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Michael Coveney: Musical misery divides glum critics all over again

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"If I was the RSC I'd forget about a West End transfer and settle for a made-for-TV miniseries instead." That was Lyn Gardner writing in the long defunct magazine City Limits after the opening of Les Miserables at the Barbican on 8 October 1985.

Twenty-seven years later, of course, the show's still running, over 60 million people worldwide have paid to see it, and Tom Hooper's movie version, which has opened to exactly the sort of divided reviews the show received in the first place, has garnered eight Oscar nominations, including nods for Best Picture and Best Performance (Hugh Jackman).

I haven't yet seen the movie myself, but already the reception brings on a wry smile. The RSC production, which brilliantly exploited and developed the staging techniques and ensemble style of Nicholas Nickleby five years previously, also directed by Trevor Nunn and John Caird, but with only a handful of RSC actors in the cast (Roger Allam, Alun Armstrong, Sue Jane Tanner; Caroline Quentin was a blind beggar!), was controversial from the start.

The main point at issue was whether or not the RSC should be producing a musical at all, let alone one initiated in a commercial collaboration with "Cats" man Cameron Mackintosh. This led to a defensive programme note by the directors which was promptly used by one or two critics to beat the RSC about the head in the reviews. In retaliation, Mackintosh, and indeed Trevor Nunn, went about saying that the reviews were terrible, which they were not. They were no more mixed than they are for most new musicals, and a good deal better than those for The Bodyguard or Viva Forever!

There's no right or wrong in these cases - you cannot easily muster empirical evidence to prove that anything in the theatre is good or bad, and most critics don't even try - but I remain proud to this day of my Financial Times notice published the morning after the night before.

In 900 words, I managed to analyse what the adaptation had done, what the music did - I suggested it trod new ground between Verdi and Lloyd Webber - noting the operatic form of some scenes transposed directly from Victor Hugo, the influence of Lionel Bart in the Thenardier scenes, the tremendous performances of unknowns Michael Ball and Frances Ruffelle, and the sheer emotional power of the best Act One finale - "One Day More" - I'd ever seen in the theatre.

Admittedly mine was the only "overnight" notice that quivered with that sort of informed enthusiasm, but Sheridan Morley, Clive Hirschhorn and Benedict Nightingale (then on the New Statesman) weighed in positively behind me. Jack Tinker on the Mail was a bit rude, but very lively and infectious, as ever, and soon changed his tune when he saw the way the wind was blowing.

So I was quite surprised to see the aforesaid Nightingale regurgitating the old mantra of "rubbished by almost every London critic" in a slightly mouldy Times article in which he also fessed up to shamefully underrating the score first time round.

I was less surprised to open my Evening Standard yesterday and see an article by their charmless literary editor, David Sexton, headlined, "How can anyone who loves music enjoy musicals?", a reiteration of the old arrogant snobbery that surrounds the genre among the chattering classes.

"The very idea of having people acting and singing at the same time," says Sexton, "quite possibly dancing, too, repels us," the "us" being people who simply can't bear musicals at all, not even Sondheim (the musical theatre artist most critic haters of Les Mis and Lloyd Webber brandish as an exemplar, though the public by and large disagrees).

A publicity brochure for the new movie quotes Victor Hugo on the back page: "Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and cannot remain silent." Now, there are elements in any sung-through musical, from Berg and Menotti to Lloyd Webber and Les Mis where you can argue about the temperature levels of certain passages, or indeed the advisability of putting some musical passages back into prose or dialogue relief for a better effect.

It's a discussion well worth having. But what you can't deny about Les Mis (and why, incidentally, does one film critic wonder why you can't utter that shorthand phrase without sounding a little bit camp?) is that most of the characters, most of the time, are singing because they simply have to; they've gone beyond the point of no return when it comes to speaking rationally or reasonably.

I no more "love" musicals than Sexton "hates" them. But I do love musical theatre, partly because I love music above everything else in the world, and partly because I simply don't divide my music into types or classified departments. The Sexton snobbery is merely a re-run of the age-old objections to composers as diverse as Wagner, Puccini and indeed Gilbert and Sullivan.

And moments in Les Mis are much nearer to the great dramatic core of an opera like Rigoletto than they are to the triter emotionalism of, say, Legally Blonde or - the very thought of it makes me feel peculiar - Loserville. These are shows that people who "love" musicals stick up for, and people who "hate" them have good cause to complain about. Sexton's chosen the wrong target.

I'm sorry I haven't yet seen the movie. I simply couldn't get to the screenings I was invited to before Christmas, and my schedule's full for the next few days. But get there I will, and then I shall probably, who knows, find myself changing my mind about the show, though I somehow doubt it.

Meanwhile, I'm enjoying the brouhaha, and the publicity buzz, and the trailers and excerpts on YouTube, and am looking forward to reading more reviews, especially Philip French's in The Observer, no doubt noting that of all the 60-odd (count 'em) film versions of the great novel - and it really is one of the greatest, and I have read it - this is the only one which has annoyed as many people as it has thrilled and delighted. 


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