Boublil, Schonberg revisit, rework the songs of ‘Les Miserables’
“We were very reluctant,” said one of the principals of 2012 film adaption of “Les Misérables,” “to have an all sung-through movie.”
Such a statement could be guessed to originate from, say, a studio executive, one who is weighing the financial pros and cons of releasing a rather traditional musical in 2012. But no, those words came from Claude-Michel Schönberg, who along with Alain Boublil wrote the words and music to the long-running stage show from which the film takes its cues.
“With some exception,” said Schönberg, “the all sung-through movies we were watching were not the kind of movies we really liked. Song after song we felt was a little bit tiring.”
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Director Tom Hooper had a different opinion. “The King’s Speech” helmer envisioned a film that would be told through lyrics, with dialogue accounting for less than 10% of the screen time. So Schönberg and Boublil, who more than 20 years ago worked closely with “Evita” director Alan Parker on a script that went nowhere, stepped aside to see what Hooper and his team would come up with.
Then they waited.
Recalled Boublil, “Not long after that, they came back and said, ‘Look, we don’t think we can do this movie on our own.’ It was conceived as a full song musical. The more they discussed it, they said they didn’t know where to cut it, what to hide and where to add dialogue -- every scene intersects with the next one.
“They discovered what we knew. We were curious to see what they came back with, and they came back with the idea that we should all work on this together.”
The Hooper-directed “Les Misérables,” starring Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway, opens Christmas Day. In translating “Les Misérables” to the screen, Hooper and screenwriter William Nicholson drew from Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel in addition to the 1980s stage production, even asking Schönberg and Boublil to craft a new song based on the original text.
“I didn’t expect that at all,” Boubil said of being asked to write a new song specifically for the film.
The tune, “Suddenly,” is one of the film’s softer, more intimate moments. Sung by Jackman’s reformed prisoner Jean Valjean, it marks the moment in the story when he meets Cossette, the child who will change his life.
Schönberg said the moment was left out of the theatrical production because it was too small of a scene to work on the large scale.
“He’s in a carriage with her and she fell asleep on his knee,” Schönberg said of the scene. “Onstage, it’s very tricky. You can’t have a close-up of one eye of someone, or a hand trying to touch the head of a little girl. A stage is not intimate at all. This is an intimate moment between him and a little girl and where we realize the creation of a very powerful bond between those two people.”
There were other changes as well. A major alteration was the placement of the signature song “I Dreamed a Dream.” In the stage show, the song is song after Fantine, portrayed by Hathaway in the film, is cut from her job after the discovery of her illegitimate daughter. Having watched Hathaway rehearse the song, Schönberg thought it needed to carry even more drama in the film version.
“Seeing little by little that Anne Hathaway was adding an extraordinary drama to the way that song was carrying that story, it became obvious that it had to be at a much, much more dramatic moment,” he said. “That’s why I felt it should be after she was raped by her customer. She decided she would do it out of nothing, out of nowhere, for the first two or three words.”
Schönberg and Boublil were open to such additions and changes, they said, because they had decades of distance from crafting the stage show.
“It’s a process that took more than 20 years,” said Boublil. “We failed several times with famous directors, and we’re happy we did.”
Also helping this time was the fresh perspective of the film’s participants. Rather than living with the show, those who worked on it grew up admiring it.
“All the people who ended up doing this were either not born when we considered doing the movie the first time around, or were 5 or 6, like Hugh Jackman or Tom Hooper. They were babies.”
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