Friday, December 28, 2012

The thing about mediocrity...

is that it is accepted, much like Visa, everywhere in this country.

Last night, I saw Les Misérables, the movie. High production value, large cast, beautifully shot, moderately engaging Les Misérables. For the most part, I understand why everyone is going gaga for it. However, I find myself in a precarious minority that not only did not enjoy the movie, it actually made me angry.

As I said before, the production: sets, costumes, makeup etc., was great, but there was one key area that was missed. The singing. And I do not mean the talent level of the actors, well not all of the actors. To understand this fully, let's talk about why musical productions exist.

Productions centered on music are written that way because the emotions the characters are experiencing can no longer be adequately expressed with speech alone. The music is there to take the intensity up a level, to help the audience feel the angst/joy/sadness/excitement the character is feeling. In the context of the character's world, they are not standing there singing a song, that is just for the audience to perceive; a peek behind the curtain, if you will.

You cannot ignore this fact. You cannot distract from this fact, and by that I mean put acting first and singing second. It is a musical. Not a play. Musical. The music is the defining factor there.

Every good musical production has what is known as a coaching staff. "Coaches" as they are called, are not voice teachers. Voice teachers deal with what is happening inside your head, physically. Placement of the voice, musculature involved in singing, technique, breathing, how the voice works. Coaches deal more with what is coming out of your mouth; fine tuning vowels, making sure you sing all of the right notes, all of the right words, how you phrase lyrics and frankly, to make sure you sound good. Teachers give you the tools; Coaches make sure you are using them correctly.

It is in this latter area that the movie fell apart to those of us with musical knowhow. Starting off with Anne Hathaway...actually, she did exponentially better than the previews lead us to believe. Hats off to her. She sang as though she needed to be singing and used her voice appropriately. Is she the best Fantine I have heard? No. But did she do her job? Absolutely. Eddie, too. The rest of the cast, in this respect, did not.

Throughout the movie the actors were disengaged when they began singing. It looked as though someone came over a loud speaker somewhere and said "Please, sing about how you're feeling. Your invisible orchestra is behind you. Go." On top of that, all of the big chorus scenes were muted, underscored. Paired with the decision to allow more than a few lines that were supposed to be sung to be spoken...multiple eyebrows were raised. Again, musical.

The biggest question is: Where was the music staff to say,
"Hugh, you're starting sound nasal and strained. Relax, add some warmth to your sound. Take a low breath and start again, not so far forward.";
"Amanda, take a nice big breath and really sing. Sing more than you think you need to, it will help even everything out.";
"Samantha, you nailed this in the live 25th Anniversary Concert, just sing it that way again." (No really though, listen to this.);
"Russell, you sing the end of your suicide scene well, let's focus on reproducing that sound."?

And then to ask the entire cast (except Anne and Eddie), "Why are you singing this? What prompted you to sing this instead of just speaking it? Do not say why, show why. Show them why you're singing." Also, as much as it sucks to hear, "This does not sound good. What do you need from us to make you more comfortable with the material?" A rehearsal of mine was stopped once to address my inability to keep up with Mozart. It was the first day of rehearsal and I was almost fired on the spot because my recitative wasn't smooth enough and I have a Master's degree in this stuff. It goes to show that sometimes you just need to be told what's up. "Yes Men" get you nowhere. Trust me.

If it were my movie, I would have called a production meeting promptly upon noticing that 'Lead Whore' and 'Unnamed Solider' were the strongest cast members. Honestly, the supporting cast sang the leading cast under the table. Aaron Tveit, the revolutionaries, the soldier who orders the cannon attacks on the revolutionaries (best voice in the movie); the prostitutes, factory workers and slaves all kill it through the movie. Why? Because they are theatre people.

Before I wrap it up, let us address Russell Crowe and Eddie Redmayne for a second. Russell, obviously not the most skilled singer, but there is a voice there, he just needs help using it. Again, where was the help? Other than being a mediocre singer, he looks terribly uncomfortable while singing. Comfort is a difficult thing to accomplish that only comes from practice. With Redmayne, Empty Chairs was great and a wonderful example of "singing because he needs to." Although he has a pretty voice and of the main cast, was my favorite voice; he has so much tension while singing that he shakes. His jaw and his head wobble so noticeably while singing that the camera is barely on him 5 seconds before changing angles. Again, where were the teachers or coaches? Director? You have a 20ft-wide head on a theatre screen that is shaking to produce sound, you should probably, and definitely can, fix that.

