Tom Hooper hates singers.
I know, that’s a bold statement, considering he has just presented us with the completed film version of Les Miserables, but after watching this film – and yes, I paid for it, on Christmas Day, just like a non-Entertainment Industry person would do – I’m sticking with it.
Tom Hooper hates singers. Tom Hooper seems to hate musicals as well. Tom Hooper hates musicals and singers SO MUCH – he decided to do a three hour version of his own personal hell and take us all along with it.
And here’s the funny thing – I LOVE MUSICALS! I love musicals so much, I already knew every word of that particular musical before I got to the movie theater. I love musicals SO MUCH, I studied singing so that I could, when conditions are right and I don’t prompt a regional theater to hate me for pointing out their obvious racist casting flaws, be IN THEM.
YES! I do musicals! I even hold a degree in Classical Voice from Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Music! I sing professionally! As do, roughly, more than half of the people I count as friends and co-workers. In fact, walking down Broadway when I am not in a show and every show I pass has a friend in it, is kind of my own personal version of Hell – but one I revel in. There are only two people in the world that I begrudge their careers, and they know who they are and what they’ve done, and we’ll leave it there. (Though, considering I am in the business I am, two is a relatively low number – perhaps even precariously low, but it’s accurate).
So here’s some Fairy Princess thoughts, some SINGER Fairy Princess thoughts about the film version of Les Miserables.
First: no one is able to sing well if they have to lose a bunch of weight right before you make them sing it repeatedly while massive waves are knocking them over. Or if they are trying to look emaciated so that they can sing and ‘die’ while ostensibly dying of consumption. Singers in Operas love to die of consumption – but they don’t diet for it.
This is what weight loss does to the voice when it happens too fast – it creates a wobble. Yes, it creates a wobble that makes you unable to stabilize and hit all the notes you are reaching for. And, when you do happen to hit those notes and you are trying to sing around a wobble, THIS is what also happens – you change timbres. (Pronounced Tam-bers). Meaning the quality of the voice. So the ‘realness’ that it is supposed to be creating – yeah…it’s just distracting. It’s not ‘profound’ or ‘real acting vs. musical theater acting’, it’s ummm…a wobble. Also, for men, you lose the ‘bottom’ of the voice – the rich, roundness that would make the recitative (the dialogue that is sung through) able to work for the story, instead of against. So – for vocal health – NO SUDDEN AND EXTREME WEIGHT LOSS!
Second: if you cast someone who you know cannot sing it – even if you give them intense voice training for a whole FEW WEEKS before you start filming, and then make them do it over and over and over and over, and do not fix it in post – they are going to sound raspy, under-supported, and flat. It’s not their fault. They did their job, they showed up, they knew their lines, they were ‘committed’, but you can’t make a classic musical theater baritone out of a grunting rock voice purse.
Stunt casting was done well in ONE part, putting Colm Wilkinson, the ORIGINAL Jean Valjean in as the Bishop who lets Jackman steal the candlesticks. Otherwise…you didn’t need it. It’s Les Miserables. Longest running, biggest money maker, blockbustery musical in the history of this current time. Even the Mayans could not predict an end to Les Miserables and it’s popularity. Really, isn’t it kinda mean to put some actor in a position where his ass has NO CHOICE but to hang out – given those conditions? I mean, if I didn’t think that Tom Hooper hated singers, I would at least have to consider that he may hate Russell Crowe.
Me, I like Norm Lewis. How about you?
Third: We saw the candlesticks more than we saw Fantine or Eponine. I mean…they had their specialty light and they just kept showing up! Jean Valjean makes his escape with a rope and a toddler, and bam! Candlesticks show up, even though we didn’t even see them run with a carpetbag! Nary a valise to be seen, but the CANDLESTICKS have been magically transported to the new location. It’s the power of musicals I guess – the same thing happened with that cat in GLITTER.
