Throwing Out My CDs by Ben Rimalower: LES MISERABLES
Ben Rimalower revisits favorite musical theater recordings as he digitizes and declutters his collection.
Oh my god, I have literally nothing to say about Les Miz. Well, maybe not nothing... not literally! It's not gonna be hard to throw these out, I'll tell you that much. I have so many freaking Les Miz CDs and they all take up so much space at two--even three--discs a pop. The only one I ever really listened to in its entirety more than a couple of times was the Original London cast anyway.
To be honest, I think this London cast centrism hurt me as a Les Miz fan, because I never got to see the version I knew onstage. People talk about the changes made to Les Miz over the years and last year friends urged me to see Trevor Nunn and John Caird's original turntable staging one last time in London before it shuts down. But that classic turntable staging isn't my Les Miz any more than the revival was. My Les Miz is and will only ever be that original London version where Gavroche sings a happy rendition of "Little People" without dying and where Cosette gets an additional song "I Saw Him Once" (although sadly does not get the extended solo version of "In My Life" as she later did). Look, I'm not saying I like this better, obviously Cosette's "In My Life" is must-see TV, but it's not my Les Miz. It's not the Les Miz, I blasted driving around the San Fernando Valley in my Toyota Corona (not a typo, look it up).
So even when I saw Les Miz on stage in 1992 at the Pantages (Third National), it was not the Les Miz I knew. (Side note: I'm still bitter that my parents didn't take me to see the Second National in 88 when it opened at LA's no longer existent Shubert with Jeff McCarthy as Javert, Gary Beach and Kay Cole as the Thernardiers and the late, great Michelle Nicastro as Eponine.
And before you call me a spoiled brat, notice I'm not complaining that they didn't take me to London or even Broadway...) Who knows how much more of a Les Miz fan I could've been if I'd gotten into the Broadway album and had one of those transcendental high school musical theater experiences where I mouthed the words to every song being sung onstage exactly like when I saw Falsettos or Kiss of the Spider Woman or The Goodbye Girl?
Anyway, this isn't to say that I didn't love Les Miz (or that I don't still!) and it certainly never stopped me from buying more CDs. I'm sitting here swimming in them, from the Broadway and London casts to the complete international symphonic recording (the three-disc offender), the 10th Anniversary Concert Cast, the 25th Anniversary Concert Cast (oh, wait, that's a DVD), the movie soundtrack and even the Manchester Highlights (what? Why is this a thing? And why did I spend $49.95 on this five-track album--this EP--at Colony Records??? Ten bucks a song!!! WHY?????).
All right, well, let's just go character by character.
Jean Valjean is easy. Colm Wilkinson please and thank you. Next. But seriously, folks. I mean I love other Valjeans, but Colm is such a freak with his strange mannerisms and beautiful Irish tenor, everyone else kinda sounds like a copycat or just wrong? I don't even feel bad saying this, since he was on the London cast AND the Broadway cast AND the 10th Anniversary Concert. So obviously I'm not like WRONG wrong.
Gary Morris on the Complete Symphonic feels like a wanna be Colm to me. Same with Jeff Leyton in Manchester. And then yall know I love me some Hugh Jackman, but for Valean for me, he's not the right voice type, to put it generously. But I'm a Colm queen. Come for me.
Moving on to Fantine, obviously I prefer Patti LuPone over everyone else in this role. I think she sounds the most beautiful in "I Dreamed A Dream," while still brandishing the most power and her full-throttle belt is especially thrilling in Fantine's other bits, like "Don't they know they're making love to one already dead?"
That said, I also love listening to young Randy Graff on the Broadway album strut her stuff as a high belting pop opera diva going excitingly to the top notes of the role in full chest voice and I doubt anyone will reach as deliciously deep into those dark chocolatey low notes as Randy.
