I once observed a customer open a copy of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables in a Starbucks. Without a word being exchanged, the store’s baristas began whistling “The Song of Angry Men” made famous by Tom Hooper’s 2012 film adaptation (Universal Studios). The lyrics ask, “beyond the barricade / is there a world you long to see?” and express hope for “a life about to start /When tomorrow comes!” Initially written for by Herbert Kretzmer for a stage musical (Sheahen, “Barricade”), these words recall Richard Dyer’s theory that film musicals succeed (when they do) by creating “utopia.” (20). This utopia differs from fantasy in that it resembles the world inhabited by its audience, but it breaks with reality by transcending the constraints imposed by politics, economics, and convention. Unlike Thomas More’s 1516 Utopia, film depicts “what utopia would feel like rather than how it would be organized” (20). One variant of utopia is historical myth; rather than a nonexistent place, this is nonexistent history customized for human wish-fulfillment. Like utopia, myth participates in utopia’s alternative reality, but also brings a greater ideological component.
In Albert McLean’s definition, myth is “a constellation of images and symbols, whether objectively real or imaginary, which brings order to the psychic…processes of a group or society and in so doing endows a magical potency upon the circumstances of persons involved” (223). McLean had in mind vaudeville, but myth can be enhanced via the greater narrative unity offered by a sung-through film musical. A cinematic blend of historical fiction with the film musical can create myth through its unique “constellation” of source material, symbolism, and lyrics.
A period film crossed with a sung-through musical makes it to the silver screen infrequently, leading to classification difficulties. Sweeney Todd and Hamilton differ in not being sung-through and not having been made into a movie, respectively. In 2011, while Les Misérables was still in production at Universal Studios, Anthony Tommasini was arguing in the New York Times that operas are about music, whereas musicals include much spoken dialogue, and dance (“Opera”). He wrote too early to realize that the dialogue of Les Misérables is nearly exclusively sung, and he ignored the French New Wave film Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (Jacques Demy, 1964), in which all dialogue is sung. Neither features dance.
As with Les Misérables’ treatment of the 1832 June Rebellion in Paris, Les Parapluies also interfaces with historical concerns: the Algerian war (1954-1962). Despite the paucity of cinematic siblings, as it were, sung-throughs like Les Misérables demonstrates the potential of historical film opera for creating utopia by transmuting a mythical past into a utopian vision for the present. Required are usable historical source material, a symbolic mise-en-scène, and lyrics carefully calibrated evoke utopian revolution without offending the American status quo.
Source Material and Novel-Based Musical Myth-Making
Film musicals have long looked to the past for source material to adapt. At least since the 1930s, when Jeannette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy tried “enlivening a dying European tradition of sentimental musical romance we call operetta,” using “old-fashioned” European music (Schwarz, “Sweethearts”), the operatic strand of film musicals has looked to a romanticized, utopian past for inspiration. Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables likewise “enlivens a dying European tradition” (Schwarz, “Sweethearts”). The film’s score has French classical origins (see below), and its lyricist, Herbert Kretzmer, has friends still lamenting what the Beatles did to music (Sheahen, “Barricade”). In composing the lyrics, Kretzmer was conscious of the Hollywood tradition – even if he largely ignored it. As “a boy from…Kroonstad in South Africa, [he] saw his first cinema film aged eight. It was Gold Diggers of 1933” (Moir, “Mail Man”). As an adult, working by day as a journalist, Kretzmer dreamed of getting funding for his own stage musical (Moir, “Mail Man”). However, in 1985 Kreztmer finally received his big breakthrough in the musical business when director Cameron MacKintosh asked him to create English lyrics for a French stage musical, Alain Boublil’s and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s 1980 Les Misérables. The show debuted in London’s West End in 1985 and moved to Broadway in 1987 before being picked up by Universal Studios for the 2012 film (Hunt, “Dreamed”).