Fourth: Water. Singers and cold water are not friends. Here’s why – in terms of drinking, it will shock your vocal chords right out of that warm up exercise that you just spent twenty minutes doing. In terms of singing IN WATER? We don’t. It’s why things like theaters and opera houses have roofs. It’s why theaters that are under the stars aka outdoor theaters do not have shows when it rains. This is what happens when singers get wet – no, it’s not quite Gremlins, but it’s close.
When singers get wet, we are not like normal people, we do not just get the chills. We get contagion. We get bronchial pneumonia that will leave us gasping for air for MONTHS. We get sore throats walking past a rain gutter that is dripping when we are on the way to our lesson. Singers are big babies. Big friggin’ ‘susceptible to the elements’ babies. We have scarves, we have hats, we chug anything and everything that is suppose to lubricate our throats, clear our sinuses, and keep us able to hit those big ‘money’ notes that people go to see musicals for.
Unless you are shooting the big musical that people have paid big money to see, so you tell your actors to ‘dial it down’. This is reasonable because you are not shooting a musical, you are shooting a vocal “Survivor”-type boot camp for singers where they will have to sing barefoot in water, on what is likely a very cold sound stage – because sound stages are ALWAYS freezing. Which means BIG UPS – and I mean, friggin HUGE ones to this Cast who had to sing through more water than the Cast of Titanic had to deal with, and their movie was set on an ocean liner that SANK!
Let’s see, Hugh Jackman had the MOST water – he was pulling a ship into dry dock, he threw himself into the river, he was buried in a river of (Fake) human feces, that he did not get double pneumonia and need a lung transplant only means that he really IS Wolverine. But Samantha Barks as Eponine did not have a “Little Fall of Rain”, she had a a deluge! (That is French for “a hell of a lot of water”). I didn’t just want to hug her because she was Eponine, I wanted to give her Wellington boots, a hot toddy, and a good Mary Poppins umbrella, because her rendition of “On My Own” was practically perfect in every way.
Fifth: No one was allowed time to breathe. Singing is air. Singing is breath. You can sing and act. But you need to be allowed to do so. The actors that had vast experience doing musicals seemed to be doing BOTH! (What is that, you say? Acting AND singing? At the SAME TIME?) But they probably just let the director talk and then did it their way.
And here’s what happened, in the middle of a movie, a musical movie broke out! Yes, as soon as Aaron Tveit and his Revolutionaries showed up – looking at you too Eddie Redmayne – it was like, not only did the singers start breathing, the audience did too. THIS was the film they came to see, THIS was what they were waiting for. It was so shocking the four teenagers behind me, who were talking and giggling through the whole film, shut their yaps! It was a Christmas Miracle! Yes, the intimacy of the previous numbers was nice, I have always like singspiel, but not in France. Not in Victor Hugo’s France.
Sixth: Yes, I cried. Three times – “A Little Fall of Rain” (Samantha Barks and Eddie Redmayne had me at “Don’t You Fret”), When Russell Crowe pinned Gavroche’s corpse (Recent events), and at the end when, right after the candlesticks made their final appearance, Fantine came back to sing Valjean into Heaven. So yes, I had problems with the vocal production but not enough to not make plans to buy it on DVD when it comes out. (Have I mentioned I loved, loved, loved Eddie Redmayne in this? Cuz I do. I did. I really did. Mister Redmayne, I was moved by you! Who knew you could sing like that? You Sir, have logged a fair bit of time in a Voice Studio!)
Oh, Mr. Hooper – other than the singing there IS this one thing – the sound effect when Javert hits the river? REALLY? Ouch. Tom Hooper…you have to hate Russell Crowe. I cannot see how you would add that otherwise, it was just…did he throw a phone at you in a previous life?
There was much in this film I really, really enjoyed -like, I liked that in Heaven, Fantine got a sandwich, but curiously, not a weave. I liked that the underlying theme to this musical is that Blond people will have everything work out for them as long as they have a Heart Full of Love, when what they really needed all along was a lung full of air. Brunettes though, unsustainable, even though there was air for days and the tiniest waist I have seen on a healthy looking person in several years. I liked that though Sacha Baron Cohen was the only one using a French accent when he showed up as the Master of the House, he quickly remembered that the rest of the Cast was in jolly old England, and switched – because nothing says France more than sounding like Wills and Kate out at a charity event.
