Les Miserables: What am I missing?

Anne Hathaway is fantastic in Les Miserables, the movie that seems poised to be the mega-hit of the holiday season.  Sacha Baron Cohen is a charming rake and looks like he’s having a ball. Director Tom Hooper’s decision to have the songs sung live was a terrific risk that turned out terrifically.  And let’s face it, who doesn’t want to spend two-plus hours looking at Hugh Jackman on a giant movie screen?  The nominations and accolades are already pouring in. You’d have to be crazy not to love this gorgeous, impressive spectacle of a movie.

So I guess I’m crazy.

I know that Les Mis is a musical people are obsessed with.  They’ve seen it 32 times.  They’ve memorized every Les Miserablesline.  It’s been translated into a bazillion languages, and performed all over the world. In fact, I may be the only person I know (except Rebecca Levey, which doesn’t count, since we sometimes seem like we’re just parts of the same person) who had never before seen the musical.  Yes, it’s true:  I, who have performed in nearly every musical known to man at least once either at school, at performing arts camp, or both, I, who go to the theater 20 times a year – I had never seen Les Miserables.

And now that I have…I don’t get what all the fuss is about.

To me, all that scenery, all that great acting (seriously, Anne Hathaway is a shoe-in to win an Oscar), all that Hugh — it still wasn’t enough to compensate for lyrics like these:

You can take
You can give
Let him be
Let him live
If I die, let me die
Let him live

Cole Porter it ain’t.  Maybe in a theater, when you have a little distance, it doesn’t seem so High School-y, but up close, on a huge screen, with no third wall between you, seeing every pore, practically smelling the sewage Hugh Jackman is sloshing through while he sings them, well, the lyrics sound like something a fifteen year old boy might write for the High School Musical.

And what’s with the quasi recitative?  Note to composer: just because you set every word (and I do mean EVERY WORD) to music doesn’t make it recitative, nor does it make it an Opera.  The ENTIRE movie is sung. Oy.

I get that the story has resonance today – the haves and have nots, the disparity between rich and poor.  But that’s thanks to Victor Hugo, not Boublil and Schönberg. (They wrote the musical) I’d rather sit down and read it than hear it sung.

Bottom line:  as a spectacle, Les Miserable scores, Anne Hathaway soars, Eddie Redmayne proves he really can sing, Samantha Barks proves that Broadway chops translate well to the big screen, and Hugh Jackman reaffirms his indisputable star status, but all that just wasn’t enough to make the musical itself worth watching.

If you’re one of the millions who love the musical already, my guess is, you’ll love the movie, too.  And I don’t minimize Tom Hooper’s accomplishment here – it is quite a spectacle.  But me?  I’m renting My Fair Lady, Oklahoma, and Fiddler on the Roof.   Maybe they don’t have Anne Hathaway or Hugh Jackman, but if you can’t have everything, I’ll take a stupendous score and a good book over hunky leads any day.  Besides, I’ve always kind of had a thing for Zero Mostel.

Here’s a clip — decide for yourself what you think:


  1. says

    I’ve never really easily understood it like I have Miss Saigon or the Phantom of the Opera, but somehow the songs have led me to understand the whole thing. And the songs are really beautiful. I understand what you mean by not getting it. =>

  2. Lynne says

    It seems as through you missed the entire point and the emotional underscore because of being distracted by the movie star Hugh Grant. Too bad.

  3. Thom Watson says

    This is living history – with soaring music and lyrics that bring Hugo’s France to life, onstage and (I assume, having to wait until the 25th to see it) on the screen – I have been in theatre, acting and directing, for 40 years – and waiting for the amatuer rights to the stage production for almost half that time – Once I direct a production of this classic, I will die happy. Fiddler and Phantom are fine, but Les Mis is somewhere much higher on the scale – ‘sorry you don’t see that –

  4. Kat says

    I have not seen the movie yet, but in my opinion, the movie makes the epic story from Victor Hugo and the play an everlasting memory that can be watched again anytime! Yes, I’ve seen the play many times and know the majority of the lyrics, but to say that they are “high schooly”, makes you sound rather simple. The journey the play takes you on, to the point where most of the audience spends the majority of Act 2 sobbing, is a testament to the music and the lyrics. Perhaps someone who is not familiar with the play should not be writing the review. I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be offensive. To say you don’t like the play/movie is fine..everyone has different tastes. But to call it simple and not get it….well….

    • says

      Being familiar with the play shouldn’t be a requirement for enjoying the movie. The fact that I criticized the lyrics, and you took it personally enough to insult me, personally, in return, speaks to how much you – and a lot of people – feel for the play. But all that means is that a lot of people love it. Doesn’t mean I have to also.

  5. says

    I fell asleep at the musical. I thought it was very boring. I would have preferred some dialogue. What is strange though is that I love the music. I used to listen to it constantly. I plan to check out the film to see if it was just my 19 year old self that wasn’t sophisticated enough for Les Mis.

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