Les Misérables in Concert – 25th Anniversary (2010) [Blu-ray]

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After enjoying the 25th anniversary production of The Phantom of the Opera a couple of months back, I was lured into wanting to watch the equivalent birthday celebrations of another long-running hit musical, Les Misérables. Unlike Phantom – which I’ve been a fan of since it opened – I’ve remained stubbornly resistant to the charms of Les Miz and never seen or listened to it, despite some obvious overlaps with Phantom (both set in 19th century Paris, adapted from works by French authors, both shows being produced by Cameron Macintosh, starting in London just a year and a day apart in 1985/6 and still running today.)

Those overlaps prove rather superficial and the two shows really are very different, starting with Claude-Michel Schönberg’s score and Herbert Kretzmer’s English translation of Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel’s lyrics. This is a far more raw and raucous musical, a world away from the precision-crafted polished melodies of Andrew Lloyd Webber, more akin to the sung-thru style of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd than to Phantom. Famously Les Miz was about the biggest hit show never to have spawned a hit single, but that changed when Susan Boyle sent jaws dropping to the floor with her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” on Britain’s Got Talent. That said, many of the key numbers in Les Miz felt familiar to me: either the show’s score is more widely covered than I’d realised, or it relies cleverly on well known authentic melodies and anthems of the place and period to give it a timeless feel that bestows a sense on these songs being old friends you simply hadn’t met before but take no more than a minute to become comfortable companions – which is a genuine high achievement.

Lionel Bart’s Oliver! is a particular self-confessed influence on the show, as is clear in the style of the ensemble songs for the destitute French underclass including “At the End of the Day”. It even has direct equivalents of Fagin (Thénardier) and the Artful Dodger (Gavroche). However, where Oliver! has an underlying sense of hope and gaiety to it, Les Miz is never far from the biting edge of abject poverty and angry despair that led to first night critics dubbing the whole venture “The Glums.” But just like the original Dickens books, Victor Hugo’s source novel is a huge, sprawling affair bursting with vibrant characters and storylines to the point where condensing it down into a three hour show is a feat in itself. Even so, much of the first act struggles with a stop-start episodic broken-up feel to it as we career through a range of situations, locations and characters who arrive in one scene and depart in the next. It’s all necessary backstory, but it’s still a relief when we get to 1830s Paris and a more conventional narrative asserts itself after what feels like a Cliffs Notes highlights package on fast-forward.

The linking thread is ex-convict Jean Valjean breaking parole and his flight from intractable policeman Inspector Javert, and the two men’s face-to-face confrontations are the dramatic highlights of the show. However Valjean is promptly missing from a lengthy section at the start which concentrates instead on the descent into depravity of factory girl Fantime, but her time in the spotlight is shortlived. There’s also the story of Valjean’s love for his adopted daughter, Cosette; how she falls in love with a young student called Marius; and Marius’ involvement with student revolutionaries leading to the 1832 Paris Uprising that dominates much of the end of Act 1 and most of Act 2. As a result some stories get squeezed rather too tightly in the crush – the Cosette/Marius romance is malnourished and doesn’t have anything like the emotional tug that a nominally secondary plot strand – Éponine’s doomed unrequited love for Marius going unnoticed – heartbreakingly manages alongside it. In the end the show tries valiantly to reconcile its two main themes of Valjean’s quest for personal redemption with the revolutionary call to arms to build a better world for all: it doesn’t entirely succeed but it’s a worthy attempt, and in its ambition and complexity it makes Phantom’s streamlined clean-and-simple plot seem rather threadbare by comparison.

This 25th anniversary production is similar in format to the one staged for Phantom a year later, but clearly Cameron Macintosh learned a lot about what did and didn’t work here. This Les Miz is a concert staging, meaning that while there’s some set dressing, props and costumes, the performers sing to a bank of microphones at the front of the stage and there’s consequently little scope for physical performances. For the most part this isn’t too much of a problem and the show is carried on the emotional intensity of the outstanding individual performances, but some key plot points (such as the fate of several characters) are lost without the proper staging. Not a problem for devoted fans of the musical who know it all backwards, though – or anyone with access to a plot synopsis online, in my case.

The performers are mainly drawn from Les Miz casts down the years, with some additional stars brought in for the occasion. No one will begrudge the renowned tenor Alfie Boe delivering a fine performance in the central role as Valjean, and US reality show finalist Samantha Barks is also rather excellent as young student Éponine. Perhaps the most obvious-seeming piece of “stunt casting” is the inclusion of Little Britain’s Matt Lucas as Thénardier, but he has a surprisingly good voice and is certainly accomplished at producing effective comedy grotesque characters on the stage, so it’s actually an excellent fit and works well: his first song “Master of the House” is a glorious show-stopper.