The adaptation process requires sensitivity to intercultural mythic sensibilities. Boublil and Schönberg had already collaborated on a historically focused stage musical, the 1973 rock opera La Revolution Française (Ng, “Before”), but the intense focus on French history was judged too – well – French to be exported across the Channel, let alone the Atlantic (Ng, “Before”). MacKintosh’s first attempt to translate Les Misérables to English, with prize-winning poet James Fenton, was frustrated by the poet’s failure to grasp the entertainment aspect of lyric-writing for the stage (Timms, “How We Made”). Frustrated, MacKintosh turned to Kretzmer, who largely ignored the French lyrics in the interest of capturing the novel’s international appeal (Kretzmer, Daily Mail).
An instructive contrast in film adaptation is E.L. Doctorow’s novel 1975 Ragtime, which crams together an array of historical characters including North Pole discoverer Admiral Peary and educator Booker T. Washington, became a stage musical (Terrence McNally, Stephen Flaherty, and Lynn Ahrens, 1996) only fifteen years after Milos Forman’s non-musical film version (1981). Without a ready-made musical, the filmed Ragtime did not stand a chance of becoming a sung-through, even though Doctorow’s material – the title references the musical accompaniment that accompanied the birth of silent film – invites musical treatment.
Furthermore, the Ragtime novel may be too over-determined for transformation into a musical because the book already implies a concept of the movies from which it is subsequently difficult to deviate. As Doctorow told the New York Times, “Reading novels often requires an effort of the will [, but] I want the reader to be as unaware of committing a cultural act as he is when he goes to the movies” (Gussow, “Novelist”). In contrast, Hugo had in mind “un lecteur pensif” (Roman & Bellosta 15-16). However, precisely because they are innocent of the silver screen, Les Misérables and Notre Dame de Paris / The Hunchback of Notre Dame have given directors leeway to make everything from period pieces to an animated musical (Grossman and Stephens 1-18). In the case of Ragtime, on the other hand, a critic remarked “What’s wrong with the movie is not the talent of the people who made it but the original material, which may well be unfilmable by anybody” (Canby, “Why”). The process of adapting literature to film is fraught with pitfalls, but it helps if a novel’s narrative structure accommodates cinematic adaptation.
Seymour Chatman argues “that narrative itself is a deep structure quite independent of its medium”; any medium – print, song, dance, and so on – will do (445). Here Hooper’s film presents an interesting test case; if Chatman is correct, something must endure from Hugo’s narrative across the multiple adaptations that culminated in the 2012 film. The two elements most difficult to adapt are “description and point of view” (Chatman 446).
Novels demand description, which leads a tension between the action time and the reading time – a reality captured in comments such as “it happened in less time that it takes to tell.” Even when the action stops for descriptive digression, the work of reading continues (Chatman 446-447). In contrast, “the camera depicts but does not describe” (450), leading to different irregularities in “narrative time” (446). Elaborate depiction undergirds the classic Busby Berkeley musical, but each spectacle, like the lengthy “By a Waterfall” in Footlight Parade (Lloyd Bacon, 1933), pauses the narrative. In integrated musicals such as The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939) and Singin’ in the Rain (Gene Kelley & Stanley Donen, 1953), the music complements, rather than complicates, the narrative (Grant 20). The sung-through goes one step further. The action does not stop for the songs; rather, the songs present the action. The depiction becomes the story.
How is a film to depict Hugo’s utopia without losing the rich descriptions of the nineteenth-century novel? Chatman pushes the problem back on the novel. A novelistic description of a scene includes only those details which the author sees fit to include, thus leaving the work of building utopia to the reader’s imagination. Film, on the other hand, must account for every detail within visual range (Chatman 448). The effect is multiplied in sung-through, because fitting the action into lyrics slows down the pacing of the film, allowing the eye to luxuriate in detail and characterization. Badly done, the results can be risible. Les Misérables attempts to make its utopia seem less artificial (although every element remains artifice) by giving the actors more control over the details of specification. Kretzmer explains,
It’s a great gamble that Tom has taken. It is an innovation in cinema terms, in that for the first time – at least, at this significant level – singers in a musical on film have sung ‘live’, with the orchestral accompaniment added afterwards. If you are singing while you’re acting, you’re able to make all the little slurs and hesitations that you wouldn’t if you were just singing a song. It is more real. (Hunt, “Dreamed”)
Dubbed singing might have eliminated shouted notes, but the emotional component of live singing preserved the link to the “psychic processes” in McLean’s concept of myth (223).
