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Singing, Acting and Les Miserables

anne-hathaway-new-les-miserables-postersSince the beginning of the American musical, actor/singers have never garnered the critical appreciation that they deserve, especially in film. Perhaps it’s a holdover from theater. Musicals on stage have always been considered lightweight compared to serious drama. Admittedly, many musicals are not serious, but it does not then follow that it is any easier to perform. How many people can act with their voice? It’s one thing to act with your body while singing adequately, but an entirely different thing to use your voice as the primary instrument of communication and still be visually compelling.

Though Anne Hathaway did win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Fantine in Les Miserables, which should have comforted me. I am always complaining about how it is not properly appreciated how difficult it is to star in a musical. Doris Day (how was she not nominated for Love Me or Leave Me?), Judy Garland (how did she not win for A Star is Born?), even Julie Andrews is not fully respected for Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music. Author Tom Santopietro observed in his book, The Sound of Music Story, how difficult the role of Maria is: to sing, to act, to dance, to make it all look natural, to bring so much joy into her performance without seeming cloying; it’s not easy. But it looked easy.

Perhaps that is why Anne Hathaway won. She looked like she was working at it.

Perhaps I just could not get over how Les Miserables sounded to appreciate anything else. The singing can best be described as an assault on the ears. There was much talk about making the musical more cinematic, but a musical is not purely a visual art. Sure, they’re acting. But the point of doing a musical is to express in song what you cannot express in words or even visually. It bugged me no end that Tom Hooper never really let his singers sing out (they spent a great deal of time whisper-singing or talky-singing) and that much of the time their voices were strained, off key and generally punctuated with sighs, tears, panting, sobs, grunts, pauses (the melodic line disappeared somewhere along the way), lip biting, saliva and facial contortions. One wonders, with so much visual acting going on, why they needed to sing at all, especially since their chief mode of communicating emotion through song was to break down and sob in the middle of it.

Many people have defended the film by citing its realism, but if you want realism so much, why make a musical?

But below are examples of woman who demonstrate what I mean about acting with their voices primarily, and still use their face and body language.

In 1954, Judy Garland starred in A Star is Born with James Mason. Mason is an alcoholic movie star whose career is fading. He discovers Garland, gets her career started, they fall in love and marry, only for her career to take off while his dies completely away. “The Man That Got Way” was written by Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin. It is the first song that Mason hears her sing, which convinces him that she could be a star, but is also prescient of her future with him. Judy Garland was nominated for an Oscar and fully expected to win, but lost to Grace Kelly for The Country Girl.

This performance really should be seen in conjunction with all the other songs Doris Day sings in Love Me or Leave Me, demonstrating how she’s come from hopeful and excited singer to jaded and world-weary. Her entire character arc is portrayed through her songs. Each song has some relevance to what she is doing, but also expresses her current mental and emotional state. She even makes love to another man through song when she cannot say it because she is married. “Ten Cents a Dance,” by Rodgers and Hart, song is simply fantastic: jaded, angry, fatalistic, defiant, world-weary. Singing was her character’s dream and this is what she’s come to, the words of the song accurately expressing a sense of violation by her husband, the gangster Marty (James Cagney, who was nominated for an Oscar). She should have at least been nominated!

Now here’s a woman who did win an Oscar with her singing. “Feed the Birds” from Mary Poppins is completely different from Love Me or Leave Me, but no less an example of unparalleled skill. Simple? A child’s song? Not expressing complex emotion? I defy anyone else to sing this song like Julie Andrews did or to move people more strongly. Her voice is so much a part of her, it’s as natural as talking, but infinitely more beautiful. Transcendent.

Even people who did not like Les Miserables admitted that Anne Hathaway was brilliant, laying bare her soul in a startlingly emotionally naked moment. And I don’t mean to disagree with that assessment. My complaint is that the camera is so close and her face is doing so much and her voice breaks down so often that I find that instead of actually listening to what she is singing, I am watching her face. It’s a matter of too much going on and the mind can only process so much. The words she sings become unimportant, even the song itself; it’s the emotion she’s expressing visually. To simply listen to the song without seeing her is not very compelling.