I know a lot of you kids out there will clamor for Ruthie Henshall on the 10th Anniversary concert and I gotta give it to ya. Ruthie's voice is like a radioactive walnut in the middle of her forehead that shoots out rippling waves of ferocity.
We don't talk about her enough in the U.S. She should've recreated her brilliant Roxie on Broadway in Chicago instead of mixing it up with a Velma that didn't resonate as much. I wonder if there's still hope for her to be bigger over here. I'd love to see her in Next To Normal and Carrie. Anyway, the walnut is the most well placed belt of all the Fantines, allowing for an excitingly unique map of climaxes in the song, different from other renditions and the crazy Ruthie Henshall dramatic acting is there to keep it interesting on another level.
Ria Jones on the Manchester Highlights (because I guess we're really doing this, I need to get my money's worth after all) is enjoyably belty.
Ann Hathaway I liked in the movie, but the album is the same vocal tracks recorded live on set for the film and in this case neither her choices nor her instrument make for pleasant repeated listening...
On the 10th Anniversary recording, future Fantine Lea Salonga played Eponine and I'm not as into it as I usually am with Lea Salonga. The beauty and grace and strength and truthfulness she brings to every role is incomparable. She should've won another Tony for Once On This Island, but she lacks the edge need in an Eponine, vocally impressive though she may be.
More importantly, though, playing Eponine is a losing battle. There is only one. Frances Ruffelle created the role in London and on Broadway and won a Tony for it and no one will ever equal her. Although she holds her own as a pint-sized Piaf alongside Elaine Paige, she is just as much a roaring rock singer of the 1980s, like the love child of Cyndi Lauper and Pat Benatar.
You listen to Frances wail the number one 80s pop opera power ballad "On My Own" or tear through any of Eponine's other material ("I know this house I tell you...") and you understand why two generations of teenagers listening to Les Miz thought there were cool. Frances made us forget we were dorks. The rest of the Eponines are either whiny pop princesses or brass Broadway belters, but it's not worth getting into. Vive la France(s)!
In general, all the Javerts are great singers and actors as that seems to be a role rarely skimped on in the casting department. Few actors on earth, let alone in musicals, have quite the bite that original London Javert, Roger Allam, brings to the role. I would love to see him play Sweeney Todd. I also love Philip Quast on the 10th Anniversary Concert, who sings exquisitely.
The one who really needs to go home is Russell Crowe on the movie soundtrack--maybe the worst sung performance I've ever heard in a musical. It makes you long for the old days when they did so much dubbing in movie musicals.
The lovers Cosette and Marius have some of the prettiest music in the score and the best voices to record it were Judy Kuhn on the Broadway album and Michael Ball on the London. How convenient that the 10th Anniversary Concert paired them together--BLISS! And it saves us the trouble of editing playlists (or mix CDs, eek!).
As far Enjolras goes, they're all good. I mean, they have one job, show up and sing passionately and all the recordings are of guys doing it well. My actual favorite was Aaron Lazar in the unrecorded 2006 Broadway revival.
Full disclosure: I still don't really get what was so amazing about Michael Maguire that he won a Tony for Enjolras in the original Broadway cast. Like surely had Terrence Mann been nominated for Supporting Actor as Javert (instead of Leading Actor alongside Colm Wilkinson), he would've beat Maguire, right? Show Business is a nasty putain.
Some of the best Thernardier couples have been in unrecorded revivals and replacement cases like the aforementioned late, great Gary Beach as well as Ed Dixon, Chip Zien, Keala Settle, Victoria Clark and Ann Harada.
Thank God for bootlegs! Let's face it, "Master Of The House" has never been better than when you sang it in the car for the free chance to belt the world shit in your parents' ears.
I guess that's an essential part of makes Les Miz so great, it works great both onstage and in the way way back of your mom's car. Oooooooooooone! Daaaaaaaaaaaaaaayyyyyyyyyy! Mooooooooooooooooooorrrrrrrrrrrrrre!!!!!