At The End of the Day

This post comes a bit late, but I have things to say about it.

Recently, the teaser trailer for the “Les Miserable” movie musical was released. Of course, it aired to mixed responses and reviews. This trailer, from casting to production to public opinion, is the PERFECT testament to the frustrated life of a performer. The movie looks extremely promising.  The trailer offers only a glimpse of what’s to come, though you can already tell, visually, it will leave nothing to be desired.  And if we were talking about a non-musical representation of the story, I doubt there would be any criticism at all (and most likely very little press, remember the version from the 90’s? Barely? That’s what I thought.) However, as always in a movie musical (and rightfully so), the attention is directed to the vocal chops of the main actors.  The teaser sets the montage of scenes to an abridged version Anne Hathaway’s big number, “I Dreamed A Dream”.  Anne’s acting, for me, is the high point here. This, as public opinion starts to weigh in, is where it becomes increasingly harder to maintain objectivity, as passion (whatever that passion may be towards) tends to blind objectivity.  The rumor is that director Tom Hopper wanted the actors to sing live,  capturing their raw performance, versus lip singing to previously recorded tracks, as is usually done.  I both love and hate this idea, and “Les Miserable” is probably one of the hardest, yet one of the most appropriate musicals for this this technique.

In the theater world, Les Miserable is referred to as an “Epic Musical”.  Everything about it, from story, to score and orchestration, to acting, to vocals, to costumes, to sets and special effects is EPIC.  I mean, it’s three hours long.  EPIC.  For a brief history of the show, this review gives a pretty good summary:

Les Miserable is what we Show People call a “Pop Opera”, although it’s neither pop nor opera.  Most of the dialogue is sung, unlike the stereotypical jazz-hand ridden musical. Also, the score is [more] classically orchestrated. It requires a powerhouse vocal technique.  You’d never let Brittany Spears sing “O, Mio Bambino Caro,” just as you wouldn’t want her to sing “The Phantom of the Opera” (although we, the [theater] people, were not thrilled with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s casting for the movie… but I digress).  Even a decent to good pop singer like Katy Perry or Christina Aguilera would most likely have a hard time with classically written repertoire.  It’s just a different skill set, and therefore the wrong choice for the casting, unless they HAVE in fact been trained in that style, in which case, go girls.  The casting of the weak, relatively unknown Emmy Rossum as Christine in the “Phantom of the Opera” movie was a choice none of us understood.  That’s between god and Andrew Lloyd Webber.  She sure is pretty…

Back to the Les Mis movie.  I love the idea of using the live vocal performance.  “Les Miserable” IS SOOOO dramatic, and I can see how lip singing to pre-recorded tracks would inhibiting the performance.  Broadway performers do it 8 times a week live, so why shouldn’t they try to recreate that and bring it to a wider audience.  And good for them for not supporting pitch correction and manipulated falsities.  Here’s why I hate it. If you’re casting film actors, with limited vocal skills, of COURSE they’re going to sound shaky and flat in a live recording, ESPECIALLY when they’re in the midst of an emotional performance.  And if it’s ridden with pitch issues, I know I’m not alone when I say that I’ll most likely be removed from experience of their performance and instead only focused on the flaws.  Mistakes are made, even by professional singers, and when emotions start to take over, the vocals will not always be on point.  Also, a mistake or sour note during a live performance may be forgotten as time goes on, but in a film it’s captured forever and can be re-lived again and again and again thanks to Tivo.  Now, most trained musical actors know how to use their breath and their technique to achieve both emotion and vocal excellence, however, an “actor who can sing” will most likely not have the same skill set or tool belt.  Many will argue, “I’ve heard Anne sing and she IS trained, she’s wonderful!” I’m here to tell you as a vocal coach and one who’s spent a LOT of time studying vocal health and technique, from the first few notes, it’s clear that she lacks a strong foundation on vocal basics.  I’m not saying she’s had NO training, I’m sure she’s had some, maybe even quite a bit.  One could get away with that on a lesser musical score.  However, the more difficult the material, the more it will expose your shortcomings.  “But she’s on the verge of tears! Of course she’s shaky!” you say.  It doesn’t matter.  With good vocal technique you can achieve both acting and strong supported vocals.  Like I said, she’s probably had some training, but would you want your surgeon to have had “some” experience, or “some” medical school before he opens you up? Again, I thought her acting was great, and I do expect to really love her in the role, however, for an EPIC Musical, the bar for vocal chops is just going to be much higher.