Point of View
As for Chatman’s second key to adaptation, point of view, Hugo’s novel is surprisingly cinema-friendly. The third-person limited point of view comes so close to resembling stage directions that at times it approaches the “over-specification” characteristic of cinematic depiction (Chatman 448), as in the opening to the chapter “Héroïsme de L’Obéissance Passive”:
La porte s’ouvrit.
Elle s’ouvrit vivement, toute grande, comme si quelqu’un la poussait avec énergie et résolution.
Un homme entra.
Cet homme, nous le connaissans déjà. C’est le voyageur que nous avons vu tout à l’heure errer cherchant un gîte. (Hugo 78).
The excessive line breaks are all Hugo’s. The effect is that of camera shots designed for suspense, withholding information until a close-up shot reveals the man who knocks on the priest’s door is the same man we have been following through the streets. The adapting director simply follows Hugo’s directions.
Mise-en-Scène: The Semiotics of Cinematic Mythmaking
A key to understanding how a film’s mise-en-scène can evoke utopia is to recall linguist Ferdinand de Saussure’s observation that signs may be “linguistic or visual” (Cahir 88-89) – hence the applicability of semiotics to an adaptation like Les Misérables in its printed, sung, and acted forms. Likewise, Dyer’s work on utopian entertainment draws on the semiotic theories of Charles Peirce and Susanne Langer to demonstrate that “nonrepresentational” signs – which evoke their referents not through “resemblance” but “at the level of basic structuration” – communicate as well as explicitly “representational” symbols (Dyer 20-21). An example of both signs at work together is “Look Down” at the beginning of Les Misérables. The representational signs include the verbal sign of barked orders, as well as the conventional symbol of the French tricolor. These communicate the power asymmetry between state and convict. However, the non-representational symbols of the wrecked ship on which the men work, not to mention their downcast faces communicate just as effectively about the damage done to the men’s psyches. The signs of this opening mise-en-scène create a dystopia as a foil for the film’s eventual utopia.
Under the influence of Roland Barthes’ poststructuralist focus on the language of texts, Christian Metz argues that while film is not a language, film can “become” a language” when the films components are coded into the form of narrative (46, 55). When this happens, as James Monaco has pointed out, the signs of the film-language differ from the written signs of text. “In film…the signifier and the signified are almost identical: the sign of the cinema is a short-circuited sign” (176).
The applicability of Monaco’s “short-circuit” metaphor becomes immediately apparent in the most fundamental element of any mise-en-scène: the film’s setting. Unlike a written narrative, a film allow the reader’s mind to invent a suitable backdrop for the action. The director must make some attempt at visual depiction. In a film musical, a utopian setting is often a literal no place, its fictitiousness flimsily disguised under cover of another era and place (Dyer 30) The 1935 operetta Naughty Marietta is often used as an example of the invented utopia of “Ruritania” because it confuses the Spanish and French eras of New Orleans’ municipal history, thereby meeting a “basic requirement” of utopian myth, namely “a remote time and locale that never really existed” (Reside, “Musical”). The aristocratic characters’ names – a salad of Spanish, German, and French – compound this impression. In the case of Les Misérables, on French critic has noted the American flavor of the utopian spaces in (British) Tom Hooper’s musical. The 2012 film puts much of the same action in the dangerous streets that more discreet French adaptations filmmakers hide behind closed doors. The nonrepresentational sign of the “social space” suggests to that Hollywood “seems more confident with the workings of democracy” than Cannes (Gleizes 139). The confidence signified by the open space suggests the American myth that we have almost found utopia, if we can just a few issues of race, gender, and violence worked out (never mind that no one in all recorded history has yet succeeded).
