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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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