Monday, 26 July 2010

Les Bizarrables

The first musical theatre I can ever remember hearing is the 80s classic Les Misérables by Boublil and Schönberg. We used to have the tape of the soundtrack in the car, and on long car journeys and driving holidays we sang merrily along (no Tweenies for us, oh no – death, prostitution and revolution galore.) And we loved it, along with our well-worn cassettes of Miss Saigon and The Phantom of the Opera. When I went to see the blockbuster adaptation of the latter, I was shocked to realise I know every trilled word of the score. But Les Mis was our favourite by far. Cruising along the M1 back in the early Nineties, you might have caught a glimpse of three cute little girls chirping along to the rousing Lovely Ladies:

Lovely ladies
Waiting for the call
Standing up or lying down or any way at all
Bargain prices up against the wall

Yes, we were worldly children. But we didn’t need to fully understand the complex social tragedies of Victor Hugo’s plot (although mummy spent much time patiently explaining: ‘Yes, she’s selling her hair… Because she needs money to pay for her illegitimate child. It means she wasn’t married to the child’s daddy. No, she hasn’t made enough money from being a Lovely Lady.’ Dad, helpfully: ‘In the original text, she actually sells her teeth.’) The music spoke volumes: the exhilarating melodies of the student uprising, the über-romantic strains of first love and unrequited love, the swansongs, the feuds and the hopeless waste of young life.

It is a connection that has never faltered – while I have ‘grown out’ of some scores and showtunes, the recitative, the melodrama and the romance of Les Mis are timeless. Which is probably why this year it celebrates its 25th anniversary. In honour of its sage longevity, there are a number of tributes – a touring production which will climax at the Barbican and an anniversary concert at the O2, with tickets like gold dust (actually I hear gold dust is probably less likely to bankrupt you.) I browsed the shiny Flash-tastic website for some info today, and this page made me very sad. All of the plum female roles seem to have gone to TV ‘faces’ - and not even hugely impressive ones at that. Samantha ‘Isle of Sam’ Barks was only third favourite to play Nancy – a much less emotionally fragile and charismatic role – in a TV casting show, and Lucie bloody Jones is X Factor alumni. She shouldn’t be allowed NEAR a West End stage (although we know the folks down at Chicago and Legally Blonde would have pretty much anyone from prime time at this point.) But I expected better from you, Cameron Mackintosh; Les Mis deserves exceptional, breathtaking, once-in-a-generation actors and singers, and happily has a range of playing ages and vocal ranges to cast, which should make it easier to get the very best for each. I was a little sick in my mouth when Kimberley from Girls Aloud was allowed to ‘join in’ with the show on the band's Passions reality show, but as she was merely Ensemble/Whore (great billing) for a short time I let that one pass. Then Jodie ‘actually Nancy’ Prenger joined the cast to get some work experience before her leading lady engagement. Now, don’t get me wrong – the Prenger was the best thing in Oliver - but Les Miserables is no-one’s West End test drive.

Incidentally, X Factor’s Lucie (who memorably sang a song from Disney’s Camp Rock, not well, on the show) follows Camilla Kerslake in the role of Cossette. Who? Exactly. She happens to be the latest moderately-talented classical hottie whose bland album deal was entirely based and plugged on the fact that she was discovered by Gary Barlow. Are there really no elegant young sopranos on the musical theatre circuit wishing to audition for this part? Or could it be that the Les Mis hall of fame (boasting Ruthie Henshall, Kerry Ellis, Lea Salonga, Judy Kuhn, Frances Ruffelle and Michael Ball among others) is now set to be cluttered with people having their five minutes of TV-whored fame? I dislike this notion and it almost makes me wish the show had gone out quietly before ticket sales, PR pushes or plain vanity brought it to this.

Talking of Michael Ball, the role he originated is currently filled by the irritatingly pure teenage face of Nick Jonas (and the stage door area subsequently filled with a tsunami of hormones and Charlie Girl perfume) which offends me even more. I don’t care if Nick Jonas and Lucie Jones’ true love finds a way amongst political turmoil and danger. I know their smug, airbrushed faces too well to get caught up in the moment, and I’ll probably end up hoping a stray bullet rebounds off the barricades and right into one of their skulls. Producers of Les Mis, I implore you: go back to casting from the thousands of individual, raw, talented nobodies who have loved the music for years and been inspired to act and sing because of it, or close the show if it really can’t last without casting integrity. Every time one of those beautiful refrains is sung by someone whose generic face I have been battered to death with in Now magazine, I die a little inside. Thanks.

1 comment:

  1. Hip Hip Huzzah! I agree completely; very well said. Unfortunately, I didn't experience Les Mis until quite late on in my 18 years on this planet, yet I am also thankful for that. It means that I kept drivel like Joseph for my younger, childish years, and kept the more 'upmarket' musicals such as Phantom and Les Mis for when I could really appreciate them.