Brow Beat

Where Do I Start with Les Misérables?

Not with Russell Crowe.

© 2012 - Universal Pictures

Tom Hooper’s highly anticipated film adaptation of Les Misérables, coming out on Christmas day, has raised any number of important questions. Will the star-laden cast pull off live singing? How many close-ups can Hooper cram into nearly three hours? Do I have to read the book first?

We should spend time on all of these quandaries, to be sure, but newcomers to the theatrical sensation have another one to tackle first. If I want to understand why people are so hyped for Les Miz, where do I start?

Happily, that question doubles as the perfect prompt for a debate over who among the myriad performers who’ve attempted the delectable roles provided by Victor Hugo’s saga have performed them best. And so below, after countless soundtrack listening sessions and solo bedroom singalongs, I give you the answers: the definitive versions of Jean Valjean, Javert, Fantine, Marius, Cosette, and Eponine.

Jean Valjean
Hugh Jackman’s eyes alone could probably play Jean Valjean, the tragically heroic protagonist of Hugo’s novel, who is haunted by his past imprisonment for stealing bread. But when it comes to two-four-six-oh-oooone, there is only Colm Wilkinson, aka the Valjean. He was in both the Original London Cast (1985) and Original Broadway Cast (1987), as well as the 10th Anniversary Dream Cast (1995). Here he is—a decade of Valjean behind him—killing it, as always:

(Runner-up: I’m also a fan of John Owen-Jones, whom you can see perform the same song, “Bring Him Home,” alongside Alfie Boe, Simon Bowman, and Wilkinson himself.)

No one is happy about Russell Crowe’s singing capabilities, or his blue costume, but that man can sure give a stern side-eye—which should help him render the role of austere law-enforcer Javert, who holds a grudge against Jean Valjean dating back to the latter’s prison days. The musical fact remains that Javert should be sung by a rich baritone, and when Crowe dips into his lower register it feels like he’s falling into, rather than hitting, the notes. As cast recordings go, on the other hand, Javerts have been uniformly strong. I like the orchestration behind Roger Allam’s rendition of “Stars,” but it cannot be denied that Philip Quast’s delivery of Staaaaahhhs is the best:

Rumor has it Anne Hathaway will steal the show with her portrayal of Fantine, the frail and forsaken prostitute who signals her virtue with her maternal devotion. Judging from how prominently the trailers showcase her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream,” she probably will do just that. I mean, listen to Hathaway’s perfectly inflected “Sooo different from this hell I’m living,” and tell me that you are not verklempt. You can’t. The way she draws out those notes!

There’s something truly lovely and fragile about Hathaway’s performance not usually seen in stage versions, where Fantine’s desperation is often emphasized through impressive belting. (One exception: Madalena Alberto, who took it way in the other direction.) Patti LuPone, the original Broadway Fantine, portrayed the broken messiness of the character beautifully, but my favorite remains Ruthie Henshall from the Dream Cast, who has a sort of Bernadette Peters open-throatedness in her voice that evokes both hopefulness and nerve.

Les Miz provides some of the most heterosexual musical theater you’re going to find, but I’m still excited to see Eddie Redmayne as Marius stand alongside his best friend Enjolras, played by Aaron Tveit, at the barricades. Tveit comes from a strong Broadway background, and his voice will make you swoon. And Eddie Redmayne, whose “A Heart Full of Love” is almost too much to take, will likely give a strong turn as well. But even he has admitted that there is only one Marius: Michael Ball. Like Wilkinson with Valjean, Ball has played Marius in multiple casts (twice alongside Wilkinson). Watch him perform “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” with the Dream Cast.

Cosette, the daughter of Fantine who is adopted by Valjean, is the classical soprano heroine of Les Miz. For the movie, however, they gave the part to an alto. Amanda Seyfried is clearly struggling in “A Heart Full of Love,” but I doubt the rest of the film will show her faltering in her upper range quite so much. Traditionally, Cosettes have skewed more operatic than not, though there are a few that have added more pop elements into the role. The first London Cosette, Rebecca Caine, went notably light on the falsetto and the results were stunning. Judy Kuhn, who later sang as Disney’s Pocahontas, performed Cosette first on Broadway, and later in the Dream Cast, with a mature and rich soprano that is unquestionably gorgeous, though not quite right for Cosette’s character. More recently, Katie Hall played Cosette in the 25th Anniversary Cast, and her delivery was sparkling, youthful, and totally believable.  

Eponine, the spoiled child of innkeepers who becomes impoverished in adolescence, brings several buckets of pathos to the pathos-filled Les Miz. So when Hooper asked Samantha Barks to reprise her stage turn as Eponine for his film, his line of thinking was probably, “We are not going to screw this one up.” Barks is a sure bet. She’s also one of many Eponines with very clear, decidedly musical theater voices. (See also the undeniably talented Lea Salonga and Sutton Foster.) Eponine is supposed to be ragged and tragic, but she often sings like an ingénue—which, I guess, is part of the fantasy.

Still, the best Eponines sing as if they don’t quite belong—neither in Marius’s arms nor on the Broadway stage. Kaho Shimada gave a lovely, hesitant interpretation of the character. But that mixture of innocence, bitterness, and confusion has never been expressed better than through the original Eponine, Frances Ruffelle.

If you’ve come this far, you may be ready to follow this Les Miz obsessive one step farther. The original Les Miz didn’t have an English libretto; it was composed in Hugo’s native French. Alain Boublil, inspired by Oliver!, pitched the idea to Claud-Michel Schönberg, and in 1980 their version was staged in Paris.

The French Les Miz has its disco-inflected moments, but the score mostly shares the same musical DNA as the English-language version. There are a few obvious changes: Eponine’s original ballad “L’un vers l’autre” was cut, replaced by “On My Own” (with a melody initially sung by Fantine). The popularity of “On My Own” resulted in the 1991 Parisian Revival to include a French equivalent, “Mon histoire.” The result was a recording that stands among the best in the musical’s history.

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