There was a time when we as a people, not just me or my friends, other musicians, music nerds etc., but the majority of the population recognized the difference between Paul Potts and Pavarotti, Susan Boyle and Patti Lupone, Jackie Evancho and Renee Fleming. It's not snotty to know the difference between good and excellent, run-of-the-mill and exceptional. This movie was not exceptional. In the real music world, you do not get a trophy for participation; this is not little league. You must deliver or be replaced. I am eager to get back to that, if we can.


  1. thank you for this. Thoughtful and well written and well-observed. I am part of that minority that speaks out, and wanted to say I am in your corner. Sometimes the truth doesn't want to be heard, but it still needs to be spoken. Happy New Year! I shall now be following you!

  2. Enjoyed reading this and agreed with the vast majority of it.

  3. this is a perfect review of a mediocre musical getting rave reviews when it should not be.

  4. Wonderful, spot-on assessment of the movie and the current state of our society's view on music and culture. I heard sniffles around me throughout the film, and I couldn't stop checking my watch and waiting for it to be over. I'm glad I'm not the only viewer who felt this way!

  5. Huh. Before I say anything, let me just preface this by saying that I could have almost written this myself. Maybe I've mellowed or something, but I do have a major bone to pick with this review. I guess I should also preface this by saying that I'm also a classical singer with a masters in the stuff and a chunk of pro opera experience, so I'm right with you. I'm also (with a few exceptions, including Les Misérables) a sworn musical theatre hater, a scorner of the "lower" forms of music (pop, etc). I almost could have written this and decried the mediocre singing and our society's sorry inability to differentiate between Paul Potts and Pavarotti, indeed. Except you've made a small misstep here, in my opinion. I realize you don't know me even slightly, so I apologize for coming to your blog and stomping on your review, but here's the thing:

    Musical theatre was invented, as a form, for actors with no training in singing. That's a fact. Before the specific form of musical theatre, there always was theatre with music: opera. Opera in lots of forms: opera seria, opera-ballet, opera buffa, vaudeville, operetta, etc. There was a place for all that. And all that was for singers who were also expected, at least once the age of using masks was over, to also act while singing. Musical theatre evolved from straight theatre, from the realms of actors with no vocal training pertaining to singing. That's why it has gone the way it has: women belt (aka, sing in an unhealthy extension of the range controlled by the thyro-arytenoid cartilage) because they don't know how to project in the mixed register, using a balance between the thyro-arytenoid and crico-arytenoid ranges. The characters are miked because they've never been trained to find resonance, to discover and use the fifth frequency format that classical singers spend so many years trying to find. These are techniques meant specifically for actors who don't know how to sing. That's musical theatre. Now, Broadway singers have developed those techniques on purpose, and it's always been controversial in classical singing circles. But you can't argue the following: a) that in the tradition of the genre of musical theatre, the music part takes precedence over the theatre part, and b) that this is anything other than sung-theatre for non-singers. For actors who have been hired, in this particular production, to sing.

    (Too long! Cont'd below...)

  6. Which is exactly what this movie is: it's a movie, with a whole lot of music in it, in that order. It's a movie cast with phenomenal actors who have learned how to sing for the sake of this movie. And while I'll join any and all rants about society's perceptions of what does or does not define vocal talent, I also think it's a bit unrealistic to expect these professional actors to sing like real singers after a year or less of training and preparation. Take your average beginner adult voice student and giving them a year to prepare for singing a role like one of these, with a full-time schedule of other stuff to do. Given that level of previous training, I was actually pretty impressed with what these folks managed. Yes, Eddie Redwayne's painful, head-shaking vibrato made me wince, yes, Hugh Jackman's nasality and occasional wobbling grated, yes, I wish that belter roles like Fantine and Éponine had never been composed in the first place, but they were, and these are (for the most part) actors singing these roles, without much previous training, and with a prior emphasis on the dramatic, rather than the musical. Frankly, I agree - I feel that if there is music, the music should be given first priority - which is precisely the reason why I don't particularly care for musical theatre as an entire genre. However, that is how and why musical theatre developed in the first place and it's not really possible to tell an entire genre that it's doing things in the wrong priority sequence. I mean, you can, but then you need to go and tell that to every other musical theatre production, too. It's not really fair to call out this one production on a principle held by the entire industry, namely that in musical theatre, drama comes before music. If you want a musically theatrical production where (at least usually) the music comes first, I suggest you hie yourself to the opera. That's the main difference between the genres.

