‘Les Misérables’ and the End of the Movie Musical

I love musicals. I (mostly) can’t get enough of them! I realize that they’re not everyone’s cup of tea, but, then again, I’m not particularly fond of sci-fi or fantasy films, so, to each their own! But I think it’s time to come down hard on the new wave of musical movies that have managed to shimmy their way onto the big screen in the last decade. Yes, Les Misérables, you have put the final nail in the coffin of this dying genre.

Here’s the thing about Les Misérables: even the show itself is not that great. It was part of the new wave of musical theater in the ’80s in which spectacle took precedence over good writing. As a friend told me recently, “Les Misérables is so dull and boring that they had to put a giant turntable in the middle of the stage just to keep people awake.” I’d like to blame the British for this, particularly producer Cameron Mackintosh who, like Andrew Lloyd Webber, turned Broadway into a string of poperas with tolerable music intermittently coming from an orchestra pit filled with cellists and violinists who were scared for their lives as explosions and fire pits and chandeliers crashed above them on the stage.

So now it’s on film, and it is bad. Well, it’s fine. It’s just fine! For every good part of the film (Anne Hathaway, the sets, the costumes), there’s a lot of bad (Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman, the direction, the cinematography, the CGI butterfly that director Tom Hooper seemed to think we would want to see as much as we’d like to hear Anne Hathaway’s sobs and dry-heaves during “I Dreamed a Dream”). It’s another example, of course, of the modern movie musical: overblown, overwrought, stuffed with moderately talented actors who, if not Autotuned, sound like they’re doing karaoke, and lacking any sort of levity and, well, fun.

But do movie musicals even work anymore? Perhaps they could, if only directors stopped trying to “turn the genre on its head.” The greatest movie musicals are, generally, joyous and and massive experiences: Singin’ in the Rain, The Music Man, West Side Story, The Sound of Music (which I begrudgingly include, as all of Rogers and Hammerstein’s catalog makes me want to rip off my own ears), Fiddler on the Roof, Oliver. In most cases, these great films were not somber occasions. Sure, a few of them have unhappy endings (for example, the exodus from Anatevka isn’t exactly cheery), but for the most part even a movie featuring singing Nazis can manage to leave an audience member in a good mood.

But remember in the ’90s when Evita was primed to bring back the movie musical? Madonna, who can sing and dance, couldn’t even make a melodramatic stage musical into a movie that wasn’t completely dull and dour. And then there were Chicago and Moulin Rouge, which are essentially musicals for people who hate musicals and, thusly, not to be respected. The former relied heavily on editing to give the illusion that its cast (other than Catherine Zeta-Jones, who is herself a seasoned stage actress) could dance, while the latter picked up on Broadway’s lead and just stuffed a bunch of already-popular songs into a musical narrative, because that way average moviegoers could say, “I know that song! And I know that song!” (This is why Glee is so popular and also so cloying.) I’m still blown away that even fans of musicals have accepted Chicago as a good film, even though it painfully pales in comparison to the postmodern anti-musicals Cabaret and All That Jazz, both of which take the conceit of putting all of the musical numbers onto a stage setting so that it’s not as jarring to the viewer. But Rob Marshall is no Bob Fosse, which I think the insufferably bad Nine proved just a few years after Chicago won Best Picture.

But as long as Broadway moves toward “serious” (read: somber) musicals, Hollywood will continue to adapt the crowd-pleasing shows into sub-par films. Tom Hooper, bless him, did his best with Les Misérables, and while I respect his decision to have his actors sing live, it mostly proved distracting. It’s one thing to see a natural singing performance on film, which is usually hindered by dubbing. But the singing should be pretty; it’s pretty much the foundation of musical theater. The sad fact is that it’s going to be pretty hard to get a good performer to be in a big-budget movie musical, because good performers are not famous enough to carry a film. If that were the case, we would not have seen (and heard) Russell Crowe desperately warbling through Javert’s numbers. Crowe himself defended Hooper’s vision, saying that he “wanted it raw and real.” But musicals are not real, because people do not burst into song accompanied by a soaring orchestra.

So what’s wrong with the movie musical? Well, we can blame it on a lot of things. The subject matter is too serious for an audience to suspend belief and accept that those sad characters would express themselves in light-hearted tunes. The Hollywood system has weeded out great talent, leaving the crop of A-list actors without the abilities to hit notes and land dance moves. Genre films aren’t respectable, so directors now eschew specific conventions for middle-of-the-road tactics to please as many audiences as possible. And we can’t forget the audiences themselves, whose attention span and gradual distaste for musical theater conventions have encouraged the demise of the genre. The bottom line is this: it may just be time that we accept the musical as a dying animal, and put it out of its misery rather than making it tap dance and fan-kick for our own entertainment. 

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‘Nice Work’ for the 2012 Tony Award Nominees

If you were part of a big revival, adapted a popular film this year, or were involved in a production involving music by the Gershwins, you’re probably up for a Tony Award. Congratulations!

