Singing Live: The Music of LES MISERABLES
The creators of one of theater's greatest scores of
all times were a welcome presence on set throughout
production, appreciating the latest incarnation of their
life's master work. For the cast, having Schonberg and
Boublil present raised the bar for their self-expectations.
Hathaway speaks for the group: "You absolutely want to
please them and impress them and bring their vision to
life, and they have been really supportive of the process
and very understanding that certain adaptations have had
to be made."
The transition from stage to screen
was always going to be a challenging
one, but Hooper's vision that every actor
sing live raised the bar even further.
Relays Fellner: "Tom wanted to bring the
audience as close as possible, and quite
simply, an audience connects best with
a live performance. But it was a risk,
not only from a technical point of view,
but because of the demands it put on the
actors having to sing all day."
Musical director Stephen Brooker, one of Britain's leading
musical theater conductors and figures,
heads Mackintosh's worldwide music team -- conducting
and supervising the music on many of his shows. Brooker
shares his thoughts on the decision to have the cast sing
live: "It was without a doubt the right choice. It gave the
actors the real chance to be very emotionally connected
to the text."
Hooper expands upon the conundrum: "The problem
when you're singing to playback is that it denies the actor
of being in the moment because they have to stick to the
millisecond of a plan laid down months before. Whereas,
when they sing live, an actor has the freedom to create
the illusion that the character is acting in the moment,
which has a profound effect on the power and the realism
of the performance. There's so much emotion in LES MISERABLES, and I wanted the actors to have options
which might be created by the performance -- options
which they would be unlikely to have in a recording
studio months before." Another bonus? This meant that
the actors' performances were not restricted and dictated
by the tempo of an earlier recording.
Though production sound mixer Simon Hayes was
charged with the enormous task of capturing the live sound,
he was hugely supportive of Hooper's vision. He commends:
"I knew instinctively that when Tom first started talking to
me about this project, his vision to record the sound live
was right. There are probably only 15 to 20 lines of dialogue in the whole film. I don't think the audience would have
accepted actors lip-synching for an entire film."
The performers were supported by vocal coaches
with whom they would warm up daily before going on
set. Once on location, actors were given earpieces, which
allowed a live on-set pianist to play into their ears. The
instrumentalist watched the live performance on a monitor
so that the actors could dictate, by their movements,
where the melody and the tempo should come. The voices
were also recorded without the piano accompaniment,
which allowed an orchestra to score correctly in the
postproduction phase of the film.
Hayes describes that it was never easygoing: "On the
first day of the shoot, we had Hugh up a mountain. We
were pretty high up, the air was getting thin, and it had
taken us an hour and a half to carry all the equipment up.
What was immediately evident to me in the live recording
was that, as Hugh is striding across the mountain, you
can hear that he's out of breath. He's a fit man; he trains
very hard but you can hear that he's struggling with a
lack of oxygen, and it comes across in his voice. He
sings it beautifully, but he's clearly walking across a
mountain range. It's an extraordinary performance. At
once, I understood Tom's vision and knew how well it
was going to work. There was something in the way that
you connect on a human basis with that
piece of singing that you wouldn't do if
he was lip-synching to a prerecord."
Likewise, the actors appreciated
their director's unorthodox decision, one
that could have been proved insane by
absolutely anyone's vocals being off for
the day. Surmises Jackman: "It was a bold
but correct choice and daunting for the
actors, but it gave us a freedom we would
not have had in our performance. It meant
I could just get on with the acting and not
be locked into a performance I'd done
on a soundstage three months before. It
made it feel real and immediate."
Agrees Crowe: "The benefit that recording it live
brings is that you are not restricted emotionally. By being
able to explore in the moment, we made some interesting
and fascinating discoveries about the characters and the
relationships between them. I think it has been key to why
this experience has been so fulfilling."
Hathaway, who performs a gut-wrenching, bravura
performance of the iconic song "I Dreamed a Dream,"
adds, "Not only did you have to open yourself to something
you've never done before, but you're with a bunch of other
actors who've never done this before, a crew that has never
shot a movie like this, and a director who's never done
anything like this. Although we were all at different levels
of experience within our careers, we were all at square one
when it came to this.
"It was wonderful to have that same level of
vulnerability but also to feel supported and support each
other," Hathaway continues. "I learned the song back-
wards and forwards and then applied the reality of the
scene. The reality is that Fantine is devastated, and she's
just become a prostitute. The song is in a different place
than it is in the show. In the show, it comes just after she's
been fired from the factory, so there's still that little bit
of hope. But in the movie, she's literally at the bottom of
a hole... looking up and realizing she's never going to climb out of this. There seemed to me to be something
almost selfish about trying to go for the pretty version of
it. I decided to apply the truth to the melody. It was scary
to bring this rawness to the song, which has been sung
by some of the greatest singers who have ever lived. But
I had the support of Tom, Cameron, Claude-Michel and
Alain, so we just went for it."
For her part, Seyfried describes the intense
experience this way: "There's no way to prepare for
live singing in film. When I did MAMMA MIA!, we
spent two days in the recording studio. We listened to
our voices, as much as we could without going insane,
to memorize timing and breath... and so we could lip-
sync. On LES MISERABLES, the experience was like living
the life of a singer."
Although Barks has the additive experience of
appearing in the show on stage, she also found singing live
on film quite daunting. She reflects: "When I performed
'On My Own,' I sang that song from start to finish, take
after take after take, probably 15 times. That was a new
experience for me. In the theater, I did it once a night,
eight shows a week. But during the shoot, we were doing
it every day, all day, and it's a different kind of discipline.
You really had to look after yourself staminawise, and
everyone was in the same boat."
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