    Excuse my extremely long comment. Please go ahead and take issue with anything I've said; I'm happy to discuss. :)

    1. 1. Actors received (and still do, especially in Britain) extensive voice work to project without microphones. Much of this work also helps singing, so an "untrained" actor's voice of 1880 would have been far more developed in terms of muscular coordination than some mumbly hipster film-actor wannabe of today.

      2. Audio and film recordings of pre-1960's musicals show much, much, much better singing on average, and this singing is not so far from classical singing. Numerous opera singers did commercial or popular music as well, whether as a way to make money while they studied (Marilyn Horne) or because they sang it just as legit as Mozart (Tozzi).

      3. Musical theater did not develop to showcase poor singing, period. For most of the rep, even if your thoughts on MT's origins were correct, composers and audiences expected, and from a quick glance at the score clearly demanded, technically proficient singing. Not to the level of Rossini, but patently NOT untrained. You do not write lines like Cole Porter did if you do not expect legato singing that is supported and basically bel canto, even if the color is more speech-like.

      4. The CURRENT acceptable standard of singing on Broadway and on TV is very, very bad, and often bears little relation to the days of folks like Patti LuPone, Judy Kuhn, et al. Lea Michele? Not as good, and she's now touted as some gold standard of singing, when she's simply competent.

      5. It is perfectly realistic, not to expect these singers to sound like professional OPERA singers, but to sound at least professionally competent as singers, because they are being paid millions of dollars to sing professionally, in a blockbuster Hollywood extravaganza, no less. The way these songs are written demands vocal competency. No one is expecting Renée Fleming here, but for the love of God, some of us were not expecting what Amanda Seyfried delivered, either.

      6. I have read multiple complaints that people are unfairly singling out this movie for criticism. I confess this baffles me. Why does this poor, beleaguered 61 million dollar movie need defending from Facebook commentators, exactly? Why is it unfair to expect more out of one of the highest-budgeted movie musicals?

  7. Nicely said, Michael. Musical theater was not invented. It did not spring, fully formed, from the head of Zeus to serve actors who wanted to sing. It's fair to say it has evolved over a period of 150 years, beginning with French operettta and then Gilbert and Sullivan.

    I'm disappointed to hear you didn't like Jackman. I LOVE his Oklahoma from Syndey.

    I do wonder, however, if it's fair to compare a movie to a live production. It seems to me that, as an art form, film has certain expressive powers that theater doesn't: location shoots, enhanced lighting design, enhanced sound design (Foley), CGI, and so on. Of course, this doesn't mean that the singing can't be just as skilled in a movie as it can in front of a live audience, but I expect that, when I do see this movie, I may forgive the singing if these added means of expression work to fill in that gap to effectively tell the story of Les Mis.

  8. Judging from some of the specialized vocabulary in the blog and responses to it, I don't think I have the knowledge to enjoy the music being described. How would I obtain it, or why would I just as a casual listener? Whatever the music or singing, I cannot fall back on a fount of knowledge, nor do I particularly want to. I, like most of the unwashed, like what I hear because of the emotional response it evokes in me--not because the tonal resonance of the singer's voice was dead on when displayed on an ocilloscope. Why does the writer decry the audience's acceptance of mediocrity when the criteria for determining the difference between good and excellent is not within the scope of their knowledge or experience? If productions in the past were more in line with the writer's demands, it wasn't due to the audience, but rather due to the demands of those behind the curtain. As little as fifty years ago most people were probably agricultural, and their lives would not have brought them in contact with any of what is being discussed here. Even if they listened to opera on the radio, what was the reproduction quality of a depression era radio? Even if the opera had deigned to visit the rural Midwest, what would be the acoustical qualities of their main street Palladium been?
    The underlying disdain of the blog's writer, which comes through in his diction and syntax, smacks of elitism to an extent. It sounded like he thought people who liked unworthy music (in his opinion)were also somehow unworthy. Talk like that makes me sad that this person is American because he obviously does not understand the meaning of a classless society. I have listened to opera and, for the most part, do not like the style of singing. It's far too overdone, regardless of it's tonal perfection. So, does that make my opinion worthless and misinformed? I think not and I will not be apologetic for my acceptance of supposed mediocrity. What I enjoy is driven by my response to it, not what a critic tells me my response should be.