Once the utopic setting has been established, the operatic musical rhythm forces a delayed pacing that shifts focus away from the narrative action and toward the aesthetic elements of the mise-en-scène. Aestheticism – the artistic reconfiguring of reality to conform with the beautiful or sublime – is baked into the concept of utopia, which likewise seeks to re-calibrate reality with reference to some ideal. Perhaps a more obvious musical for illustrating aesthetic bliss would be Demy’s aforementioned Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, which positively luxuriates in beautiful color – impossible color. The eye is encouraged to linger on backdrops as mundane as a city street or a mechanic’s garage, but only because the mundane has been given utopic significance through aesthetic re-imagining. Despite the context of penury (reality), Genevieve’s mother’s umbrella shop exudes luxury (utopia), even as the paucity of customers confirms the scene as an art object to be seen but not touched. The same applies to the costumes Genevieve and her mother sport throughout the film. Les Misérables is grittier, but, the period costuming and faux-historical sets perform much the same function of creating an alternative space distinct from the audience’s reality. Les Mis (as befits the topic) carries grittiness, but the large numbers of bodies on the screen in numbers such as the “Look Down,” “Master of the House,” the barricade battles, and the post-mortem finale allow the eye to explore while the music goes on.
Another set signs deployed in musicals invoke the myths of love, often in deliberate visual disjunction from the brutal action unfolding on the level of the narrative itself. In Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, for example, Demy transmutes much of the action into symbol – viewers never see Genevieve and Guy hook up, nor do they see Guy fighting in Algeria. We do see the symbolic marks of these events reflected in letters, changing seasons, Genevieve’s face, and Guy’s limp. In a love story like Les Parapluies, this is to be expected, but the principle extends to more violent backdrops in other sung-throughs. Across the Universe (Julie Taymor, 2007), although not technically a sung-through, confines the battlefields of Vietnam to the “Strawberry Fields” montage. In Les Misérables, the combatants at the barricades stop fighting to witness Éponine’s performance as she reclines peacefully against Marcus while the two sing their hearts out. Such unrealistic mise-en-scène allows the audience to explore the utopic pathos of the could-have-been.
Lyrics: Poetry and Ideology in Musical Myth-Making
Les Misérables has long been deemed musical-ready; in response to an early theatrical version of the novel, a New York reviewer reported that the next logical step would be an opera; “Hugo’s great prose poem was begging for a lyrical soundtrack” (Grossman, “Making” 124). Why? France Culture radio once aired an episode that called Les Misérables “l’utopie concrète de Victor Hugo” because of the novel’s faux-realist artificiality (Garrigou-Lagrange, “l’utopie”). Such a narrative invites the artifice of musical treatment.
Lyrics and Ideology
The expanded attention given to lyrics gives more space for the ideas behind the myth, while the musical/poetic medium allows the audience to interpret the songs as aesthetic entertainment rather than ideological provocation. This dynamic is especially clear in Les Misérables, because Herbert Kretzmer deliberately transformed the lyrics for comfort of an Anglo-American audience. Kretzmer not only admits to disliking “translation,” he argues that the connotations and resonances of each culture demand unique lyrics (Sheahen, “Barricade”). One of the most utopian moments in each version is captured when the Marius’s drinking companions sing their revolutionary hopes — around the table, in the musical, but on the streets, in Hooper’s film. Kretzmer’s “Do You Hear the People Sing” and Boublil’s “À la volunté du peuple,” offer slightly yet significantly different myths for audience consumption. In the chart below, the left-hand column holds Boublil’s 1980 French lyrics, while the right hand shows Kretzmer’s adaptation (Sheahan, “Barricade”). Kretzmer himself makes precisely this comparison when discussing the creation process for “Do You Hear the People Sing,” (Sheahan, “Barricade”) — although I have taken the liberty of substituting the precise words of Boublil’s French for the “literal” English translation provided by Kretzmer.