More troublesome is the casting of US teen heartthrob Nick Jonas as Marius. His voice is noticeably very thin and nasal compared with the accomplished stage performers around him, and he sounds just like what he is – a modern day pop star, which will be very jarring for Les Miz aficionados used to the booming tones of Michael Ball who created the role in the original London run. But this may be a deliberate creative choice by the production, to differentiate Marius from those around him, adding some variation to the vocal line-up and making him an appreciably younger and less confident character in keeping with the story. It’s noticeable that when Jonas comes to Marius’ ‘coming-of-age’ song “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” – perhaps my favourite song of the whole show – he is assuming a much stronger, deeper voice to show his growing maturity.

It doesn’t help Jonas that he plays many of his early scenes against Enjolras, the charismatic leader of the student revolutionaries, and played here with such a magnetic presence that the performer threatens to steal the show outright from under everyone’s noses despite limited stage time. That was even before I recognised the voice and realised that it was none other than Ramin Karimloo, so superb in the 25th anniversary Phantom and who is currently on stage in the West End production of Les Miz – now in the lead role. Another member of the student rebels is played by Hadley Fraser, Raoul in the Phantom 25th show and currently also on stage in the West End playing Javert to Karimloo’s Valjean. This strange, small, porous world between the two musicals is underlined by the appearance post-show of the lauded original Valjean Colm Wilkinson and one of his most popular successors in the role, John Owen-Jones – both of whom are also in the Phantom 25th post-show reprising their other shared role as the Phantom himself.

As for the Blu-ray, it is a fine presentation – colourful and detailed for the most part although some shots requiring long-distance extreme close-ups (because of the sheer size of the O2 Arena in which it was held, stadium-style) appear flattened and soft as a result of the technical limitations, and the lighting is sometimes not optimal for filming. The soundtrack is nicely loud and rousing, with a good stereo feel to it and all the singing and instruments crisp and clear. Sadly the only extra is a brief 5 minute trailer/puff piece for the 25th anniversary performance with flashes of the history and international success of the show.

This disc isn’t quite up there with its Phantom sibling and the concert staging means it’s not as good a surrogate as seeing the show itself, but it is certainly good enough to convert me from my stubborn former resistance to heeding the rousing call to arms of “Do You Hear the People Sing?”, and it made me a genuine fan of the production. It might be 26 years after first night, but better late than never – and who’s counting anyway? At least I’m on now board in plenty of time for the 50th anniversary celebrations!

Mamma Mia! (2008)

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After admitting at a recent family gathering that I had never seen the film or stage production of Mamma Mia!, the DVD was being whipped out of its cellophane wrapper and into the player in double quick time – and what a perfect film selection it proved in the holiday week atmosphere.

Men might dislike this film on principle because it’s light and fluffy and utterly flippant fun; younger audiences may dislike it as well, since it concentrates on the friendships, trials and tribulations of the mostly middle aged characters, with the pretty young bride and her even prettier groom-to-be soon pushed out of the limelight by the wrinklies. But really, only the most complete and utter grinch could possibly hold out against such a tidal wave of vitality and enjoyment that’s unleashed in the process – just as only the most ardent of dog-haters can hold out for more than a few minutes against the overwhelming charms of the most good-natured Labrador or golden retriever that’s set at full-on loveable-and-adorable mode.

Despite the all-star cast (Meryl Streep! Pierce Brosnan! Stellan Skarsgård! Colin Firth! Julie Walters! Dominic Cooper!) and the gorgeous sun-soaked Greek island setting, the real stars of this film are undoubtably the ABBA songs (which remain both quintessentially 70s and yet, curiously, joyously timeless as well) that are just about tenuously woven together by the script. Actually they manage to fit together remarkably well all things considered, with only “Chiquitita” being done with the most audacious and obvious of set-ups – but it does so with such a wide, knowing grin toward the audience that you really can’t mind a bit. And it’s not like you could do an ABBA show with “Chiquitita”, now is it?

The story doesn’t really matter – it’s just an excuse for the songs at the end of the day and is always intent on the obvious happy ending – but surprisingly doesn’t take the path of not bothering too much, either. There’s a few unexpected twists in the outcome, and overall the script conjures up a quite complex French farce of “who knows what and with whom and when?” levels of intricacy. That it sometimes doesn’t make sense and leaves you yelling at certain people not to be so obtuse or secretive is just part of the game shared with the audience. Equally you can totally ignore the plot if you want and simply sit back and enjoy the spectacle, which puts it in much the same category as any number of golden age Hollywood musicals.

