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Old-fashioned or modern: which era of musical sings loudest to you?

In the last week I’ve watched two film versions of musicals, one recent and one from years ago, and find myself fascinated by the fact that although they are products of very different generations, they are equally memorable in terms of entertainment and quality.

People have been thronging to the cinema to see the film adaption of the West End’s longest-running musical Les Miserables, which has already been heavily tipped to clean up at this year’s Oscars. It has been nominated in eight categories, including ‘Best Film’ and ‘Music (Original Song)’, with two of its stars, Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway, given the nod for their performances as Jean Valjean and Fantine, respectively. It’s easy to see why the film is one of the big contenders for the 2013 Awards. The story of Les Miserables is one many people know, with the musical having been running for twenty seven years in the West End now. What sets the film apart from the stage musical though is that it is not a carbon copy, but instead an entirely separate entity. Yes, the plot follows the same route and that glorious score is still leading the drama, but with scenes moved around/expanded or new ones added, it is a re-telling of the familiar story that is worthwhile seeing. No-one wants to sit through what is essentially just a recording of the stage musical, the film had to be able to stand apart from the musical and that is exactly what it does.

Les Miserables has an outstanding cast and, having seen it, I can understand why Jackman and Hathaway have been so highly rated. They both give utterly compelling and heart-breaking performances, topped off nicely by their vocal efforts.  I was also highly impressed by Eddie Redmayne as Marius and of course, our very own Samantha Barks, who was just as wonderful in the role of Eponine on the big screen as she is on stage. Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen as the Thernadiers made a amusing comedy team, though I was a little underwhelmed by Amanda Seyfried as ‘’Cossette; she perfectly epitomised the young innocent, but was slightly let down by the thinness of her soprano voice. Likewise with Russell Crowe as Javert. He wasn’t as horrible as I at first thought, but there are surely much stronger singers who would have done a better job than Crowe and his monotone singing. Everyone will have differing opinions concerning the cast but it doesn’t really matter because it’s such a powerful film. Some scenes are breathtakingly beautiful in how they’ve been shot while others are, if not contemporarily beautifully, just as captivating in their intensity of the moment. Who could have failed to be moved by the sight of young Gavroche lying lifeless in the street, or the impassioned Enjolras struck down by a hail of bullets while holding that red flag aloft? Or how about Crowe, who perfectly captured the maddening despair of Javert in the act of his suicide? There are so many moments in the film that reach out and grab you with both laughter and tears: it is just a stunning piece of film.

Les Miserables is one of the big, melodramatic musicals which are all about drama and passion. As such, it needed a big production to do it justice on the big screen. If this film-adaption had been attempted twenty years ago (and no, I’m not counting the 1998 non-musical version), I don’t think it would have anywhere near the same impact as Tom Hooper’s has. That’s not to say that musical films from twenty, thirty or forty years ago were not good; indeed, the other one I’ve been watching this week is The Sound of Music, which was released in 1965.

Based on the memoir of Maria von Trapp (which I’m actually reading at the moment), the Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical is a timeless classic which has been revived on stage on countless occasions, most recently seen in the West End in 2006. The popularity of the film hasn’t wavered over the years, and why should it? It’s a marvellous story brought to life by Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer as Maria von Trapp and Captain Georg von Trapp respectively, who both give wonderful performances opposite one another. The film is filled with an uplifting message of love, optimism and good old-fashioned cheer, interspersed with moments of tenderness and sorrow. It harks back to a simpler time, when happiness was found in running through a field, singing with a guitar, or just being together as a family. There is something so wholesome about The Sound of Music which I find so appealing and enchanting. Yes, the spectacle of Les Miserables is high quality entertainment, but so is The Sound of Music with its song and dance numbers, such as ‘Sixteen Going on Seventeen’ – and how could you not be entertained by ‘The Lonely Goatherd’? The films from this era, such as The King and I, Mary Poppins and West Side Story, are firm favourites of mine and I always get a warm pleasure from watching them. I know I’m not alone here, as the films are still watched and stage productions constantly playing somewhere in the world. Of course, Les Miserables has been on stage for twenty seven years, so is hardly a new player in the world of musicals, but in terms of their film counterparts, it’s just an infant.

If you look to the West End, more and more emphasis is put on special effects and showmanship in musicals. What happened to putting belief in the story and cast alone and trusting them to be enough for the audience? I went to see Ghost The Musical when it opened and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it; having seen the original film, I didn’t think a musical could live up to what is widely regarded as a classic of our time. Still, there is a lot of reliance on illusions and so forth, and with VT present in almost every scene, I did think there was perhaps an overkill of technology, instead of just putting the faith in the power of the story and allowing the cast to portray that. I adored Crazy For You when I went to review it for this site, because it harked back to a different era, where song and dance and a good story were enough on their own.

Classic musicals such as The Sound of Music have stood the test of time, and with good reason. I wonder how the musicals we are creating now will fare with time. I’ve seen relatively new shows such as Wicked, which are highly popular – for now. Will they still be just as popular in twenty years time? I don’t intend to diminish the quality of productions like Wicked, in fact I adored the show when I saw it for the first time last year. It had a great message, memorable songs and a kick-ass cast! Still, I can’t help but doubt its staying power; as good as it is and as much as I enjoyed it, I don’t see it as a musical which can survive the passage of time in the same way something like The Sound of Music has. Similarly, the recent film adaptions of musicals such as Mamma Mia, Chicago and The Phantom of the Opera have failed to make the intended impact and, while none were dismal failures, they couldn’t be called universal successes either. Whether that is due to the production process or the musical matter itself, who can say? The Phantom of the Opera is the world’s most successful musical, but that wasn’t enough to save its film counterpart – that can be put down to the casting choices I believe.

At the end of the day, musicals such as The Sound of Music, Oklahoma! and South Pacific are very different creatures to the more modern Les Miserables, We Will Rock You and Love Never Dies. Who is to say which era of musical is better, or even if it is a question of better? Theatre is all about variety however. Maybe it’s enough to say that they are all wonderful in their own way and let that be it. What do you think – do you have a soft spot for the more old-fashioned musical or our contemporary creations?

By Julie Robinson (@missjulie25)

Tuesday 22nd January 2013


  • MissJulie

    Julie is a theatre enthusiast, and is particularly keen on new writing. She writes articles each week for our website including a popular weekly ‘In Profile’ which features actors and actresses that are not in lead roles and are often in the Ensemble.

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