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Les Misérables and French Musicals

Yoshitaka Watanabe
Professor, Faculty of Education and Integrated Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

Everyone’s been talking about the musical film Les Misérables that came out last year, but what is it that makes it so appealing?

Les Misérables is a film adaptation of the stage musical that has been performed also in Japan for over 25 years, but for fans of the musical, the film version is a little different. In the stage musical, the first part tells the story of Fantine, the “unfortunate mother,” and the second part tells the story of Éponine, the “unfortunate daughter.” In the film, however, Fantine (played by Anne Hathaway) is brought to the foreground, and the last half focuses the spotlight on the love between her grown daughter Cozette and the young revolutionary Marius, while Éponine fades into the background. In fact, instead of showing Fantine and Éponine singing together in the finale as they do in the stage version, the film has only the Bishop and Fantine await the dying Jean Valjean.

The film Les Misérables ©Universal Pictures

This is, of course, a film—not a musical play. It is a fast-moving production that leaves out unnecessary exposition, while it makes full use of the unique features of the film medium like high-angle shots and close-ups. To top it off, the vocals have the intensity of a live recording, as opposed to a studio recording. The hearts of viewers are captured by film techniques emphasizing the power of the songs and performances of the actors over their singing skills. The result is a “touching musical” that keeps moving viewers to tears, to the point where one wonders if it’s all right to make people cry so much. But the film is, in fact, surprisingly close to the original French version. That’s right, the stage version originated in France. The film adaptation of the stage version has unexpectedly shed light on the original stage version. You could even say that the film adaptation actually serves as a testament to the fact that it is the destiny of the musical to be endlessly re-created and transformed, to remain a living/variable thing—that, as one director put it, “You can restage a performance but not replicate it.”

The wave of rock musicals like Hair and rock operas by Andrew Lloyd Webber inundated France without fail from the late 1960s onward. The combination of opera and rock was an ideal way for musicals to become widely accepted in France, where the musical scene was still developing. However, Starmania (1979) and Les Misérables (1980), two arguably path-breaking works in the history of French musicals, took slightly different stances. Starmania: The Rock Opera, composed by Québécois lyricist Luc Plamondon and French pop singer-songwriter Michel Berger, is a musical that has diverged from the English-speaking world, while you could say that Les Misérables, created by lyricist Alain Boublil and composer Claude-Michel Schönberg, was aimed at the English-speaking world and has since transcended that audience to take the entire world by storm. Songs like Bring Him Home sung by Jean Valjean and Éponine’s On My Own, for example, are not in the French version (the latter was originally Fantine’s number). It is said that when the French version was converted into the English version, one third of the musical was translated, another third was altered or adapted, and the remaining third or more was created anew. In addition, the staging of the musical was significantly changed in the fall of 2010. The popularity of the ever-evolving Les Misérables shows no signs of waning.

The musical Notre-Dame de Paris

In any case, the appearance of rock opera, or what you could call modern opera, is regarded as an extension of grand opera, a major feature of 19th-century French opera. Plamondon, one of the instigators of Starmania, teamed up with Italian composer Riccardo Cocciante after Berger’s death and started work on a new spectacle musical called Notre-Dame de Paris (1998). The musical, which just finished playing in Japan the other day, uses a new style that attempts to completely separate the singing and dancing, placing them in competition with each other. In British and American musicals, it is common for each performer to sing, dance and act, but this musical has adopted the strategy of having singers focus completely on singing and dancers (not only show dancers, but also contemporary and acrobatic dancers) focus completely on dancing. Although one could argue that this is the result of a mindset greedy for the best singing and the best dancing, it is interesting to note that by using this approach the musical has broken down the barriers between leading roles and supporting roles, singers and dancers, and by extension art and entertainment to a remarkable degree. Despite being based on a book by the same author (Victor Hugo) and having the same socially-minded theme, along with the cries of the major characters, Les Sans-Papiers (illegal residents without identification papers or residence permits), Notre-Dame de Paris has emerged as a very contemporary musical with a different flavor than Les Misérables.

An Invitation to French Musicals [Furansu Myūjikaru he no Shōtai] by Ryo Watanabe

The powerful advance of spectacle musicals has continued since then, with Les Dix Commandements (2000) and Roméo et Juliette (2001), which have been performed in Japan, Le Roi Soleil (2005), and Mozart L'Opéra Rock (2009), which was recently translated and performed in Japan, among many others. One wonders the extent to which this new style of French musicals aiming for a true fusion of art and entertainment is capable of fascinating audiences in Japan and all over the world.

Yoshitaka Watanabe
Professor, Faculty of Education and Integrated Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

Professor Watanabe graduated from the School of Letters, Arts and Sciences I, Waseda University and earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Paris I. After working at Mie University and Yokohama City University, he took up his current position in 2005. His publications (written under the pen name Ryo Watanabe) include books dealing with contemporary French thought, such as Reading Contemporary French Thought [Furansu Gendai Shisō wo Yomu] and Barthes [Baruto], books dealing with musicals, such as Elisabeth: An Introduction [“Erizabēto” Tokuhon] and An Invitation to French Musicals [Furansu Myūjikaru he no Shōtai], and translations like Roland Barthes’ Writings 1: Literary Utopia [Roran Baruto Chosakushū 1: Bungaku no Yūtopia].