With Les Misérables enjoying award nominations and critical acclaim in addition to its box office success, most critics are praising the emotion on display in the film. In this piece, Paul Harvard, musical director, composer and author of new book Acting Through Song, asks why that isn’t always the case.
The barricade has been erected, the battle-lines drawn. It seems the recent film adaptation of Les Misérables – after its popular victory at the box-office in its opening weeks – has left a whiff of gunpowder in the air. As filmgoers have braved the cold weather to keep the popcorn flowing, an intriguing fight has taken shape, not involving the students of revolutionary France, but between the critics of the UK’s national press.
Reviewers have not always been kind to Les Misérables. Famously, they nearly disembowelled the show when the stage version first opened at London’s Barbican Centre in 1985. It was only because producer Cameron Mackintosh screwed his courage to the sticking-place, and trusted the voice of popular opinion, that the production transferred to the West End, allowing it to survive and grow into the global juggernaught it is today.
In contrast to its theatrical premiere, Tom Hooper’s admirable film version has largely received the praise it deserves. Some commentators have picked on the close proximity of the camera, or the odd performance, but a majority of the reviews have fallen between the grudgingly positive and the downright ecstatic. However, one forthright piece – by the Evening Standard’s David Sexton – stood out for adopting a harshly different tone.
Mr Sexton is plainly not a fan of the film. But in his article he not only takes issue with Les Misérables, but with the entire musical-theatre genre. He declares himself to be one of those people who ‘can’t bear musicals at all’, a genre he describes as ‘embarrassing and stupid’. The crux of his argument is that we don’t have sung conversations in real life, so to do so on the stage, or on film, is silly. He argues that, because he values music and drama so highly, to combine the two in a musical devalues both as a means of expression.
It is unsurprising that Cameron Mackintosh decided to refute Sexton’s opinions last week in his sharp, sarcastic and witty manner. What is perhaps more intriguing is that Lyn Gardner of The Guardian also felt compelled to write an article rebutting Sexton whilst defending the musical as an art form. So who is right? Is the musical simply an awkward hybrid that should never be viewed as high art? Or does it have more merit than it is sometimes awarded?
In my book Acting Through Song I argue strongly for the latter. I contend that rather than undermining the genre, the unique combination of music and drama in musical theatre is the reason why it can be so compelling. Music is a powerful form of expression. The most universal of mediums, it transcends cultural and social barriers, reaching out to everyone. It has the ability to move the audience very directly, bypassing their intellectual responses and appealing to the emotions. And this is what makes musical theatre so special: by placing music at the heart of the storytelling, it provides the opportunity to combine the power of drama and music to create a potent means of expression.
But if this is the case, why do people like Sexton frequently dismiss musical theatre? I believe it is because for the material truly to come to life, for the combination of music and drama to seem organic rather than contrived, then the standard of acting must be exceptional.
Take ‘I Dreamed a Dream’. For students of music and drama, it may seem at first glance that the component parts of this song are unremarkable: a serviceable, if uninspiring lyric, set to a catchy tune with a generic pop-ballad accompaniment. You might not expect this material to resonate greatly. Yet in the film the sequence is cinematic dynamite; in the screening I attended it wrung the packed house emotionally dry. So what was the magic component that made this song so arresting? It was the performance of Anne Hathaway as Fantine. Because her delivery was so truthful, raw and committed, the music became heartbreaking and the lyrics poignant.
Compare this with Russell Crowe’s work as Javert. His performance has come in for much criticism in the past few weeks, mostly concerning the quality of his singing. But whilst he doesn’t have an outstanding voice, I don’t consider his singing to be the main problem. His vocal delivery is competent; the real issue is his inability to act successfully through song.
Crowe is a very fine actor whom I rate highly. Yet when he sings that ability seems to ebb away. Watching his performance in Les Misérables it is like he has a miniature critic sat on his shoulder, whispering to him whilst he is singing: ‘What are you doing? You sound awful! You look really stupid!’ And consequently he appears stupefied during his songs. Despite having arguably better material to sing than Hathaway, his performance has none of her impact.
I believe that many students of musical theatre, and indeed some professionals, suffer from these attacks of self-consciousness when they sing. Their heads become so full of their own self-criticisms that they no longer trust their instincts and follow their impulses – which is the worst mistake any actor can make. This problem manifests itself in different ways. Some inexperienced actors become leaden and unable to make any spontaneous choices; those with more experience often fall back on a set of ‘performance tricks’ that suggest a pretence of good acting but is really just a fake and contrived substitute for the real thing. Some commercial theatre is riddled with this kind of performance.
To free themselves from their self-consciousness, and learn to act truthfully and spontaneously, the musical-theatre performer needs to learn to focus outside of themselves whilst they are singing, so they can respond organically to the other actors, or their imaginary circumstances. In short: they must learn to master the skills of the classical actor.
But why isn’t this automatically the case? Why are these skills not always in evidence? I believe that acting does not always receive a high enough priority in the education of our musical-theatre performers. No matter how much weight is given to it in prospectuses of drama schools, it sometimes ends up being the poor cousin in the reality of the training. I think this is an error. Acting must be explored in all its nuance and detail – as it is the thread that weaves the art form together. Only when a singer acts through their songs does the work truly come alive. The most respected colleges do strive to make acting central to their work, but I believe that there still needs to be a shift in the focus of our musical-theatre colleges – so that acting is always placed right in the foreground.
That is why I believe Hathaway’s performance is so important. As odd as it may sound, when I think of her Fantine, sobbing in the docks of Paris, I can’t stop smiling, because the power of emotion she conveys in that potentially forgettable song demonstrates to the next generation of musical-theatre actors the standards of acting that they can, and should aspire to.
NHB are delighted to publish Paul Harvard’s new book Acting Through Song. To order your copy at a special 25% anniversary discount – no voucher code required – just click here.