|A la volonté du peuple||Do you hear the people sing|
|Et à la santé du progrès||Singing the song of angry men?|
|Remplis ton cœur d’un vin rebelle||It is the music of a people|
|Et à demain, ami fidèle||Who will not be slaves again|
|Nous voulons faire la lumière||When the beating of your heart|
|Malgré le masque de la nuit||Echoes the beating of the drums|
|Pour illuminer notre terre||There is a life about to start|
|Et changer la vie||When tomorrow comes!|
|French v. English lyrics|| |
Boublil’s version is a paean to liberal political-economic progress. An explicitly ideological version of utopia, the French original lauds “the people” as an idea, a concept, in an impersonal dialectic of progress. Kretzmer’s lyrics, on the other hand, feature “the people” as emotionally reactive individuals, attentive to their personal heartbeat rather than general enlightenment (lumière). Delphine Gleizes opines that the French adaptations of Les Misérables bear the weight of a specifically European reckoning with aspects of history and philosophy (137). The term “will,” for example, has resonances in the Continental, historically-based ideology of progress (c.f. Hegel) absent in the American historical obliviousness. “The American versions offer a symbolic and simplified analysis of the developing workings of democracy, often abstracted from the socio-political context in which they emerge” (Gleizes 137). The audience can witness the fictionalized rebellion without Hugo’s worries over distinguishing any specific legitimate “revolution” from mere “riot” (Grossman, Transcendence 200). Indeed, elements of Hooper’s version – such as the “working-class women [who] mop up the pools of blood” after the debacle at the barricades – undermine revolution by suggesting Marius’s friends “died for nothing” (Gleizes 138-139).
The Constraints of Lyricism
Converting dialogue to lyrics inevitably imposes certain constraints on the narrative. Interestingly, the sung-through’s constraints encourage the restoration of the written sign systems often excluded from film. The director’s choices in determining which elements require written reinforcement can be instructive. Les Parapluies features letters from Guy, Roland, and Genevieve. In Les Misérables, Marius, limited to singing in front of Cosette, sends her a letter. Of course, in the novel Marius sends a letter despite having the freedom to speak (950-954), but the decision to include the letter within the musical is nevertheless significant. After all, the musical omits the novel’s depiction of the Battle of Waterloo (315-367); the letter must be more significant. Why is a love letter more important than the culminating battle of the Napoleonic Era? War is not a feature of utopia; relational harmony is. Even though sung-through musicals are obsessed with the portrayal of human relationships, the subordination of dialogue to lyrics also suppresses the dialogue that forms the basis of conventional romance. Unsurprisingly, Les Miserables and Les Parapluies present alternatives to romance. Marius enjoys his drinking buddies-turned-revolutionaries. Valjean’s primary human connection is to an adopted child, Cosette. The entrepreneurial alliance of the Thenardiers hardly fits the true love stereotype. Even when conventional love is in play, as in Éponine’s desire for Marius, the narrative centers on the unfairness of the class and gender systems that free Marius to pursue Cosette.
Éponine’s relationships require further analysis through the lens of utopia. Éponine’s decision to switch gender roles has some elements of the disappointed lover, to be sure, but as a female armed rebel she challenges the entire patriarchal, familial, governmental, class, and gender structures of 1830s France. In so doing, she, like Marius’s friends the revolutionaries, dies for a utopian tomorrow. In myth, failure in love and war is permissible if it is redeeming.
In Les Parapluies, relational dystopia initially threatens. The stock heterosexual romance’s dominance is undermined by the ease with which it is first destroyed and later recreated. The shifting alliances between Madeleine, Roland, Guy, and Genevieve portray the lovers as interchangeable parts. The duplication of Francois[e] in the form of children drives the point home. Yet at the film’s finale, when asked if they are happy, Guy and Genevieve say “yes.” Despite the elements of realism, utopia is restored.
Lyrics and Characterization: Self-Reflexivity and Utopia
In the absence of spoken dialogue, lyrics represent the chief vehicle for characterization, another vehicle for utopian imagination in the musical film. This dynamic differentiates the sung-through from the self-reflexivity Feuer finds in classic Hollywood musicals (313-326). Before and after performing “Make ‘Em Laugh” in Singin’ in the Rain, for example, Cosmo speaks his own complicated reality. However, the moment he starts to dance he shows his understanding of the audience’s utopic expectations. Likewise, in LaLa Land (Damien Chazelle, 2016) the dream-stories of the utopian musical numbers are cancelled out by the more realistic primary narrative. Because sung-through forms subsume the dialogue within the lyrics, the actors must sing to speak at all. For sung dialogue to work, the actors must lose their self-awareness as performers, and the audience must suspend disbelief. These moves cause an aura of performative utopia to pervade the entire film.
