A few months ago it was announced that Oscar-winning director Tom Hopper will be following up The King’s Speech with an adaptation of the long-running musical Les Miserables. It has already been announced that the film will star Hugh Jackman as the main character Jean Valjean, an inspired choice, but also an interesting one because any one familiar with the musical knows there are some pretty high notes for that tenor role. Anne Hathaway will be playing his wife Fantine and Geoffrey Rush will be re-uniting with Hooper to play Monsieur Thenardier, aka the “Master of the House.”
For those who are not familiar, Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg’s Les Miserables is based on the famous Victor Hugo novel about an escaped convict named Jean Valjean who reforms to become a town mayor. He raises a daughter named Cosette who grows to fall in love with a radical of the French Revolution. The musical comments on the French political system and the state of democracy while Jean Valjean is frequently forced with the decision to either face his past or flee. The musical has played in the U.S. and London for over 25 years and is famous for songs like “I Dreamed a Dream” and “One Day More.”
I have always argued in favor of choosing actual Broadway stars to play leading roles in musical film adaptations because they can actually sing (which tends to come in handy). Numerous bad casting decisions have plagued musical adaptations for decades going all the way back to films like Camelot from 1967 (sorry Vanessa Redgrave and Richard Harris, you’re no Julia Andrews or Richard Burton). I can accept the choice of Jackman because he is the closest thing the movies has to a triple threat and he has done his time on Broadway in the past. Hathaway has proven she can sing and Rush doesn’t really have to for his role, so those are fine as well.
However, The Hollywood Reporter reports that Russell Crowe will be joining the cast to play Inspector Javert and Helena Bonham Carter will be playing Madame Thenardier, wife of Geoffrey Rush’s character. The reason that these casting choices fail to excite me is because they seem more like ploys to get Oscar attention then genuinely inspired casting choices. Russell Crowe has a musical background, but based on what I have seen he doesn’t have the range to portray the powerful baritone of Inspector Javert. I want to withhold my judgement, since he has not before appeared in a film musical, but I am skeptical.
Helena Bonham Carter’s role is pretty limited and she certainly has the attitude to portray the sassy governess. However, I was very displeased with her breathy singing in Sweeney Todd which lead to one of the most timid Mrs. Lovett portrayals I have ever seen. I don’t mean to assume her interpretation was wrong, I just found it a lot less effective than Angela Lansbury, Patti Lupone, or other actresses who have stronger voices.
The real power in a musical is derived from the ability of the performers to use the music to translate intense feelings to the audience. Those feelings are not as present when the songs are not sung with full voice and infused with passion. This is why I will always campaign for real singers to be cast over A-listers.
What do you think about the casting decision of Bonham-Carter and Crowe? What about the overall idea that musicals films should feature strong singers?