Leading the nomination pack for the American stage honors is Once, the adaptation of The Swell Season’s sweet little indie musical that could, with 11 nominations including Best Musical, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Choreography, with a revival of Porgy & Bess and Nice Work If You Can Get It (an appropriate musical title for these times, no?), the jazz-era musical comedy starring Matthew Broderick and some Gerswhwin jams, following close behind with 10 each. Rounding out "Best Musical" are Newsies and Leap of Faith.

Peter Pan tale Peter & The Starcatcher, Pulitzer Prize-winner Clybourne Park, family drama Other Desert Cities (starring Stockard Channing, also up for an award) and David Ives’ Venus In Fur are the nominations for Best Play.

Other adapted musicals include the recently-launched stage version of the Disney cult film Newsies and Bonnie & Clyde, which is up for Best Original Score. Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark, the Bono-backed, (formerly) Julie Taymor-helmed musical theatre punchline of the summer, still found itself with two nominations, for Scenic Design and Costume Design.

In a year full of revivals—including the usual crop of Lloyd Webbers, Sondheims (Follies!) and Gershwins—there were a few standouts in the Best Revival category, notably the Diane Paulus-directed production of the latter’s Porgy and Bess, the biblical funk of Jesus Christ Superstar and a new production of Evita starring Ricky Martin as Che and Argentine actress Elena Roger as Eva Perón. BlackBook’s own Tyler Coates sat down with Roger and Michael Cerveris, who plays Juan Perón, back in April to talk about the production.

"It was big when it opened on Broadway, but in Argentina, everyone was like, Oh they did a musical about Evita," Roger says of the original production and the response to it in her home country. "Some hated it, and some loved it. But still, it was not Argentina. That’s why I believe in this production—even Andrew Lloyd Webber now says the arrangements have a more Argentinian flavor."

Play revivals up for top honors include Death of A Salesman (star Philip Seymour Hoffman is also up for Best Actor), Wit (and Cynthia Nixon for Best Actress) and Master Class (James Earl Jones up for Best Actor).

A full list of nominations can be found over at the WaPo. The Tonys will be held on June 10th. Ever-popular host Neil Patrick Harris returns for another year, which means we can expect more production numbers like this one:

And here’s a look at Once: The Musical:

Nice Work If You Can Get It:

Elena Roger & Michael Cerveris Shine in a Dazzling Revival of ‘Evita’

The original 1979 production of Evita was a landmark success, launching the careers of Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin and solidifying composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice as Broadway titans. While the musical was made into a movie in the ’90s starring Madonna and features the epically crowd-pleasing "Don’t Cry for Me Argentina," the show had a 29-year absence on the Broadway stage. In a dazzling new production directed by Michael Grandage, pop star Ricky Martin steps into the role originated by Patinkin. But it’s the two other lead actors who truly shine in the revival—Elena Roger and Michael Cerveris as Eva and Juan Perón, respectively.

Roger, who starred in the 2006 West End production of the show, makes her Broadway debut. The Argentinian actress, who seems at first too small and polite to portray the power-hungry icon, transforms into the larger-than-life Evita on stage. Cerveris, who has played the title characters in Broadway productions such as The Who’s Tommy and Sweeney Todd, delivers a powerful yet subtle performance as the Argentinian politician. I sat down with Roger and Cerveris last week before a performance. As the actors sipped tea in Cerveris’s dressing room while incense burned and a tango record softly played on the stereo, the pair talked about the daunting task of starring in a musical so associated with its original stars.

Can you tell me what is different in this revival? Is it more sympathetic toward Eva Perón?
Elena Roger: What I tried to do with Eva was to find why this girl behaved the way she did. What was the society giving to her to make her behave like that? I tried to understand why she hated aristocrats and helped poor people while also trying to be in power. It’s definitely not black or white—it’s complex human behavior.
Michael Cerveris: Elena has the advantage of having grown up in Argentina and knowing people who are very Perónist and very anti-Perónist. As an American, I had only mostly heard the negative sides of the Peróns. My research has really been filling in the alternative interpretation. It seems like there’s a lot of reason to believe there were a lot of positive motivations for much of what they did, and you can argue about the methods they used. But from a dramatic standpoint, it’s not interesting to have someone that’s simply a villain. Because nobody believes they’re a villain anyway. But I found plenty of material that makes me feel like we aren’t…I don’t think we do anything that isn’t potentially true. I don’t think we are trying to make anything look better than it was or trying to disguise the negative parts.

I knew nothing about Eva Perón until I listened to the original album and saw the movie. Was the show a big deal in Argentina, where you grew up?
ER: It was big when it opened on Broadway, but in Argentina, everyone was like, Oh they did a musical about Evita. Some hated it, and some loved it. But still, it was not Argentina. That’s why I believe in this production—even Andrew Lloyd Webber now says the arrangements have a more Argentinian flavor. The orchestration before…

It was more of a ’70s rock opera.
ER: Yes, yes. The only song I knew from Evita was “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina”—it’s very famous. But I didn’t know the show at all until I watched the movie for my audition.
MC: Because it’s never been done in Argentina.
ER: It’s never been done there. We have a musical called Eva, which is a little bit more Perónist than this one.