The cast seem to enjoy themselves immensely going through the most famous “big” song and dance numbers and acquit themselves pretty well on all counts – save for Brosnan, who really can’t sing at all and is somewhat miscast in the part of Sam as written; and as for what accent he’s attempting, it seems to change from scene to scene. But Brosnan then almost completely makes up for such deficiencies with his charm and star presence that seems to only continue to grow in leaps and bounds post-007. Skarsgård is also somewhat awkward playing comedy, while Firth gets perhaps the least likeable character and Cooper gets a rather thankless second-string role in the proceedings. The girls fare much better, with Julie Walters a particular delight throughout and Christine Baranski all-but reprising her much-married witty best friend role from TV’s Cybill and thereby once again stealing some of the best scenes of the film, especially her big solo number “Does Your Mother Know.”

Central to it all is Streep, the most serious dramatic actress of her generation, who this time around is having a ball in the role of a comically-overwhelmed hippyish hotel owner. I’d heard that her singing was pretty good, but I was still surprised at just how good she was with it all (and how well she acquitted herself with the enthusiastic if undistinguished choreographed dancing too.) She also gets to exercise her dramatic muscles near the end when the story uses some of the later-era, more melancholy ABBA songs to allow her moments of real feeling and angst including “Slipping Through My Fingers” and “The Winner Takes It all” before the inevitably happy-all-round ending that follows.

It helps that such later bitter-sweet songs are some of my favourite songs from ABBA: the rousing singalong big numbers are all well and good, but ABBA were at their best just when they were falling apart – when that sadness and turmoil bled into their last albums. This was some of their finest, deepest and most heart-felt work of their time together, however much they’re overshadowed by the earlier more empty-headed singalong numbers for which they’re best known. Yes, I admit it – I’m quite an ABBA fan and have been ever since I can remember, and that surely predisposes me toward liking Mamma Mia! as a whole.

Is it a great film? Not in the slightest. It doesn’t pretend to be, nor does it seek to be. There’s all manner of faults with it, and everyone’s at least one notch over the top along with the colour saturation, but it just doesn’t matter. The film simply wants to have some loud and unrestrained fun, to take you along with the cast away to Greece for a break from the gloom of the British weather and allow everyone to have some unexpected out-of-character fun and enjoy a brief summer fling far from the demands of reality. It has no higher or greater aspiration, which leaves it free to deliver exactly the levels of delight that it intended to from the start – much like ABBA’s music itself always did in its heyday. The soundtrack and the film are entirely well-matched in that aspiration and style.

Maybe you have to be one or more of either female, middle-aged or a fan of ABBA’s to enjoy this. But if that’s the case, the rest of you don’t know the 105 minutes of fun you’re missing out on and instead you can go and also shoo off that adorable Labrador on the way out, as you leave the rest of us singing along so badly and shamelessly that even Pierce Brosnan’s vocals are sounding rather awesome by comparison.

Mamma Mia! is showing on ITV1 on January 4 2012 at 8pm (and an hour later on ITV1+1)

Meet Me In St. Louis (1944)

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Part of a festive series of Christmas-themed reviews at Taking The Short View

While an American classic, it might not be quite accurate to call Meet Me In St Louis a “Christmas film”; but since the film’s final scenes are set during the Yuletide, and as the musical’s soundtrack includes “Have yourself a merry little Christmas”, it’s more than close enough.

Given its classic status (it’s ranked 10th in the American Film Institute’s list of all-time Greatest Movie Musicals) you’d think this film would be something quite astounding indeed. But to say that this has the narrative substance of candy floss is to unfairly denigrate the heft of spun sugar. There really is astonishingly little to this film: one “boy next door” romance aside, the only incident is the declaration by the oblivious work-obsessed patriarch that the Smith family are moving from St Louis to New York – badly received by the rest of his clan.

And, err … That’s it. Truly. Otherwise this is a series of picture postcard vignettes in sumptuously rose-tinted Technicolor, a sort of nostalgic wish-fulfilment for Americans down the ages which sees the perfect family living in a perfect, huge house in the perfect Missouri suburbs with perfect friends and neighbours.

The vignettes mostly feature various family and social events through six months in 1903: gay parties, balls and galas where they can be found over-dressed in their absolute finest and most colourful attire, singing and dancing their evenings away. There’s little that can’t be resolved by a heartfelt song around the family piano, making it the golden olden days as they never actually ever existed.