Here’s Ruthie Henshall performing a simple yet powerful concert version.

Vocals, BAM. Acting, BAM. Celebrity, not bam. When casting celebrities in singing roles, there will always be fans who will defend them till the end.  THAT’S why they’re cast.  Because they already have people who love them no matter what, and they’re going to sell the tickets and create a huge buzz.  For a performer, the fact that most people either don’t notice the severe performance flaws, or that they DO notice them and FORGIVE them because they think that’s the best that can be done is SO frustrating.  Don’t get me started on American Idol or Smash.  But, THAT’S show business.  And while it’s frustrating knowing that there are HUNDREDS of unknowns out there who have could done it better, and that THEY won’t have their chance to shine when some hack from the Disney Channel (you know, for example) is always two steps ahead of them, I have to say that the Celebrity casting IS a positive thing in one way: It’s exposing musical theater, an industry that has seen many downs recently, to a wider audience.  Fans of Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfreid, Hugh Jackman, and Russel Crowe will go see this movie, whereas they may not have with an unknown, yet qualified, cast.  This will open up doors in ways we can’t even imagine.  Perhaps it simply motivates viewers to purchase tickets to touring company when it moves through their town.  Maybe it will inspire new patrons to the arts.  What if it propels young future performers, directors, producers, and patrons into a new direction that changes the face of the arts, and perhaps they wouldn’t have seen the movie had it not featured their favorite Marvel character, Wolverine.  You could look at it as taking away jobs.  But I think (I hope) that it’s really an investment in the future of the industry.  And as much as we poke fun at Susan Boyle, her performance of that song brought attention to a beautiful score.  Look at the movie musical “Chicago”. Had the movie not been such a hit (with half rate singers like Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere, and the god awful Renee Zelweger), the Broadway production may not be celebrating 15 years and running.  Most musicals are lucky to stay open a few years, and break even at the box office, much less turn a profit. Granted, they’ve been headlining at least one big star since (Jerry Springer, Wayne Brady, Ashlee Simpson-Wentz, Brook Shields, Lisa Rinna, Joey Lawrence, Melanie Griffith, and even Sophia Vergara, to name a few).  Again, the public will come to see someone they know.  And if that’s keeping a full cast, crew, and production team employed, then it can’t be a bad thing.

THIS is why I would have supported pitch correcting.  You can’t expect movie actors with limited legit vocal training to nail this score.  It’s asking too much.  You wouldn’t put ANY of those actors in a movie version of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”.  No one wants to see that.  But somehow “the musical” seems more accessible and so we allow it.  Fine. F or all the reasons I’ve been over, fine.  But seeing as you’re setting them up for failure, why not just help out a little bit.  Maybe they WANTED us to argue about their chops or lack there of, thus creating a buzz.  Maybe it’s just a big scam to get us all in there to see it and judge for ourselves.

I AM proud of them for reconsidering casting Taylor Swift to play the role of Eponine, another vocally and emotionally challenging lead role.   Samantha Barks, from the UK reality talent show, “I’d Do Anything” will be playing the role.  It’s like American Idol, but the prize is a role in a West End musical.  (They tried a similar show in the states: “You’re the One That I Want” was the same concept, the prizes were the roles of Danny and Sandy in the Grease revival on Broadway.)  Although Barks’ reality show status makes her LESS of an unknown (although completely unknown in the States) compared to Taylor Swift, using Swift would have been a gross mistake performance wise.  Marketing wise, she would have appealed to, so then exposed the movie to, thousands of young girls.  And for that, we thank you.

At The End of the Day, my trained, technical opinion means exactly nothing.

At the end of the Day, comment threads praising or criticizing for WHATEVER reason don’t matter.

At The End of the Day, I’m really glad they’re doing this movie, and I can’t wait to see it.

(I just hope I’m able to enjoy it.)

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