Can you tell me what you bring to the role being from Argentina? Do you think that gives you a different perspective, as opposed to the major actresses that people identify with the role?
ER: Well, the thing I have that is easy for me was that I was born there and spent my whole life there. I know the behavior of people from Argentina, and I know the history and have seen those that suffered in these political situations. I remember being seven, eight years old when we had democracy again. In Argentina, you meet with your family for dinner on Sundays, and everyone talks politics. I didn’t see Evita, and I didn’t meet Evita, but I know these stories. It’s in my blood.

This is the first major revival of the show, and it’s associated with such big, iconic names. Michael, you’ve originated roles on Broadway, and you’ve also been in revivals. Is it difficult to step into a role that is so identified with another famous actor?
MC: I think it absolutely can be. I know with Sweeney Todd, the idea of it was very daunting because that had been the first Broadway show I ever saw, and I knew every note of that cast recording and had seen it maybe seven times. I never imaged that I would ever play that part. I was so thankful for the production because it was so completely reconceived. I was able to not compete with my own memory of the original, but rather treat it like this completely new thing we’re doing here. In a way, the film version of Evita took a bit of pressure off of us; there has been another extremely widely seen version of this musical. But even the people who did saw the original—it was 30 years ago. I don’t really accurately remember things I saw a few weeks ago! Memory plays a lot of tricks. You know, people have been doing Hamlet for hundreds of years. We have to treat it as if it’s a new piece. I did see the original production of Evita, but we’re not trying to say that we got it right this time.
ER: If we try to think how the audience is going to think, it’s going to be a problem. I think what we are doing is giving everything we can, and you can see research and things and believe what we are doing. We don’t want to copy anything or compete; we just want to enjoy this production as it is and people will have that—our love for this production.

Evita is a musical based on real people. Do you approach your characters the same way you would approach a fictional character, or do you research the person who actually lived and try to mimic how they acted?
ER: I find it easier to portray a person that really existed. There were so many books, so many things on YouTube to watch. I’m not trying to copy Eva, but we have so many images of her, and it’s easier to use that to imagine what she was thinking.
MC: This play is not called “Juan”—it’s not even called “Eva.” There’s only so much that’s going to be relevant and useful to the actual thing at hand. I did research and looked at that time period and culture; you just sort of put all this stuff in a bag and then you end up only hanging on to a couple of key things that actually make it into the production. I found this Perón on eBay, so I wear that on my costume. I love physical stuff; theater is so ephemeral, but anything that roots you in fact is really like gold.

Did Andrew Lloyd Webber or Tim Rice have any sort of hands-on experience with this production?
ER: When we rehearsed before the original production in London, the director kept in touch with them. I didn’t see them in rehearsals until the end; they’d come and watch a little bit. I kept in touch with Tim Rice, and he told me the story about why he wanted to write about this woman. He used to collect stamps, and one of the stamps had the face of Evita. That sparked the interest.
MC: With Jesus Christ Superstar on Broadway, there’s another reason for them to come to see the New York production.

It’s funny—last year there were barely any revivals on Broadway. There are a lot this year! Michael, have you seen trends like that on Broadway?
MC: I would be a millionaire if I could anticipate these things and produce accordingly, but it doesn’t seem to be the result of anything concrete. Some years it’s just that there’s an open theatre and some production that’s expected to come in doesn’t and another one does. That sort of a happened with Jesus Christ Superstar. It’s like some great movement of the planets that results in these things, that then we all talk about and comment on as if they were all somehow predestined. I don’t know what to make of it. What it kind of says to me and what it reminds me about is the arbitrariness of what happens in awards season. If you happen to be in one of those years when there are tons of revivals, it’s just a harder road to bat. And then there are years where shows waltz into the winner’s circle. It kind of reminds you what a big grain of a salt to take all of that with.

Elena, have you had the chance to see a lot of theater while you’ve been in New York?
ER: I saw Follies and The Fantasticks. Once we started rehearsing I stopped going to the theater; I needed to concentrate. But now I’m going to have my Wednesdays off and can see more shows. I’m looking forward to it!

Michael, do you still try to be active as a theatre goer as well?
MC: I’ve been sort of working our block—you could spend a few months with your days off on our block alone. But I do like to se everything: I tend to have friends in a lot of shows or am a fan of the playwright or director. I like to go to shows to be inspired, and it doesn’t have to be in any way similar to the work I’m doing. Sometimes it’s even better the more different it is; you sort of empty the well eight times a week, and you just need to kind of refill it sometimes.
ER: You need to enjoy and be part of the audience again.
MC: You need to know what it’s like to be on the other side.
ER: And how beautiful it is to see a show.