They Dreamed a Dream: Les Misérables Is a Whole New Kind of Movie Musical

If the Hollywood blockbuster-in-waiting doesn’t entirely match Hugo’s furious cry of class struggle, it may well launch a different kind of film revolution

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Universal Pictures

In June 1832, a group of students, immigrants and insurrectionists took to the streets of Paris, demanding change. The fervor of the French Revolution had withered amid vast economic inequality, food shortages and a cholera outbreak. The rebels occupied half the city using makeshift barricades: trembling stacks of stolen saplings and planks. While the insurgency ended overnight, it lasted long enough for novelist Victor Hugo to be caught in its crosshairs, pinned to a wall as bullets flew.

The events would inspire Hugo’s master-piece, Les Misérables—which, 118 years later, inspired Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s musical. Since its Paris premiere in 1980, the star-crossed epic of good vs. evil has won eight Tonys, been translated into 21 languages, been seen by more than 60 million people in 42 countries and launched untold thousands of high school productions. It’s largely responsible for Glee. It’s almost entirely to blame for Susan Boyle.

Now it’s a Hollywood blockbuster-in-waiting, opening Christmas Day. Early reviews are ecstatic, and there’s talk of Oscars for stars Hugh Jackman (as the thief turned saintly savior Jean Valjean) and Anne Hathaway (as the doomed mother Fantine, whose poverty drives her to prostitution). And if the film doesn’t entirely match Hugo’s furious cry of class struggle, it may well launch a different kind of film revolution.

In director Tom Hooper’s iteration, all the singing is live, to the camera: no lip-synching, no overdubs. Wearing radio microphones hidden in their costumes, the actors sang to live piano accompaniment, improvising first to find their way into the songs. Only after filming was the orchestration added. According to the filmmakers, Les Miz is likely the first musical in movie history to pull this off.

(MOREWatch Anne Hathaway Sing in the Les Misérables Trailer)

In surprising ways, Les Miz is a continuation of Hooper’s Oscar-winning work on The King’s Speech, about George VI’s struggle to overcome his stutter. “The sound guys initially, and responsibly, cleaned up the dialogue tracks on The King’s Speech, but what they hadn’t realized was that Colin Firth was making a whole load of tiny noises—little clicks and gasps. The noises were so subtle and enmeshed in other sounds, but they were the record of his stammer,” Hooper says. “That gave me a whole new respect for the power of live recording.”

This power is on display perhaps most stunningly in Jean Valjean’s wrenching “What Have I Done?” shot in a medieval chapel in London. Sound mixer Simon Hayes managed to record not only Jackman’s every whisper and keen but also the echoes of those whispers and keens, rattling around and haunting the apse.

To sing live to the camera, “we all needed to build up stamina,” says Hathaway. (Audiences should build up stamina to recover from her ragged, raging performance of “I Dreamed a Dream.”) “There are high stakes here. We could have fallen flat on our faces.” It helped that the cast—Hathaway and Jackman (who famously duetted at the 2009 Oscars), Russell Crowe as obsessed Inspector Javert, Amanda Seyfried as lovable Cosette, Eddie Redmayne as the naive rebel Marius, Samantha Barks as the pining Éponine—spent nine weeks in rehearsal, a rare luxury even for a big-budget, all-star production.

Working with legendary vocal coach Joan Lader helped too. “Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to sing Jean Valjean’s part,” says Jackman, who has starred in major productions of Beauty and the Beast and Oklahoma! and won a Tony for his turn as Peter Allen in The Boy from Oz. “Whatever technique I used to have was no good. Mainly I learned by waiting in the wings and just copying all these great singers. But Joan got me to open my range at the top end by four or five tones and at the bottom too. It changed the whole way my voice came out.”

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Pianist Jennifer Whyte accompanied most of the actors from a soundproofed box offstage, following their lead on a monitor. “The songs are so established and precious, but part of what Tom wanted was to improvise,” Whyte says. “I could extend things, change the color and texture. I found tiny things to do, like a little twinkle on the piano, to tell the characters who they were.”

The actors’ improvisations were caught from every angle, because Hooper had as many as six cameras rolling at once. He often settled on long, single takes, he says: “When you have found actors at this level, you kind of sit in the cutting room and go, You know, why edit?”

Though the performances differed from take to take, the actors were still singing the same well-known, time-tested songs. Hooper says he had fleeting moments of doubt about the contemporary resonance of Les Miz: “Is it still relevant? The thing that struck me is that we’re living at a time when a lot of people are hurting around the world because of economic and social inequity, and there’s tremendous anger about the system.”

“The prophecy of Hugo has not budged,” says Boublil. “Nothing he prophesied 150 years ago has become irrelevant today.”

“Fantine is not just a character that lived centuries ago,” says Hathaway, who spent months researching the lives of women who sell sex. “Women are having sexual experiences for less than a dollar a day so their children can eat. There’s someone like her a block from us right now. And that should be to our collective, mutual outrage and shame.”

But Fantine lives vividly for Hathaway in happier ways as well. “The second time I ever saw the show, my mom [Kate McCauley Hathaway] played Fantine,” she says. “It was the last role she had before she gave up acting to be a mother. I grew up a precocious, musically inclined youngster, and so I of course imagined myself in the show, but as every character but Fantine. It sort of felt off-limits.”

But fate or God or Hollywood had its own plan. “When the film came around, I found out I was too old to play Éponine or Cosette—which I handled with astonishing grace.” (Hathaway just turned 30.) That left Fantine. “I was like, Whoa. That song? My mom’s part? Gracious! But she had the coolest response. She told me that when she sang, ‘Cosette, it’s past your bedtime,’ she would imagine me.”

(MOREBon Anniversaire Les Misérables)

The religious overtones of Les Miz also resonated with Hathaway, who was raised Catholic. Her close-knit family left the church in opposition to its anti-gay stance. “Where I’m at now is that I love all religions that don’t hurt anyone. The religion of this film is love.” (Or as Jean Valjean sings at the musical’s end, “To love another person is to see the face of God.”) “Fantine is such a mystical figure,” Hathaway continues. “I believe that she burns with the same energy the martyrs burned with, that Joan of Arc burned with.”

Jackman grew up watching faith in action too. His father, a single parent—“What he did was herculean, to bring up five kids with a full-time job”—was born again at age 30, inspired by Billy Graham’s crusade. “I remember asking him if he told people at work he was a Christian, and he said, ‘No. What you say is immaterial. It’s what you do that matters.’ If you think about it, that’s very Valjean,” he says.

And if Fantine lives among us today, so does Jean Valjean. “I was talking to Anne the other day about the New York City cop who bought a homeless man boots. It was on the cover of the New York Post, and there was Jean Valjean, right there,” Jackman says. “It’s a great honor to play someone like him, but it’s a weird thing, during breaks, going back to your luxurious trailer just off set, like, ‘Where the hell is my Evian?’”

“We live in a selfish age,” Hooper says, “obsessed with how we project various versions of ourselves. But you have to tell this story from the point of view that God exists. And what God means in practice is the act of compassion, the struggle of living your life in a moral way.”

Which is exactly what those young Parisians called for from the barricades. We have heard the calls, from Tahrir Square to Occupy Sandy. “Les Miz is the great anthem of the dispossessed,” Hooper says. “It offers this solace that we as a collective can rise up against the system and change it for the better.”