How will it compare to the original? This is the question many will be asking as they walk in to the cinema in the coming weeks to see Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe in Les Miserables.
While there is a great history of adapting beloved works for the big screen - arguably Les Miserables' greatest competition at the box office is Peter Jackson's first film in the Hobbit trilogy - many will walk in hoping to revisit the show they adored so many years before.
Sir Cameron Mackintosh, who has produced every professional production of Les Miserables to date, as well as the movie, remembers the first Australian production well.
“We were lucky,” says Mackintosh. “We sort of brought together what became the next generation of stars with Anthony Warlow, Marina Prior, Simon Burke. An amazing cast of people that have gone on to all be the leading players in Australia.”
Burke, who played Marius for the Sydney premiere in November 1987, remembers the show fondly. “It was a very emotional experience for me to see the film. Les Mis was a huge turning point in my career and I am forever grateful to Cameron and [Theatre, film and TV director] Trevor Nunn for taking a punt on a young actor who had never been in a big musical before.
“The bar that this musical sets for a performer is and always has been incredibly high - it demands complete emotional truth and absolute commitment to every beautiful note of Claude-Michel's [Claude-Michel Schonberg] score, and the movie is even more so. Watching Hugh and co rise to the challenges was completely thrilling.”
The movie is much more than a mere recording of a star-studded cast performing the stage show. The creative team behind the movie describe the process as stripping the show down to its parts and building something entirely new. The music has been recomposed by Schonberg, including the addition of a new song. That work was based on the 25th anniversary production which already contained changes, such as a reworking of Gavroche's Little People. Indeed, Gavroche is a changed character again in the movie, with Daniel Huttlestone taking a more prominent role and the high parts in a reworked version of Drink with Me.
The film almost contained a far more significant shift, as the initial decision to include dialogue in the film (the stage show is sung through) was rejected by director Tom Hooper.
“The very first draft of the screenplay that Bill Nicholson wrote was dialogue interspersed with songs,” Hooper explains. “I thought a lot about it and I thought the difficulty with going from dialogue to singing and back is gear changes. The reality like ours and the reality where I sing to you. I felt the gear shifts in this case wouldn't help the musical. This is a world like ours but where people's primary form of communication is singing. We're just going to commit to that and be brave about that.”
The transition to the big screen has also involved many stylistic decisions. Hooper has adopted lengthy close-ups on actors who would on stage have received spotlights. “The challenge I laid down to the cast was 'can you find a way of telling the stories of these songs in the medium of the close up?'” he says. “They found brilliant ways to do it. I honoured that by staying close and meditating on the face and meditating on the emotions.”
“You can get behind the eyes of an actor and the emotion that you simply can't do on the stage,” says Mackintosh. “You can show what's going through the actor's mind. The trio of Cosette, Eponine and Marius I think works even stronger in the movie. It's wonderfully cast in the movie but you seem to understand that fated love trio even more, it's more powerful because of the medium of cinema.”
Hooper actually found the wide shots more challenging to justify. “A single person singing close-up you can say it's like a prayer, it's like a soliloquy in a play,” he explains. “It's not that unreal. Whereas 100 people singing in unison felt like a harder thing for the audience to accept.”
That need for justifying the songs lies at the heart of a film that seeks far more realism than the show. Jackman feels it came from Hooper's never having worked with musicals before. “He very much approaches it as 'sometimes I get embarrassed watching it, I feel uncomfortable,' so he did it in a way where I think it feels very accessible. He took some bold choices. It has a very muscular, real feel the way he shot it."
Says Hooper: “I felt that the whole thing was a tightrope walk between gritty realism and a kind of magical realism, a heightened reality... The gritty realism anchors singing in a very visceral way that I felt would help me, at the same time the heightened style allows you to take the audience into an extraordinary world for this story.”
Australian actor Silvie Paladino certainly knows the show, having played Eponine in Australia for two years from 1989 then Fantine on the West End in the late nineties. She found the movie “very emotional” but felt that gritty realism had slightly skewed the musical.
“There were some strange interpretations to the songs," she says. "Schonberg wrote songs that mix a positive with a negative, in the film they played with the negative not the positive. It works better on stage. I thought it was wonderful on screen, but extraordinary on stage.”
For Burke, those who loved the stage show have no option. “If you have seen the musical and loved it as millions around the world have, then you don't have a choice - you have to see it!”
Mackintosh feels the movie is a unique amalgam of cinema and stage: “Everyone is saying how cinematic it is, yet in the cinema people are applauding it as if it is a stage show.”
He even has a solution for those who fall in love with Les Miserables for the first time on the big screen, as he plans to let audiences here the people sing, again, by bringing a new stage production to Australia.
“There is by nature a collusion between the cinema and the theatre. Indeed all the music has had to be recomposed by Claude Michel Shaumberg and was put together by my theatrical music team from the orchestrations. It is based on the new 25th anniversary production I did that I’m going to bring to Australia in the next 18 months and find a while new raft of talent, which I’m looking forward to doing next year."