Perhaps it’s a new and perfectly valid hybrid of musical and visual art. After all, one cannot sit for three minutes and make faces unless there is a song to justify it. But the song definitely becomes secondary. And to be honest, it really is stressful for me to listen to people singing who aren’t quite making it: melodically choppy, so it never quite builds to that vocal emotional high point, vocally strained and unsupported and because of that, not always on pitch. It makes me tense up rather than let myself become submerged in what is being expressed.

Just for fun, here is Ruthie Henshall’s performance as Fantine from the 10th Anniversary Concert of Les Miserables. As a vocal performance, it is stunning. I can hear the same pain in her voice that you can see in Anne Hathaway’s face.

Incidentally, “I Dreamed a Dream” occurs at a different place in the movie than it originally did in the musical. Anne Hathaway sings it after she’s slept with her first man as a prostitute and Ruthie Henshall is singing it after she’s been fired, but before she’s resorted to prostitution. She can still dream of the past, but know’s it’s not coming back.

 
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Posted by on July 31, 2015 in Movies, Music

 

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Discussing My Fair Lady: The Ending

Poster - My Fair Lady_03In his introduction to the Penguin edition of George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion, Nicholas Grene calls the ending of the musical “a vulgar travesty of the play’s design.” Vulgar? Good heavens.

I appreciate what Grene is saying, that “the whole point of the play is the independent autonomy which Liza achieves, denying her status as Higgins’ male artifact,” though I disagree that that is Shaw’s whole point. He has a variety of them going on, which confuses things and prevents the play from being divided up into neat points. And there are certainly some issues I have with Shaw’s epilogue to “Pygmalion,” which he wrote later to detail once and for all what happens to Eliza and Henry Higgins so people would stop trying to put a romantic spin on his un-romantic play. However, after some reading of the play, I have concluded that the romantic spin is partially his own fault and that his epilogue is not very satisfactory at all and far too neat (but I want to write about that next week).

Perhaps I am just being defensive, because the truth is, I love the musical and I love the play. It is the musical that brought me to Shaw. I am obsessed with all things “Pygmalion” and I don’t think it’s right having one manifestation played against the next, as if they were in antagonism with each other. But in my mind, complaining that the musical is a travesty of the play is like saying the play is a travesty of Ovid’s Pygmalion account. Shaw has completely changed the meaning and ethos of Ovid’s passage in Metamorphoses. This is not a travesty. It’s genius.

But when people discuss the ending of the musical, they forget that there was a movie made in 1938, produced by Gabriel Pascal, adapted from his own work by George Bernard Shaw and starring Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller. There had been two previous adaptations of “Pygmalion” into film, a Dutch and German version that Shaw loathed and thought were highly sentimentalized. It was generally thought that the play could never really be turned into a good movie. One, because it is a drawing room comedy of manners and all the action that we associate with the story – the ball, teaching Eliza how to speak and act – occurs offstage. Second, not only did the play not have a happy ending, it did not really have an ending at all. Imagine, for a moment, a movie that ends simply with Eliza walking out of the room. It would be a bit abrupt.

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Shaw worked very closely with Pascal on the adaption of his play and ultimately was extremely pleased with it, despite the ending that Pascal managed to slip in without his knowledge. He also opposed the casting of Leslie Howard – he wanted Charles Laughton – because it slanted Higgins towards possible romance (something I don’t think people would have been as inclined to anticipate if Laughton had been in the film). But the film remains remarkably, delightfully literate for a movie and Shaw wrote to Pascal that it was “an all-British film, made by British methods without interference from American script writers, no spurious dialogue, but every word by its author, a revolution in the presentation of drama in the film.” He remained grateful to Pascal for taking many of his plays (including an excellent film adaption of “Major Barbara,” also starring Wendy Hiller) and faithfully doing them justice in a cinematic setting.

But about that ending. In the epilogue to the play, Shaw has Eliza marry Freddy, a man she neither loves nor respects. I suppose he married her off to be cranky and to try to settle her fate so no one else could, even in their imagination, marry her to Higgins. I don’t find it very convincing, however. It seems more likely that she would marry neither man.

