big model elephant at the start of the Beggars' Song - that's a passing nod to something from the book that doesn't consume time. It made me grin, people who haven't read the book would think nothing of it, it doesn't change anything. On the other hand, including Marius' grandfather doesn't really work, because he's entirely tangential to the main plot, and they didn't have the time to really do anything with him as a character.

Now. SPOILER ALERT. Up to this point I've mentioned titbits of the events of the musical and the book, but nothing too significant. Now I'm going to talk properly about how they changed things in adapting the combination of a book and a stage musical into a film musical, which involves discussing the events of the plot in some detail. If this bothers you, you have my recommendation of the film. It's good, you should see it if this is your sort of thing. A love story and a revolution, set across the path of a man basically good, turned bad by circumstances before being redeemed and setting forth to be as good as he can be, but still with a past he cannot escape. Watch the film, go see the stage musical, watch/listen to the 10th anniversary concert, read the book, whatever combination of any of those you feel like, and then come back and read this next section.
If you already know the plot of Les Mis, or don't mind having it spoiled for you, read on at your leisure.

OK, so they inserted a bit into the opening number of Valjean retrieving a flag. Obvious purpose, it demonstrates his strength allowing them a proper callback when he lifts the cart in Montreuil-sur-Mer to make Javert's recognition more obvious. A bit of a word-change on the yellow ticket of leave, not really an issue. Oh, the setting of the opening in a shipyard - I don't recall if that's a thing in the book. Certainly the second time he's jailed (which didn't make it into the musical or the film) he was working on a ship IIRC, so it might have been a nod to that. It worked well enough in any case.
Let's see, the section of him being turned away from inns and places of work was put into spoken dialogue and a bit of a montage instead of singing, it kind of works better that way, at least for a film.
Valjean didn't sing his bit about taking the Bishop's silver. I feel here like they could have gone two possible ways, and they went for a middle ground which didn't entirely work for me - it's my opinion they should either have done it with the singing, going into the scream as he runs away as it's generally done, or they should've done it without, but entirely as in the book, including Valjean hesitating over contemplating murdering the Bishop and stopping at the beatific appearance he has in his sleep.
The guards didn't sing having arrested him. I feel it's better if they do, particularly since they did have the Bishop sing his bit which comes at the end of theirs.

Let's see, some changes of sequence in Montreuil-sur-Mer. As Fantine is being dismissed, Valjean is meeting Javert - a scene more or less out of the book which worked well, and then this is immediately followed by the cart, but Javert does not state his suspicion outright because they've put in another book scene later.
Lovely Ladies precedes I Dreamed a Dream, so the latter is actually sung when Fantine is at her lowest low. It works well, in my opinion, because the song expresses her despair when we've already seen it. Perhaps it wouldn't work in a stage production, because it would have to be interrupting the ongoing scene for the introspective solo, but I'm not entirely sure.
Bamatabois didn't get his first bit approaching Fantine, and she didn't get to call him a rat. I was disappointed by these omissions. Bamatabois is a great character to hate in the midst of Fantine's descent, particularly since he's actually responsible for her death - I liked that they included the detail from the book of him putting snow in her dress, thus causing the illness which kills her, rather than her just dying of generic having-been-living-on-the-street-ness, but I felt he came to it too quickly, and including a bit more of his singing would've shown the buildup of his anger to that point. And I like Fantine having that last little defiant moment of calling him a rat, much more than the bit they did include of her begging him not to report her.
Now, Javert's offense against Valjean, accusing him of being himself only to be told by the prefecture that Jean Valjean has been caught and is on trial. Did he attempt to resign in the film? I don't remember. Regardless, while I like the inclusion of this scene, they didn't do it its full justice. Javert mentions that he has been just as hard on offenders he has dealt with, which is good, but still not enough. The thing is, in this scene in the book, Javert explains his offense, and does not attempt to resign, but instead demands he be dismissed from his position, dishonourably, as a fitting punishment. The only way he can reconcile his own harshness on criminals is by insisting on similar treatment for himself. And when Valjean refuses to dismiss him, he says he will continue his duties until a suitable replacement is found. He is as persistent and tenacious in attempting to persecute himself at this point as he is in attempting to persecute Valjean throughout. So yeah, this being a big character moment for Javert, I really like it being there, but feel it wasn't done enough.
Though I can't remember for certain, I think they cut out a bit of Who Am I? Which I don't agree with. Also, the end of it seemed lower than I expected. Did they transpose it down for Jackman's sake? Obviously I wasn't going to get out my pitch-pipes mid-film to check, and I suppose if they did it's understandable, but a little disappointing to me as a lover of high notes. I also think they cut out a verse of Come to Me, which again I disagree with, especially because that whole scene was amazing. As I alluded to in passing when talking about Anne Hathaway, she just broke audience's hearts. Again, since of course she'd already broken them with I Dreamed a Dream. Having a hallucinatory Cosette worked well also.
They cut out Valjean's last few lines in the Confrontation because they had Javert put him at mercy at that point. Story-wise, I have no issue with it (Even though it contradicts both book and musical, where Valjean disarms Javert and knocks him out), but music-wise I don't see why they couldn't have had that happen after the singing ended and kept the full thing. Having Valjean just escape immediately at the end was reasonable enough.

