Short Shorts 68: Les Miserables and Legally Blonde inspire controversy, and quiz answers

Samantha Barks (Eponine) in Les Miserables. Photo: Laurie Sparham
Mark Shenton
Mark is associate editor of The Stage, as well as joint lead critic. He has written regularly for The Stage since 2005, including a daily online column.
by -

Is less more for Les Miserables?

Today sees the release, at last, of the film version of Les Miserables in the UK, two and a half weeks after its New York release on Christmas Day. I've now seen it twice – first in a tiny Soho screening room, then in on Christmas Day in the massive, classic Ziegfeld cinema in New York. But the impact actually diminished on a larger screen – the paradox of Les Miserables is that, while Trevor Nunn and John Caird's original brilliant stage version is powerfully cinematic, on screen it looks weirdly stagey.

That's partly thanks to the sets which look like you're wandering through a Las Vegas theme hotel version of Paris (there is already one of those in Vegas, in fact). And even the big setpieces, filmed in real locations in Greenwich and dry docks in Portsmouth, have the weird look of being CGI'd. Elsewhere, especially during the intense solo songs, director Tom Hooper brings an unnerving intimacy to the scenes with giant close-ups of each singer, all of whom are famously singing live, not to a pre-recorded backing track.

But as Charles Isherwood has written of this strategy in the New York Times,

To which I can only say: big deal. (Michael Cerveris, now on Broadway in Evita, wittily tweeted as much: “Inspired by Hollywood,” he wrote, “actors all over town ARE SINGING LIVE today. And tonight. 8 times a week. Every week. No second take.” The implication: They don’t expect to be congratulated for it by a fawning press.)

For the first screening I saw of the film, I had the privilege and pleasure of taking Rebecca Caine, the actress who 25 years ago originated the role of the adult Cosette in the original Stage production, as my guest, and she quietly wept beside me as the flood of memories of the show's original creation came back. That was, for me, a lot more moving than the film itself.

And seeing it again in New York with a 'regular' audience, without those personal associations, some of the power was gone. But I'm going one more time, this Sunday morning to the IMAX at Waterloo: I'm intrigued to see it on the biggest screen there is. And according to Cameron Mackintosh, this may be the way to see it: "The extraordinary power of Les Mis and the epic nature of the storytelling and yet the intimacy are things that IMAX do better than anything."

Is Legally Blonde offensive?

Next week Chiswick's Arts Educational School will offer the drama school premiere of Legally Blonde the Musical. To declare an interest, last term I began teaching a course at ArtsEd called Contextual Studies, in which I sought to expose first year students to the wealth of musical theatre heritage that they were training to become part of,  and one of my avowed aims has been to show them that musicals didn't begin with Wicked or Legally Blonde as some (but not all) think they do.

And one of my proudest boasts on the course is that they've all at least now not only heard of but actually heard Barbara Cook and Audra McDonald, the two female singers whose work I play them most often. I ran into Audra last weekend in New York, sitting in front of me at Saturday's evening performance of Evita, and when I told them I was doing this, she said, "I'm sorry!"

Legally Blonde should, at least, prove an uncontroversial choice for young musical theatre performers to tackle (the next show at ArtsEd – Kiss of the Spiderwoman – is a bit more gritty). But you can never know: an extraordinary story broke just before Christmas in the US when a high school located near Cincinnati in Ohio fired its long-time director of musicals for daring to stage Legally Blonde with her students. She was reprimanded by the school's administrators for "going against the school's code of conduct," which were breached, apparently, by "bootie-bounce dance moves" and the use of the word "skank" in the script. The school also had a strict no-alcohol policy, so she was reprimanded, too, for a scene which included a champagne party.

No such complaints were levied against the director when she staged Grease for the school. And as Heather Hach, who wrote the book for Legally Blonde, has commented,

At the end of Grease, the heroine Sandy wears less clothes to get her man. At the end of Legally Blonde, our heroine Elle Woods graduates top of her class from Harvard Law. Now what message do you want your daughter absorbing?

Critical quotes of the day

There's nothing new to critics being divided in their opinions on shows – it is, as I've often pointed out here before, one of the healthiest things about the British system (as opposed to that on Broadway) is that we still have so many press outlets and critics writing for them still that it's possible for reviews to express polar opposite opinions.

I missed the opening of Martin Crimp's In the Republic of Happiness at the Royal Court last month, as it clashed with the opening of Lily Savage's panto at the 02 Arena, and although I had a miserable experience at the latter, it wasn't until I went to the Royal Court on Monday to catch up with the Crimp that I realised how lucky I'd been until now.

As Charles Spencer noted in his Daily Telegraph review,

Has anyone ever woken up in the morning, bounced out of bed and declared to their loved one: 'Great, we’re off to see the new Martin Crimp play tonight and I’m really looking forward to it?'