Seventh: I send this out to Mr. Hooper, with whom I would like to someday ‘hang’ professionally, and to the other burgeoning directors of movie musicals who will follow his lead, and have the singers sing live and then add the orchestration later. Take it for what it is, which is good advice – these songs, how many times are they sung in the actual stage show? That would be once. One time.
For that one time, the singer in question will curtail their daily activities, modify excessive behavior, and in general, remain focused on giving the audience a thrilling time at the theater. Singing big ballads over and over and over and over again only guarantees one thing – that the singer is going to get tired. And when we get tired, we fall back on technique, if we have it, to get through that.
The voice is often talked about as ‘an instrument’ – but it is actually a muscle, a series of muscles. Just like in any other sport, you can ‘tweak’ a muscle, you can strain a muscle, in short – there is damage to be done by over exerting these muscles. Calling the voice ‘an instrument’ often inspires in non singers an attitude that singers are able to repeat and repeat, and …it’s not true. If a running back ‘tweaks’ his tendon, he rests. Same principle.
If you are using people that are not used to singing a two and a half hour shows eight times a week, you may get great takes on tapings 1-5, after 5, it is going to get strained. After 10 it is going to likely get hoarse. And any more than that, you are looking at a singer who may get vocal damage – so I would caution you to take care of your Vocal Artists and show them the same respect you show to the light. It can take hours to set up the lighting so it is just right. You see where I am going with this? (And it would not hurt either to have a vocal tech person on the set, reminding the singers to breathe, place it more forward, put the voice in the head, and so on, so that when you get to see the ‘Dailies’, everyone is happy.)
This is NOT a review of the movie, I don’t want to confuse anyone. This is what I, as a professional singer, took note of while watching the film. I liked the film – but not from a singing standpoint. And, I thought that once or twice on the barricade, a revolving shot that made it look a bit like a stage turntable would have been a tip of the hat to the fans of the show – but ok, that didn’t happen. Anyway, I liked it.
Yes, I enjoyed this film as a moviegoer even though, as a singer, I was horrified. It used to be enough to sing, dance, and act. Now everyone is trying to up the reality of a musical. For heaven’s sake – it is a MUSICAL! I want it to sound fantastic – I want the actors to have their best foot forward. If they have to record it first and sing to track, I am ok with it.
I know, I know, this is a new way of shooting musicals – fine, but if you are going to make your Actors almost die to sing through the elements, then you’d better get more people in there like Samantha Barks, Aaron Tveit, and Eddie Redmayne.
And if you are lucky enough to get the brilliant and amazing Hugh Jackman to work on your musical movie – who I have seen live in The Boy From Oz and was knocked on my ass by how stunningly talented he is – then do not EFF with his instrument by making him slog through mud, water, weight loss, and singing it live so many times he might not do the best he can do. Hugh Jackman is amazing – I want his Agent to read his contract better the next time so I’m not so worried about him! (He should get an award for this, I think, he worked HARD)
All it all – this is a great reason for why more Musical Theater Actors and Actresses should be working in Television and Film. If you have done a musical, 8 shows a week, nothing phases you. And Bravo to those who mounted the monster barricade that IS this musical.
Tom Hooper, if I met you, I would thank you. and perhaps curse you, you and this new way of shooting musicals that is now going to torture all of us! However, because of you – more people who deserve it will be working. More audiences will be open to it, and pay to see it, and that will mean MORE movies that are musicals.
May I suggest you look at RAGTIME for your next project? As far as I know, there is no water in Ragtime except for the crossing of the immigrants from Europe – but…you are pretty resourceful, I bet you can FIND some!
However, Mr. Hooper, with respect – I still think that you still hate singers. Which is ok, sometimes I hate us too.