Revolutionary France, in monotone

The film version of the musical 'Les Miserables' is a financial success, but it is not quite ready for the canon

More than the fate of France was riding on Les Miserables. The history of the live-action American movie musical since approximately the administration of Richard Nixon has been, in essence, a history of failures. Some of them were quickly forgotten, like Peter Bogdanovich's 1975 movie, At Long Last Love, on which the director resumed the discontinued practice of having actors record their parts live, on set. Others, like Disney's 1992 period piece Newsies, went down with such a resounding crash as to make the genre's name a dirty word around studios for years to come.

One cannot, to be sure, call Tom Hooper's Les Misérables an American movie musical. The director is English and he has two Australian male leads, Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe, playing, respectively, the saintly fugitive Jean Valjean and Javert, the police detective who persecutes him. The material originated in Victor Hugo's 1862 novel, set in a Paris wracked by the revolutionary contractions of the 19th century, between 1815 and 1832. This begat Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg's concept album, which in turn attracted the attentions of British producer Cameron Mackintosh who, riding high off the success of Andrew Lloyd-Webber's Cats, made it into a West End staple and transatlantic phenomenon.

And yet when Les Mis, as it has come to be affectionately nicknamed, finally arrived in America, it was something of a homecoming, for here was a big, bathetic historical musical rife with lachrymose torch songs, in the grand tradition of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II's 1927 film, Show Boat. It was a cultural phenomenon when the Great White Way sorely needed a hit, and when it was announced that a screen adaptation of Les Mis was forthcoming some 25 years after its Broadway debut, many naturally hoped that it might serve the same purpose for the big-budget English-language musical.

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