I liked the big montage for Master of the House, apart from the random appearance of a Santa (Which I'm pretty sure is an anachronism, quite apart from just being a bit weird). Obviously a film can better illustrate the despicable practices Thenardier is singing about.

Extra song en route to Paris: Suddenly. Worked well enough. I wouldn't say I like it as much as the rest of the musical, but it worked, and in fact I may like it more once I know it better. And then Valjean and Cosette fleeing Javert through the streets before escaping into the convent. Given that the timeline of the film was somewhat truncated compared to that of the book, it seems like Fauchelevent has gotten and settled into his fancy new job rather quickly, but I certainly don't mind this scene being in - shows a bit more of Javert's tenacity in his pursuit of Valjean if nothing else. Which is pretty relevant shortly before Stars, unfortunately as I've already mentioned, Russell Crowe didn't do the best job with that song. A shame, because I liked the way it was shot with Javert on the rooftop, particularly since they then called back to it at his suicide.
Paris! Arguing old woman and prostitute taken out, more emphasis on Gavroche and the students, no bad thing in my opinion. they're more to the point. As previously mentioned, Marius' grandfather serves no purpose in the story so they probably shouldn't have thrown him in for the about four lines they gave him in the film.
The whole scene in the cafe, they cut out the bits of Enjolras organising everyone - "At Notre-Dame the sections are prepared!" - and so on, to my great disappointment as it deprives us of the excellent line "Grantaire, put that bottle down!" I suppose it's not crucial, though seeing Enjolras as a leader at that point is neat, and it could make the scene flow on better maybe?
Now, here's a change. They moved Do You Hear the People Sing? Reasoning makes sense, and actually in some ways it makes more sense this way, since Enjolras has just said that they'll rally the people on the day of Lamarque's funeral, and DYHtPS? is the song of them rallying the people.
They cut out a lot of Thenardier's attempt to rob Valjean at the Rue Plumet which I would've liked to see in, primarily for the argument between Eponine and her father, since that's a bit significant for her, plus it just means there's a bit more to the scene in general.
And they put On my Own in at this point. Again, it works, since we've just had the romantic interaction between Marius and Cosette, obviously emphasising Eponine's loneliness. Actually, this song I didn't feel got the emotions across as well as it might. That said, I'm comparing it to the version from the stage production I saw in the 20th anniversary year, which had me in so many tears I felt I had none left for A Little Fall of Rain, so maybe I'm just judging it by too high a standard.
One Day More. This is a song which obviously works perfectly in a film, because you can properly show that all the different groups are in different places while they sing it.

