Nearly every interview and promotion has highlighted the fact that Les Misérables was sung live on set; now it has officially opened in the UK we can ask the question: was it worth it?
When I call myself a fan of musical theatre I rarely include films, despite films such as The Sound of Music and Annie Get Your Gun being my introduction to the genre. I have always felt somewhat cheated by them, whether by the dubbed taps in Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly films or by the recorded singing. The vocal part often went one step further with actors being dubbed, two famous examples being Marnie Nixon dubbing for Natalie Wood in Westside Story and for Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady. As many of the actors from the film have pointed out, it meant the Les Mis film got to be a lot more emotionally driven – it wasn’t just a competition between those who could belt it out the loudest.
Rather than writing multiple blogs on why the live singing was amazing it may be better to take an objective view of the technique. One problem with doing live singing is getting the balance between singer and orchestra; the live singing on Les Misérables involved actors having ear pieces and live piano played to them with the orchestra added in post-production. Most of the actors traversed this without any real problem. The one actor I felt let down by, although the blame doesn’t lie squarely with her, was Amanda Seyfried as Cosette. This role is often given a lot of slack: Rebecca Caine (original Cosette) has spent the past few weeks tweeting about people’s negative views of the character. In this instance I think it is a very hard role to sing and to sing with strength in comparison to the power house of Eponine; although having said that if the last note of ‘Heart Full Of Love’ were to be sung at full blast it would decimate Eponine and Marius.
Another problem as a consequence of the live singing was the use of sets as opposed to real locations for the most part. There was of course location singing such as that end reprise of ‘Do You Hear The People Sing?’ but it was location singing that meant parts were pre-recorded, such as the opening in the dockyard, as they clearly couldn’t mic actors with all that water. The most obvious set was the actual barricade. Now of course it is easier to record sound in the controlled environment of a studio, but as an audience we knew it wasn’t a real location. Though I do concede that you can’t go blowing up real Parisian streets, either.
The flaws of live singing are always going to be outnumbered by the positives. Getting right in there with a tight close up on Anne Hathaway singing ‘I Dreamed A Dream’ was incredible and to see the tears in her eyes and a slightly runny nose did feel more real. I honestly believed that for these characters singing was merely an extension of the spoken word – the most natural way to express intense feelings.