If you can stand the languid pace and the absolute absence of any real plot development, then all this is quite beguiling in its way. It certainly set up a middle class idyll that defined the American public’s hopes and aspirations for generations to come and which even laid down the objectives for the entire Eisenhower administration of the 1950s. It’s a complete fantasy – the American Suburban Dream – as only the the world’s premier dream factory in Hollywood could possibly produce.

The staging is certainly very classy – excellent sets, beautifully decorated, and everyone looking totally fabulous. In particular, star Judy Garland has surely never looked or been better than she is here: she’s every inch the movie star, luminous and jumping off the screen whenever she’s on. It’s clear from the very start that the camera and moreover the director Vincente Minelli are totally besotted with her: and as a result, we can’t fail to be likewise. If you ever wanted to know why she’s still such a beloved star of cinema, this is the film to see.

Something less obvious to modern audiences is that this is one of the first musicals in which the songs weren’t just dropped in as literal ‘show stoppers’ – song and dance showpiece interludes during which the rest of the film went on pause – but instead are an integral part of the film’s story and character development. The final song – a sadder, more melancholy version of “Have yourself a merry little Christmas” than we’re familiar with today – is the catalyst for the film’s climax, and the soundtrack also features the Oscar-nominated “Trolley Song” that everyone knows, even if they don’t know they know it.

Still, these are all rather thin highlights to stretch over the 105-minute running time, and modern audiences are likely to fidget and doze off or more likely turn off in favour of something with far more frenzied cutting. It’s a relic of yesteryear, a nostalgic anachronism of a non-existent past even when it was released in 1944. But if overly-sweet insubstantial confectionery is to your taste, then this is among the finest example of its ephemeral kind.

[The film is now available on Blu-ray in the UK which has been released since this piece was originally posted. Even so, the cheap DVD reviewed here – available for about £5 – is surprisingly good, with a lovely high-quality picture restoration and a good set of extras including a ‘making of’ feature, an audio commentary, and an introduction by Liza Minelli, daughter of the film’s director and Judy Garland – who looks every inch like her mother!]

The Phantom of the Opera at the Royal Albert Hall [Blu-ray]

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I’ve been an unabashed fan of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera ever since it opened – which is 25 years ago, as this silver anniversary celebration of the show staged at the Royal Albert Hall reminds us. I’ve seen it twice, got the book and the CD and even the DVD of the so-so 2004 feature film version, so you won’t get any critical re-appraisal of the show from me here. It is for me the best stage musical I’ve ever seen (tied perhaps with Jesus Christ Superstar and only a whisker ahead of West Side Story.)

Given the story’s history (right back to Gaston Leroux’s 1909 original novel, through multiple adaptations including Lon Chaney’s seminal 1925 silent classic, Claude Rain’s flawed but enjoyable 1943 version through to Hammer’s very 1960s version with Herbert Lom) it seems unnecessary to give a long rundown of the plot (disfigured composer in the bowels of the Paris Opera House seduces a young chorus girl.) And if you haven’t seen or heard the musical … Well, stop reading now, this is no place for such philistines! (I jest. A bit.)

For the 25th anniversary, composer Lord Lloyd Webber and producer Sir Cameron Mackintosh decided to take the notoriously hard-to-stage show and put it on at the Royal Albert Hall – which of course is a symphony hall not a full theatre. It was a basically insane idea, and like all insane ideas in showbusiness it can – and in this case does – result in the most triumphant success. Some changes are forced, of course: there’s no way that the chandelier can be ‘dropped’ at the end of Act 1, so there’s some spectacular ‘nice try’ but still underwhelming pyrotechnics instead. Some of the ‘magical’ disappearances-into-thin-air have to be fudged over as well, as the Royal Albert Hall stage has none of the custom-built trap doors that the show’s regular London home at Her Majesty’s Theatre has.

But by and large (with the sole exception of the chandelier, perhaps) none of these matter and are more than made up for by the inventiveness shown by the production team working around it while remaining true to the majestic original designs of the late Maria Björnson. The key scene everyone remembers with the boat on a mist-filled lake lit with candles is beautifully realised. One scene that could have been a let down – the masquerade which opens Act 2 that features a stunning non-replicable sweeping staircase in the stage show – is instead re-imagined for the constrained Royal Albert Hall backstage and too-narrow access points combined with a cast three times the regular stage show’s, and makes a genuine triumph that almost surpasses the original.