And this is the point where in the theatre there would have been an interval. Obviously there wasn't an interval, but I do believe the music stopped for a little bit, which is as close as I'd have expected, and how I feel it should be. One Day More is the big finale of the first act, you can't just have it flow straight into something else, something lesser. You need that little break to come down from the climax before you start building to the next one. And here is Lamarque's funeral, an obvious occasion for quiet. But then, as the procession passes... do you hear the people sing? I loved the setting for this song.
The barricade wasn't as impressive as I would have liked, and the building of it focused too much on bits of furniture being thrown out of windows (Including a piano IIRC, which always makes me cringe at such musical vandalism) and not enough on it being piled up to form a barricade. A minor point which I found odd - when Javert is giving his false intelligence to the revolutionaries, he sang "They intend to starve you out," instead of "starve us out," which I found odd. Disassociating himself from them seems odd when he's trying to maintain his cover.
The first attack. They included the point from the book of Marius basically saving the barricade with some dashing heroics and complete disregard for his own safety. And along with that, Eponine being shot saving him. And then her death, which is one of my favourite tearjerker moments in both the musical and the book. I was curious to see if they'd try and mix in some of the book version, but they didn't. I can't really think of how they could without messing with the song, which shouldn't really be done, however  much I may love the last thing she says, "You know, Monsieur Marius, I think I was a little bit in love with you."
They cut out the singing from the immediate aftermath of her death. I don't approve. It allows time for it to sink in, which is important since she is, of course, the first death on the barricade.
Next really notable cut was from Drink With Me. I'm also annoyed by that. Grantaire needs his time to shine and that's it. Plus, the camaradarie on the barricade is an important thing to show. I've already commented on Bring Him Home so I will not do so again. I have an issue with the death of Gavroche, however - he didn't actually do what he was supposed to. At no point did I see him actually pass the gunpowder he was retrieving up to the men on the barricade. Obviously his death is somewhat stupid and futile anyway, since the barricade still falls immediately afterwards, but his childish heroism was diminished significantly by the absence of just one or two shots of him tossing the packs he was taking up and back over the barricade. And now, we come to the one little moment they did give to Grantaire - being the most distraught over Gavroche's death. It was nice, but I'd rather he had Drink With Me in full. In fact, my preferred option would've involved him having that, one of the other students (possibly Marius?) being the one so distraught over Gavroche, and Grantaire having a slight chage in his final moment.
The retreat into the cafe, then upstairs, eventually leaving only Enjolras, unscathed but the last man standing - that's straight out of the book. And he is then more or les executed, Grantaire at his side, in this case honouring the stage tradition by hanging by his legs out the window rather than off the barricade. I'm glad they put that in from the book, but I would've liked to have had the exact nature of Grantaire's final stand by his friend in. Background, in the book, Grantaire is not so much a revolutionary, he mostly just wants to enjoy his life getting drunk and so on, but he acts as a revolutionary because he believes in Enjolras. To my recollection of how it's described, he's pretty much in love with Enjolras. And in the scene equivalent to Drink With Me, he ends up falling into a drunken stupor, from which he only awakes just before Enjolras is shot, and in time to spring to his side. They had the springing to Enjolras' side, but not the drunken stupor or any other notable interactions between the two, which I would've liked (I suppose this is another reason why I would've liked them to have included the "Grantaire, put that bottle down!" line).

Dog Eat Dog was cut entirely. I would've liked to have it in, but cutting it is understandable. I don't know why they cut the couple of lines of singing which should have happened while Valjean was carrying the unconscious Marius past Javert. Can't have been a time thing, since the time was still taken, and I feel the scene is better with those lines.
Javert's Suicide was cut down a bit, I think? Again, I don't approve. Regardless of the fact I wasn't so satisfied with Russell Crowe's rendition of that song, the full version should have been in.
Oh, I've passed over a little moment they inserted - Javert pinning his medal to Gavroche's chest. Some see this as terrible, a disgrace to the character of Javert, etc. Myself, I might side with the people who say it would've been better for Javert to simply close Gavroche's eyes rather than relinquishing his own medal to the boy - that does seem a bit far - but I appreciate the idea of the scene. It fits with the doubts beginning to enter Javert's mind. On those grounds, perhaps a little bit more could even have been made of it.

Having Turning sung over the short sequence of Marius being carried around the hospital worked nicely - I don't feel it would work so well in a film version to put in an extra scene just for that song, but they got in a bit of it in a fitting manner.
To my recollection, in stage productions during Empty Chairs at Empty Tables, the dead revolutionaries appear behind Marius while he's singing. I was disappointed they didn't do something with that in the film, particularly given how well they did Fantine hallucinating Cosette in Come to Me. Show me some ghosts! I want to see those phantom faces at the window.
And we come to the wedding. I would've liked more of Thenardier's singing in this section to have been included, such as the bit where he sings "We can prove... your bride's father is not what you think" rather than him just going straight into it. And then Beggar at the Feast should have been in in full in my opinion. I actually liked the Thenardiers being carried out while singing, but I think it would have worked better if they'd started singing first and picked up part-way through and just kept going as they did. Oh, and I feel they should have been definitely set down outside in time to deliver the last line "And when we're rich as Croesus, Jesus, won't we see you all in Hell!" directly back into the high class wedding party they've just been thrown out of.

