Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
Tom Harris

GET UPDATES FROM Tom Harris
 

Les Pretensions

Posted: 18/02/2013 00:00

As you get older, there are certain things you're expected to embrace that you did not in your younger years. Country music, for instance. And racism.

Another is opera. I've given it a go and to be honest it doesn't really do it for me. What I want from a musical is a few good chart hits you can sing along to, not three interminable hours without recognising a melody or understanding the lyrics.

I pretty much grew up with Carousel, Oklahoma! and The King and I. When The Sound of Music was finally licensed for TV broadcast, you could hardly hear a pin drop in our living room as poor old Christopher Plummer struggled manfully through "Edelweiss", bringing tears to the eyes of virtually the whole Harris family and a large part of the Third Reich.

Which is probably why I have a bit of a problem with Les Miserables. I enjoyed it - I even bought the soundtrack. The costumes, the plot, characterisation, the general feel of the whole thing is epic.

Did you notice I didn't mention the script there? Well, that's because there isn't a script, because it's a musical. Virtually all the dialogue is sung, not spoken. But doesn't that make it... oh, I don't know... an opera?

And that's clearly what the writers and producers intended, isn't it? Not for them the vulgarity of attracting as wide an audience as possible with a combination of words and songs. It's Mozart they want to be compared with, not Rodgers and Hammerstein.

And therein lies the problem. Before Carolyn gave up on trying to make me all cultured and stuff, we went to see an English translation of The Marriage of Figaro. A couple of decent tunes, I'll grant you (well, one, actually, and I only know it because we had it performed at our wedding. See? Cultured!) but you can see why the original Italian is so revered. This stuff is far more impressive when you don't know what the hell the characters are actually singing about:

"Who's that over there?"

"What do you mean?"

"Over there, behind the chair!"

"You mean that chair there?"

"Yes, that's the chair I meant..."

Or something equally inane (I can't be entirely sure because I seem to remember my attention was elsewhere at the time, looking for a Malteser I'd dropped down the side of my seat while Carolyn rolled her eyes and sighed loudly).

If the conversation between characters isn't all that interesting, or doesn't naturally lend itself to a song, then for goodness sake, just let the actors speak the lines!

It was the same in Evita (and Lloyd Webber really does fancy himself a few rungs higher in the evolutionary chain than a mere writer of show tunes). Do we really want to have to listen to some contrived rhyming conversation between Madonna and Jimmy Nail (!) about how she plans to move to Buenos Aires? A Question To Which The Answer Is No.

But back to Les Mis. I listened to the soundtrack before I saw the film, and there are some terrific tunes: "I Dreamed a Dream" (naturally), "Empty Chairs At Empty Tables", "Master of the House", "On My Own"... Plenty of top notch ditties to pad out a two-hour plot. But really, why go to the bother of writing a "melody" for dialogue that would sound far better spoken than sung?

And that's before I even touch on the aspect that gives it away as a pretentious attempt at opera rather than musical theatre: death.

Maybe it's just an aspect of the era in which La Bohème and suchlike were written, but my, those characters were dropping like flies, weren't they? And usually for no obvious reason. If someone coughs into a handkerchief half way through Act One, you just know they have the life expectancy of one of those red-shirted officers from the Enterprise who beam down to the planet with Captain Kirk and never beam back up.

And so in Les Miserables, two of the main characters just... well, die. No particular reason - it's just convenient to the plot. Something unnamed and mysterious. Ordained by God, perhaps. But fatal.

And all this happens in the context of abject misery (Ah! Okay, now I get the reason it's called that...). From start to finish the cast put all their efforts into looking and sounding terribly, terribly sad. Every song is infused with tears, every second line is choked into silence by the biting back of another sob. Even when they're supposed to be happy, this lot find an excuse to moan and fret about something or other.

And yes, it's ultimately uplifting, I won't deny that. Rusell Crowe is better than the critics admit, Hugh Jackman worse. Everyone is terrific. I just wish Cameron Mackintosh and his ilk would stop with the pretension. There's nothing wrong in a straightforward musical: some words, some music, some songs, some dances. Add a couple of pints and a curry - now that's culture!

Les Mis might want to be remembered as an opera. But it won't be: it will just be remembered as a very long musical without any dialogue.

 

Follow Tom Harris on Twitter: www.twitter.com/TomHarrisMP

FOLLOW UK ENTERTAINMENT