The principle way it’s all achieved is by using huge electronic LCD display screens in place of flown-in physical scenery and then using the stage show’s regular costumes and props (although alas Hannibal’s hollowed-out life-size elephant was apparently too big to make the trip over from the West End for its big moment.) The screens are a masterstroke, allowing the show to retain its look and feel even in this temporary home and even adding one true coup de théâtre of its own, when we switch to a backstage point-of-view for Christine’s curtain call, and the backdrop shows … the Royal Albert Hall audience itself, applauding live, actually improving upon the original staging.

While I’d possibly have preferred the chance to have a copy of the regular stage performance rather than this one-off ‘special’, in fact the Royal Albert Hall is used brilliantly throughout, looks wonderful and becomes a real player in the performance – not to mention that there is a full orchestra and a genuine full size pipe organ to use. The score has never sounded better as a result: to my knowledge, it’s the first time that a complete performance of the show has ever been released on either DVD or CD, as even the iconic original cast recording CD from 1986 cuts out some of the dialogue and abridges some of the faux classical pieces along the way. For that reason alone this Blu-ray/DVD is a must-buy for true Phantom fans.

Despite being a completely live performance, I couldn’t see a single flaw in how it ran. What you get from a filmed stage performance over a movie version is to relive how incredibly clever some of the staging of the show truly is and always has been, allowing for on-stage costume changes and audacious scene transitions – and all of that is here to savour. But this filmed production also gets right in close to the action, and it’s shocking to see how good the acting performances are close-up even as they have to play simultaneously to the grandeur of the Royal Albert Hall.

Ramin Karimloo’s performance as the Phantom (both acting and vocal) is just staggering, while Sierra Boggess’s Christine makes the difficult singing of her role look effortless while achieving perfection – their final scenes are breathtaking and heartbreaking, and the close-ups reveal genuine tears of emotion from both leads. Even Hadley Fraser’s Raoul is a far greater, feistier presence here than the basically useless third wheel the character often appeared in some early performances at the start of the show’s run in the 1980s; and there’s lovely work from Wendy Ferguson as La Carlotta, comedic of course but with unexpectedly interesting and deep nuances as well.

Basically everyone is terrific: with the cream of 25 years of Phantom casts from around the world to choose from the performances were always going to be top-notch, and they truly are. For long-time fans it’s interesting to see how much has changed in some of the roles, with the original portrayals sounding rather shallow and underdeveloped compared with the latest stars, who have 25 years of successive superb casts to study and learn from, enabling added depth to the performances surely unparalleled in modern musical theatre. Although it’s true, I might be a little biased here.

As for the Blu-Ray: It’s a gorgeous transfer, the costumes in particular looking absolutely stunning in high definition. The production manages to balance the need for genuine stage make-up with not looking too over-baked for screen, the colours jump off the screen and the blacks are rich while retaining detail and solidity. Only in the close-ups with the LCD backdrops does the presentation even vaguely let us down, as the high-res sharpening on the oversize electronic ‘pixels’ becomes a distraction – but that’s not the disc’s fault, or indeed the production’s. It is what it was on the night – and what it is, is wonderful.

In terms of extras there’s just one 20 minute behind the scenes feature cheaply shot on non-professional equipement, but it’s nice enough and somehow more real and enjoyable than the usual professional puff-pieces you get. It certainly shows just how insane the idea to stage this at the Royal Albert Hall really was, and the frenzied work that went into making it happen. The real ‘extra’ – and the only one that fans probably really want from this – is that the post-show final half hour at the Royal Albert Hall is retained in full, wherein Andrew Lloyd Webber steps out onto the stage to introduce some of the original stars and creative team (as well as the team behind the Royal Albert Hall staging). He then unveils to a delighted audience the original Christine Daaé, his former wife Sarah Brightman, to reprise the title song to the show accompanied by five of the men who have played the title role over the years: Peter Jöback, John Owen-Jones, Anthony Warlow and Colm Wilkinson, along with the night’s lead Karimloo.

It’s the brief moments when the original and latest leads line up and briefly interact – Michael Crawford with Ramin Karimloo, Sarah Brightman with Sierra Boggess – that really bring home the extraordinary history and success of this show and will truly delight fans and mean not a dry eye in the house for devotees. Appropriately, though, the final curtain call is left to the two stars of the evening, as Karimloo quite literally sweeps Boggess off her feet and the two exit stage centre to a thunderous standing ovation.

Available on Blu-ray and on DVD. The production was also shown on Channel 5 on Easter Monday 2012.