In contrast, Les Misérables’ source novel seems made for the role of a coherent utopian vision. Arguably, protagonist Jean Valjean incarnates mythical utopian thinking. While “angry men” plot revolution, Valjean rejects both injustice and violence when he refuses to kill Javert and declines to challenge Marius over Cosette. “Hugo’s apolitical protagonist thus becomes the primary ground for utopian thought,” creating in the book, on stage, and on the screen an aura of utopian “transcendence” (Grossman, Transcendence 200). The final scene’s postmortem reunion bestows supernatural validation on his non-revolutionary, and therefore nonthreatening, philosophy. These characters’ persistence through war and misery to an (unrealistic) individual utopia independent of social realities.
Any musical that sings of history will face tension between the hard edges of history and the need to blunt those hard edges to reassure the audience. In Kretzmer’s childhood favorite Gold Diggers of 1933 (Mervyn LeRoy, 1933), the flashiness of the human capital employed in dance numbers clashes with the depression-era setting that takes over in the final number, “Remember My Forgotten Man.” In 42nd Street (Lloyd Bacon, 1933), Ruby Keeler’s ambition for stardom exists in tension with the economic pressure to save “two hundred jobs” (Mordden, “Theatre”). In the wake of the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam, Across the Universe (2007) grapples with both themes, while enlisting the Beatles to defang the overtly political themes. In fact, Ethan Mordden wonders if the musical’s contemporary appeal to historians might be its enabling of a “socio political archaeology” of entertainment (“Theatre”).
In the twenty-first century, the calculus as not changed. Historical film opera on the model of Les Misérables presents a vision of alterity, only to consign the ideal to the past (1832 Paris) or the future (“when tomorrow comes”). The sung-through musical’s careful management of sources, mise-en-scène, and lyrics allows utopia to be pictured – and postponed.
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Canby, Vincent: “Why ‘Reds’ Succeeds and ‘Ragtime’ Doesn’t.” New York Times, 6 December 1981.
Chatman, Seymour. “What Novels Can Do that Films Can’t (And Vice Versa).” in Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. Film Theory and Criticism. 6th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
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Dyer, Richard. Only Entertainment. 2nd Edition. London: Routledge, 1992, 2002.
Feuer, Jane. “The Self-Reflexive Musical and the Myth of Entertainment.” Quarterly Review of Film and Video, vol. 2, no. 3, 1977, p. 313-326.
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Grossman, Kathryn M. Figuring Transcendence in Les Misérables: Hugo’s Romantic Sublime. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1994, p. 114-128.
— “The Making of a Classic: Les Misérables Takes the States, 1860-1922. Chapter 7 in Kathryn Grossman and Bradley Stephens, eds. [See Gleizes, above], p. 114-128.
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Kretzmer, Herbert. “I Wrote the Lyrics to ‘Les Misérables’ While Working as the Mail’s TV Critic – And It Changed My Life.” The Daily Mail, 18 January 2013. Web.
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Mordden, Ethan. “Theatre: A Trip Back in Time to Musicals in their Prime.” New York Times. 20 December 1998. Web.
Ng, David. “Before There Was ‘Les Misérables,’ There Was ‘La Revolution Française.” Los Angeles Times, 27 December 2012.
Reside, Doug. “Musical of the Month: Naughty Marietta.” New York Public Library Blog. 25 March 2012. Accessed 3 May via at https://www.nypl.org/blog/2012/05/25/musical-month-naughty-marietta.
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Sheahen, Al. “The Barricade Interview.” Interview with Herbert Kretzmer. Van Nuys, CA: The Barricade, in-house magazine for Les Misérables company. 1998.
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 ”The door opened. It opened quickly, wide open, as if someone pushed it with energy and resolution. A man entered. This man – we have already met him. It is the traveler we have seen wander all this time, searching for a shelter.”
 « Ce n’est pas parce que le cinéma est un langage qu’il peut nous conter de si belles histoires, c’est parce que qu’il nous en a contées de si belles qu’il est devenu un langage » (Metz 55).