And the finale. Well. Of course film is good for ghosts. And much as I love Eponine, removing her in favour of the Bishop makes so much sense. The fact it was Colm Wilkinson just adds to the effect. It makes sense, it fits with the book, it was just perfect. And the little kind of heaven scene they then walked into for the end worked very nicely fitting in with what's being sung at that point. this my longest blog post to date? You betcha. I'm not in the least bit surprised.
I love Les Miserables. I love the musical, I love the book, I love this film.
Now if you'll excuse me I have to go sing to myself for a while.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Gently, gently, evidently we are safe so far...

So I directed a show last week.
And apparently it was pretty good.

Hang on while I remind myself of how I usually write my show posts...
OK. Talk about the show.
Princess Ida, or Castle Adamant started as a poem by Tennyson called The Princess. Gilbert wrote a play of the same name which he called "a respectful (per)version" of the poem. Later, he turned the play into an opera in collaboration with Sullivan. The main impact of this interesting writing process is that the dialogue of the show is in blank verse. Well, that and there's dialogue which was cut from the play when it was turned into an opera, but which can potentially be reinstated if the director feels so inclined. I suppose in this context at least that's more relevant than the blank verse, since we did edit the script a bit, whereas the only concession made to the blank verse was that I mostly tried to maintain the meter while editing the script. Certainly we never told the cast to pay any attention to it.

Dramatis Personae:

King Hildebrand - Baritone. Big and booming, imposing. The most dangerous person in the show and everyone knows it. Whenever he's onstage, he is in control of the situation (if not always in control of his temper).

Hilarion (His son) - Tenor. Romantic lead. As you might expect from that combination in a G&S. Flouncy and emotional. The only easy similarity to draw between him and his father is that of stubbornness - he refuses point blank to give up on his love for Ida, under any circumstances.

Cyril (Hilarion's friend) - Tenor. Incorrigible flirt and inveterate womaniser. Part dashing rogue, part irresponsible drunk who doesn't take anything seriously.

Florian (Hilarion's friend) - Baritone. Hilarion's best friend. As my co-director put it, Florian is "the Sam Gamgee character". He's defined primarily by his incredible loyalty to Hilarion. In our prodduction, there was certainly a sense of him being generally awkward and uncomfortable with the situations in which he found himself, but obviously he wouldn't leave his best friend and so he deals with it all as best he can.

King Gama - Comic baritone. On for about half an hour and steals the show. Pretty much the epitome of a creepy old man. Loves to criticise everything and everybody except his own family, and can find fault with absolutely anything.

Arac, Guron, Scynthius (Gama's sons) - Baritones/basses. Supposedly great warriors. Actually great idiots. In our production we had the amusing idea of making Scynthius a woman in an obviously fake beard.

Princess Ida (Gama's daughter) - Soprano. Ambitious, intelligent, precocious, strong but a bit wild. In my opinion, one of the best female characters in all of G&S; she has so much range, from the confident and secure ruler of Castle Adamant, to a woman secretly in love with a man but unwilling to admit it because of internal conflicts, to the ruthless leader of an army of women, to the wild and distressed defender of a lost hope.

Lady Blanche (Professor of Abstract Science) - Alto. Formerly Ida's teacher, generally fits the archetype of the scary old battleaxe of a teacher who gives out the harsh punishments. Also she really, really hates men. Really.
Plus, ambitious, egotistical, driven by envy to some extent, and prone to reeling off incomprehensible speeches about abstract philosophy.

Lady Psyche (Professor of Humanities) - Either soprano or mezzo, I'm not sure. Ida's best friend, Florian's sister. If Blanche is the teacher who scares the kids, Psyche is then the more gentle and understanding one who they like, though she still carries herself with authority. Somewhat timid and demure if taken out of her comfort zone, however.

