Tuesday, October 08, 2002

To break the monotony, I'm going to spend a few days doing a review/comparison of three major recordings of the musical, Les Miserables by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg. I'll be looking at the Broadway Cast recording (B), the Complete Symphonic recording (C), and the Tenth Anniversary recording (T) only, since I haven't gotten around to buying the London Cast recording yet. If the mere thought of musicals makes your pores explode, you can come back on Sunday, as I should be finished by then.

I myself wasn't even remotely interested in musicals until about six years ago when a close friend listened to them tirelessly. As I've mentioned before, I'm more interested in those where the music is paramount, not those that are vehicles for divas and theatre folk. Boublil and Schonberg's work is interesting in this regard because all three of their musicals are through composed, with a bare minimum of spoken word. I think one of things that draws me to them is how they can manage appeal to such a disparate musical audience while maintaining artistic integrity. It's something that modern composers should consider, even if they dismiss musicals as commercial or nonserious art.

Everyone knows something about Les Miserables even if they haven't read the book or seen the musical. Songs like Castle on a Cloud have become part of yuppy-pop culture and Master of the House was even incorporated as a major subplot in an episode of Seinfeld. In high school, it was considered chic for all the strange theatre people to wear Les Mis T-shirts, with the waifish Cosette emblazoned on the back.

Over the next few days, I'll be doing a character by character comparison of the recordings and listing my favourites. Even if you aren't familiar with the music, it may be interesting to see how different singers treat (or mistreat) the lyrics. If any of the excerpts below whet your appetite, the recordings and various 'Selections From' CDs are available through all major online retailers or at your nearest Border's Books.

Jean Valjean: Most Les Mis fans seem adamant in their belief that Colm Wilkinson (B, T) was the definitive Jean Valjean, and he does give a maturity and weight to the role. Plus, he doesn't sound like a pansy while belting out the high notes. Gary Morris (C), is a country singer, and his roots can easily be felt in his interpretation. It's not that he's so bad, it's just that he's too American, too young sounding, and not vocally acrobatic. Of his two recordings, Wilkinson sounds better on the earlier Broadway recording, which sounds more like he was in his prime. It's interesting that I tend to prefer the British performances because their accent adds some authenticity, when the original musical was actually in French, and the story takes place in France. Perhaps British accents just have more culture than American ones.

    Colm Wilkinson, Broadway (MP3, 502KB)
    Gary Morris, Complete (MP3, 520KB)

The Bishop of Digne: This is a fairly minor role, but is important because of his impact on the life of Valjean. Ken Caswell (C) wins this one hands down. His performance is compassionate while being slightly haunting. Paul Monaghan (T) sounds too warbly, and the bishop on the Broadway recording sounds more like a bored university professor than a man of the cloth. I don't have the liner notes for the Broadway recording here, so I can't locate all of the minor actors' names.

    Bishop of Digne, Broadway (MP3, 409KB)
    Ken Caswell, Complete (MP3, 365KB)
    Paul Monaghan, Tenth Anniversary (MP3, 450KB)

Fantine: Randy Graff (B) epitomizes the things I hate about the excesses of singing. Listen to her warbling of Fantine's lyrics and chuckle at the overemphasis and tragic vibrato. Of the other two recordings, I'd have to chose Debbie Byrne (C) as my favourite. Her voice isn't as attractive as Ruthie Henshall (T) but it fits the character of the world-weary, dying character to a T. I like Ruthie's voice a lot, but she would be better in another less tragic role. I tend to like soprano voices that have distinct timbres like Ruthie's, because it's not just your run-of-the-mill high-note-swatter's.

    Randy Graff, Broadway (MP3, 776KB)
    Debbie Byrne, Complete (MP3, 527KB)
    Ruthie Henshall, Tenth Anniversary (MP3, 549KB)

Do you have any opinions of your own on Les Mis or musicals in general? Do you hate Les Mis Week more than you hated Computer Game Music Week? Let me know by sending me an e-mail with the icon in the upper right corner.

To be continued...

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