Almighty carryings-on

            Grammatically it should be called “Fewer Miserables” says a friend of mine, and that’s only one of the jokes that have been making the rounds since the indestructible “Les Miz” opened as a movie. Even Garrison Keillor and Chanticleer got into the act recently, but one of the best entries is the gluten ensemble (with really good voices) called “One Grain More,” on YouTube at http://youtu.be/k9QbC41oQRo.

            The Les Miz movie is a huge, unmissable, and nearly immobile target, and certainly deserves any sort of affectionate parody on account of being grim and important, and a lot of affectionate criticism on account of being inept and amateurish on a number of levels. But on many other points the movie delivers just what its fans want, which is raw emotion presented flat-out center-stage, cloaked in stirring, heart-thumping, memorable tunes.

            If you go through several hankies at this show, don’t be alarmed by critics who claim that it’s mawkish and manipulative. Sure it is, but so is the original novel by Victor Hugo, who was doing exactly what Dickens was doing in England at exactly the same time. What gripes me about the show is the cynicism with which the authors go about engineering that manipulation; since nearly every number underlines somebody’s grief or death, the authors, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, seem to revel in it: “We’ll make the revolutionaries pretty young men, and when they all die there won’t be a dry seat in the house!” You can almost hear them cackle.

            Still, the efficacy of their strategy is unassailable, and it’s all set to a sung-through score that has any number of ear-worm-worthy tunes that will follow you home like winsome puppies and, like puppies, wake you up at 3 a.m. On the scale that leads from Gounod down to Andrew Lloyd-Webber and from there directly to hell, Les Miz is honorably up toward the grand-opera end of the ladder.

            Problem is, I’m not sure it makes good opera. For one thing, it’s very static, with people mostly singing very eloquently about how miserable they are. There are a few bursts of very stylized action, as when the troops attack the barricades, or Valjean carries Marius through the sewers, but mostly, no. The novel’s plot has been generalized until we hardly know why anybody’s fighting for anything. A whole lot more goes on in Puccini’s La Bohème, set in Paris in exactly the same era.

            Having only seen videos of the 10th and 25th anniversary concert productions, I’m concluding that Les Miz is really an oratorio: it fits the definition precisely, and benefits from the semi-staged concert versions that have become popular for, par exemple, Bernstein’s Candide. Oratorios are usually on religious themes, which brings up the the heavy-handed use of church imagery in the lyrics and the settings, with appeals to the deity and crucifixes looming everywhere, which is kind of odd for a work that, Hugo was pleased to note, really offended the Catholic Church.

            The story follows the history of Jean Valjean, (Hugh Jackman) who is paroled in 1815 after serving 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread, up to his death after the June Revolution in Paris in 1832. The miserable people of the title include Fantine (Anne Hathaway), a factory girl forced into prostitution to support her wee daughter, Cosette, who grows up to be played by Amanda Seyfried, who falls in love with Marius (Eddie Redmayne), a young aristo slumming as a revolutionary. Haunting the proceedings are the Thénardiers, (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter), a grotesque pair of comic reliefs, and Russell Crowe as Javert, the obsessive cop who can’t let Valjean alone. The plot climaxes at the barricades in the streets of Paris when all the handsome young revolutionaries die, and Valjean saves Marius to marry Cosette.

            The movie version boasts a very handsome look, with sets and costumes that would beautifully suit a traditional production of Bohème. For such a thundering great score it also boasts a very immediate and intimate sound for many of the numbers, a result of the much-reported decision of the director, Tom Hooper, to record the singing directly, in real camera time, rather than the usual practice of pre-recording and looping.

            The result is problematic in many cases. Javert’s numbers are simply scored too high for Crowe’s voice, and it’s embarrassing to hear him strain. Hugh Jackman, who has experience in stage musicals, fares marginally better, though the proximity of the microphone intimidates him from belting, which is what he does best. Both Hathaway and Seyfried have pleasant, in-tune voices, though being very in-the-moment actresses, their vocalism is often blurred by tears or other emotional excesses. You may prefer the emotional immediacy; I’d rather hear the songs. The surprise of the film is young Redmayne, who has a very pleasant light baritone that rings clearly through his emotional involvement.

            Director Hooper, who has worked mostly in television, shouldn’t have been turned loose on this huge project so soon after his triumph in the delightful, tiny drama, The King’s Speech. He has a very good eye and camera control for the small, intimate scenes, which may be why this huge score feels so much smaller on the screen than it did on stage. The epic set pieces, such as the funeral of General Lamarque, which cues the revolution, are beautifully designed, choreographed and lit, but are edited in such a choppy, helter-skelter way that your eye has no chance to see what’s going on.

            As for that darned manipulative sentimentality, just give into it. When all the handsome actors get resurrected at the end for the reprise of “Do you hear the people sing?” it makes you wonder if November’s vote would have been even more weighted if the movie had been released last fall.