“French critics hated the novel 150 years ago, but Parisians bought it in
Cameron Mackintosh, speaking of Les Mise’rables
Who could have guessed? The film version of the musical fashioned from Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel has provoked an avalanche of what Susan Wloszczyna in USA Today dubbed “Les Mis-anthropy.”
Here’s a sampling that would surely make anyone’s hair stand on end: “The film is not just bad. It’s terrible. It’s dreadful. Overbearing, pretentious, madly repetitive. I was doubly embarrassed because all around me, people were sitting rapt, awed, absolutely silent, only to burst into applause after some numbers.”
Gee, I guess those people hadn’t heard the news that the film was so terrible: they were enjoying it! Maybe they’re onto something. Despite the naysayers, the film version of Les Mis keeps perking along. It’s been a box-office hit, generating $131 million domestically and $245 million worldwide and the soundtrack hit No. 1 on the Billboard chart for three weeks. The movie has also gathered three Golden Globe wins and eight Oscar nominations. So what’s going on?
Cameron Mackintosh, the theatrical impresario behind both the stage and film versions has heard it all before. When the musical premiered in London’s West End back in 1985 (it’s still going strong), “the critics didn’t get it early. But the public did. It’s always been the ‘people’s musical.’ The subject is about them, not the intellectuals who think they know better and can’t cope with the fact that the great Victor Hugo is talking directly to and in support of ordinary people against the social structure of its time.”
Others have noted that the film is unapologetically sentimental. “While it’s very risky to go with that, it can also be very moving,” observes theatre critic Adam Feldman. “It tells the story in a form that is very dramatically and musically direct, and it can make some people uncomfortable.”
But hey, isn’t that what be musicals are supposed to be: risky, dramatically direct, and moving? If people are responding to the film with “tears, applause, even standing ovations” — doesn’t that make it a hit? I’ve seen Les Mis twice and loved its brash emotional style — to me, that’s what theater is all about. What do you think? Write on.