Melissa (Blanche's daughter) - Mezzo-soprano. Think rebellious teenager - particularly in her attitudes to men. Because men are forbidden at Castle Adamant and especially by Melissa's mother, they are therefore exciting. Plus she's curious and excitable.

Sacharissa, Chloe, Ada (Girl graduates) - Minor characters, a couple of little bits of speaking each, as originally written one singing line for Sacharissa, but we gave them a couple more bits which were originally Melissa's.
In our production we also kind of divided the female chorus into three groups in terms of how they acted (and who they interacted with), with one of these three per group. Sacharissa was with Melissa and that group was much like her. Chloe's group were demure and bookish and very much particular followers of Psyche. And Ada's group were very much followers of Blanche, more aggressive and stern.

Kings Gama and Hildebrand.
Florian, Hilarion, and Cyril.
Scynthius, Guron and Arac, with Gama.
Lady Psyche, Princess Ida, and Lady Blanche.
Melissa and her clique of girls.

Rapid Plot summary:

Here's the plot summary I put on the facebook event:
Twenty years ago, neighbouring kings Hildebrand and Gama eased a tense diplomatic situation by marrying their infant children to each other. Now, when the Prince Hilarion and Princess Ida are to be reunited, Ida has abandoned her father’s court to form a women’s university with the goal of proving “That Woman, educated to the task, can meet Man, face to face, on his own ground, and beat him there!” However Hilarion, undeterred, sets out for Castle Adamant himself to claim his promised bride and win her affections by any means necessary – up to and including dressing up as one of her students.
But while Ida knows not mercy for men in women’s clothes, Hildebrand is a peppery kind of king and Gama hasn’t anything to grumble at, so something must give one way or the other when anger spreads his wing!

Slightly more detail, Gama turns up late, with his three sons, but no Ida. After insulting everything he can see, he explains where she is and is locked up for his troubles. Hilarion, Cyril and Florian leave to go to Castle Adamant. That's Act 1.
Bye guys!
Act 2, we see the university as it generally is, then the men turn up and dress as women. They manage to fool Ida (Fortunately for them, the only man she's seen since she was 1 year old is Gama, so she can't figure out they're men), but can't fool Psyche (She's Florian's sister and knew them all as a child), Melissa (She overhears them with Psyche) or Blanche (She's actually met  men in her life and is not an idiot). However Psyche and Melissa will keep the secret because they realise men aren't actually that bad, while Blanche is persuaded on the grounds that if Hilarion takes Ida away to be his wife, then she can take over Castle Adamant. Unfortunately Cyril gets drunk and gives the game away and Ida is unforgiving even after she falls in the moat and is saved by Hilarion. However at this point Hildebrand turns up and threatens to a) attack the castle and b) kill Ida's father and brothers if she doesn't surrender.
Finally, in act 3 it turns out the women other than Ida (And presumably Blanche) are all too terrified to fight the men. Also Gama explains that everyone at Hildebrand's court has been being nice to him so he has nothing to grumble at; so to save her father from this horrific torture, Ida agrees to let the matter of her marriage depend on a fight between Hilarion Cyril and Florian on one side, and her brothers on the other. The three brothers, being idiots, decide their armour is too restrictive and remove it all before the fight. They lose, everyone gets married (Except for Blanche, Hildebrand and Gama), it's a G&S ending. Hooray!

Just a brief thing I want to say at this point - I understand some people dislike the ending of Ida, because, well, the men win. Obviously potentially troublling from a modern perspective. The thing is, personally I don't see it quite like that. As I see it, both sides are portrayed as flawed, and indeed laughable. The correct side in this is the middle. Compromise, equality rather than either being on top (Yes, that's an innuendo, I know). And I feel that's what is being moved towards at the end. Ida abandons her original idea of making all women abjure tyrannic Man, which, as pointed out, would have led to the extinction of the human race, but she maintains her belief in the strength of Woman, and indeed it seems to me Hilarion shares some of those feelings. So it's all good.
(Tl;dr - I like the ending of the show and don't think it's terribly anti-feminist or whatever so long as you look at it the right way)

So. That's how the show goes. As to this particular production, well, since I directed it, I should have something to say about it... obviously I've already mentioned the splitting the female chorus of acts 2&3 into three cliques, and I've mentioned that we had a female Scynthius (Hilarious especially because the first sung line we gave to her was in the song when the three brothers enter "We are warriors three, Song of Gama Rex, Like most Sons are we, Masculine in sex...")