I somehow doubt it. Crimp is the antithesis of feel-good, the nabob of angst. Strongly influenced by Pinter and the Theatre of the Absurd (he has translated several of Ionesco’s works), he has spent the past 25 years crafting a succession of plays that leave you feeling worse when you leave the theatre than you did when you went in.

And In the Republic of Happiness, according to Spencer at least, didn't buck the trend.

But actually there is one critic who probably did say he was really forward to it – and in his review for Whatsonstage, Michael Coveney duly labels it "my favourite play of the year."

Answers to yesterday's quiz

  1. Julia McKenzie, Clare Burt and Hannah Waddingham played the Witch in London productions of Into the Woods at, respectively, the Phoenix, Donmar Warehouse and Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park.
  2. The four Strallen sisters are Scarlett, Summer, Zizi and Sasi. Their mother is Cherida Langford, and the aunt is Bonnie Langford.
  3. Don Black has written more musicals with Andrew Lloyd Webber than any other collaborator – Tell Me on a Sunday, Aspects of Love, Sunset Boulevard, and provided revisions for Starlight Express. He also wrote the lyrics for the Andrew Lloyd Webber produced Bombay Dreams, and the lyrics for 'Amigos Para Simpre', Lloyd Webber's song for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Black and Christopher Hampton (who both worked on Sunset Boulevard) are now reuniting with Lloyd Webber for his latest show based on the Profumo Affair.
  4. Ramin Karimloo, John Owen-Jones, Earl Carpenter and Peter Karrie have all played the title role in Phantom of the Opera. Three of them have also played Valjean in Les Miserables, while Earl Carpenter has played Javert.
  5. Michael Ball, Ramin Karimloo, Hadley Fraser and John Barrowman have all played Raoul in The Phantom of the Opera.
  6. John Barrowman, Earl Carpenter, Ramin Karimloo and Ben Goddard have all played Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard.
  7. Philip Quast has won the most Laurence Olivier Awards for Best Actor in a Musical of any actor, winning three times – in 1991 for Sunday in the Park with George at the National, in 1998 for The Fix at the Donmar Warehouse and in 2002 for South Pacific at the National.
  8. The two actors who have won the Laurence Olivier Award for playing Sweeney Todd are Denis Quilley (in 1980) and Alun Armstrong (in 1994).
  9. Martine McCutcheon's understudies, who were Alexandra Jay and Kerry Ellis, gave more performances than she did in the National Theatre revival of My Fair Lady.
  10. Louise Dearman is the first actress to have played both Glinda and Elphaba in the London production of Wicked. Idina Menzel and Kerry Ellis have played Elphaba in both the Broadway and West End productions of the show.
  11. When Kiss Me, Kate, currently running at the Old Vic with Hannah Waddingham as Kate,  was last done at the same theatre in 1987, Kate was played by Nichola McAuliffe.
  12. The last musical that the RSC moved to Broadway before its imminent transfer for Matilda was Carrie in 1988. It ran for 16 previews and 5 regular performances.
  13. The roles of Valjean and Javert, being played in the new film release of Les Miserables by Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe, were played by Colm Wilkinson and Roger Allam in the original RSC production, by Colm Wilkinson and Philip Quast in the 10th anniversary Royal Albert Hall concert, by Alfie Boe and Norm Lewis in the 25th anniversary O2 gala, and by John Owen-Jones and Earl Carpenter in the 25th anniversary touring production.
  14. Elaine Paige has played Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard and Carlotta Campion in Follies on Broadway. At New York City Opera, she has played Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd.
  15. Patti LuPone has appeared in London in Les Miserables (originating the role of Fantine in the RSC production), Sunset BoulevardThe Cradle will Rock and Master Class.
  16. Michael Crawford appeared on Broadway under the name Dame Edith Shorthouse in a short-lived flop Dance of the Vampires.
  17. Sheridan Smith made her West End debut in the National Youth Music Theatre production of Bugsy Malone in 1997, playing the role of Talullah.
  18. Maria Friedman has starred in the London premieres of Sunday in the Park with George and Passion, and played Sally Plummer and Mrs Lovett in concert versions of Follies and Sweeney Todd. She has played Mary Flynn in Merrily We Roll Along at Leicester Haymarket, a show with which she is currently making her directorial debut for a production now at the Menier Chocolate Factory.
  19. Daniel Evans has starred in Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along (at the Donmar Warehouse), Sunday in the Park with George (at the Menier Chocolate Factory, West End and Broadway) and Company (at Sheffield Crucible Theatre). He also starred in Candide at the National Theatre, with additional lyrics by Sondheim.
  20. The longest running musical revival of all time in the West End is Blood Brothers, which recently shut at the Phoenix after 24 years. The longest running American musical of all time in the West End is Chicago, which recently shut after 15 years.