I suppose since I anticipate this blog post being read by a decent portion of the cast, I should mention first that they were all amazing. While there were a couple of difficult decisions in casting everyone the night of the auditions, once those couple of issues were resolved, everything just fell into place really nicely.

The big thing One of the big things about the experience about directing was simply the fact of it. Looking at things from the other perspective. Things which obviously I've been aware of in other productions, but I've never been the person who had to deal with them, and which you don't necessarily consider when you ask to be a director. Obviously I expected that I'd have to tell actors what to do on stage, think about set, props, costumes and so on (Though, makeup and hair were things I kind of failed to think about until we were in the theatre and then there was a certain amount of "um, er, I guess?"), but I didn't consider that of course there are also issues for the cast as people as well as actors/singers. Such as dealing with when people have attendance issues for whatever reason, small disputes but unexpected things, trying to make sure everyone gets on, miscommunications or lack of communication between significant people...

Another thing was just masses of stress at mostly random points - sometimes it made sense. Obviously I was stressed before I started in case I screwed it up, and obviously I was stressed before the first performance because I hadn't been entirely satisfied with how some of the dress rehearsal went, but also sometimes there seemed to be no real rhyme or reason to when I was stressed about the show. It just happened. And of course sometimes it made sense but was related to issues which I couldn't have forseen so it was just suddenly dumped on me with no warning and AAAAA.
Did I mention I wasn't the only director? No? Well, I wasn't. This being my first time directing, I was very glad of having a co-director working with me to share some of the load and the stress (Well, except in the instances where he caused the stress - then obviously I wished I was solo directing so I could just do things my way without having to compromise or argue about things, but those times were outweighed by the positive aspects). That said, in some ways I feel like one of the most difficult things about directing the show was figuring out how the two of us would work together while both being definitely involved and without stepping on each others' toes too much. It worked though! Everything worked, and we came out with a show we were both proud of and we don't hate each other!

Hmm. Well, one thing which actually I mentioned to our Ida last night that I've found in the context of writing, and possibly other contexts as well, also held true in directing - often having a problem to solve with an idea will lead to something amazing which you would never have thought of if you didn't have to think of it to solve the problem (There must be a shorter way of phrasing that...). Unfortunately I've forgotten the example of this I was thinking of earlier while writing a different section, but there definitely were a few cases of "Oh wait, that doesn't work because this character is here... wait! Get him/her to do this, that solves the problem and also will be hilarious!"

Erm, let's see... Pride. I'm proud of the show. As my co-director put it, watching the show happening, every time someone does something and the audience like it, you as a director get that happy feeling of "I told them to do that!" Except in the cases where we didn't tell them to do that and they just came up with it themselves, but even then it can be a case of them building on stuff we did tell them, and it still kind of worked for me because I obviously thought these guys were amazing and so I was really glad to have those opinions validated by the audience agreeing with me.
For that matter, I think I've mentioned before in other blog posts how impressive it can be how a show comes together, from sloppy, unpolished, disparate elements into a cohesive whole which just flows. I've always liked that, but I've never been really responsible for it before.

Anything else? I was pleased to find out I was able to direct a show up to standard. I've thought of doing so for a while. I figured that in principle, for the acting direction at least, it's just the same sort of thinking you do as a principal character in a show - "Why is my character doing this? How do I feel about this? How do I say this line?" - but applied to everyone rather than just yourself, and putting a bit more thought into how it all looks to the audience (An area in which I may be a bit lacking, since I've been in more shows than I've seen...). And then there's choreography as well.

I'm not sure what else I can say without getting in-depth either about the script, the direction or the people involved. In general, it was an amazing show. Even people who I know tend to be rather critical of shows were short on negative things to say. The post-show blues are here for me, though I'm coping reasonably well. I loved the show, I loved directing, I really want to do it again some time and I'm incredibly proud of everyone who was involved in Princess Ida.
Can't thank you all enough.