But when Lerner and Loewe came together to make a musical, they could not for the life of them figure out how to turn the play into a musical. Oscar Hammerstein II declared that it was impossible. No romance, no chorus, a whole lot of talk. Finally, the solution hit them and they decided to base their musical, not on the play, but on the 1938 film adaption. And indeed, when you watch the 1938 adaption, it is remarkable how similar they are, in dialogue, in action, in events. One almost expects Leslie Howard to break into song. So really, the musical is a very good adaptation of a movie that Shaw approved of. Except the ending, of course.

But I have no real problem with the romantic ending, since it is perfectly internally consistent with the story that the movie and musical are telling. And neither musical nor movie is highly sentimental. In the musical, there are no love duets, the word love is never even mentioned, the characters don’t sit around contemplating their love, since they don’t even realize it. Higgins’ moment of revelation comes at the end, when he sings “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.”

Pygmalion_serialized_November_1914For Alan Jay Lerner (who wrote the book and lyrics of the musical), “My Fair Lady” involves a transformation not just for Eliza, but most fundamentally for Professor Higgins. Eliza’s character doesn’t fundamentally change, but his does. He’s been unconsciously softened by her. In Lerner’s words, “in a far less tangible way, Higgins goes through as much of a transformation as Eliza, the only difference being that Shaw would never allow the transformation to run its natural course.” Shaw’s Higgins remains fixed in character, Lerner and Loewe, and even Pascal, have their Higgins undergo a character arc.

Another reason I think this works is because movies and musicals are fundamentally different from a play. A movie naturally tends towards romance – or at least strong emotional ties – because it is a more intimate art form than a play. And a musical must have some transcendent emotions to express musically, otherwise, why bother writing a musical? The romance is told, the characters change, through the music, not through words. In fact, because of the music of Frederick Loewe, Rex Harrison is able to play Henry Higgins as a far less romantic figure than Leslie Howard, because he has the songs to express his feelings. Howard must do it on his own and is therefore slightly softer than Harrison.

I do, however, have one complaint about the ending of the film version of My Fair Lady, with Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn. My complaint mostly rests in the casting of Hepburn. She’s really not bad in the role, but she lacks that fundamental spunk and strong individualism that is found in the play and 1938 movie Eliza. I don’t think this is the fault of the musical, but of Hepburn’s persona. When she goes back to Higgins, it looks like a defeat, desperation on her part to be with him, without his having to change. But I suspect that with Julie Andrews it was different. You can even hear the difference in her singing of “Just You Wait, Enry Iggins” and “Without You” in the Broadway and London cast recordings. Hepburn is overwhelmed by Harrison, but I would have believed Andrews when she said she can do without him. Her return would have signaled a change in their relationship. I don’t have that same sense with Audrey Hepburn.

Sources:

The Making of My Fair Lady – Keith Garebian

Introduction to the Penguin Edition of “Pygmalion” – Nicholas Grene

 
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Posted by on July 24, 2015 in Books, Movies

 

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The Sound of Music: Not Just Escapism – A Defense

Annex - Andrews, Julie (Sound of Music, The)_05Not that you would think The Sound of Music is in need of a defense. Accounting for inflation, it is still the third biggest box office success of all time and is still nothing short of a beloved phenomenon in terms of popularity, tourism (Salzburg does very well in this department), parodies, soundtrack, sing-alongs; it’s beloved around the world. So my defense is really a tick-tacky defense; more of a defense against standard explanations of the film’s appeal.

I had always known in the back of my mind that The Sound of Music was not particularly critically acclaimed, but reading Tom Santopietro’s The Sound of Music Story – a thorough exploration of all things Sound of Music, from the real story of Maria von Trapp to the musical to the making of the film to brief biographies of all the people involved in the film to the film’s afterlife and cultural importance – I realized that critics did not just dislike the film when it was initially released; they hated it. It was almost personal. There was grand talk about how the film actually set movie making back – a artistic medium supposedly finally coming into maturity. The acting was dismissed as on par with high schoolers, the story labeled as nauseatingly sweet, an offense to any intelligent mind. I was a little surprised. Dismissal is one thing, but outright hostility?

Critical opinion has definitely grown more measured since then. But even now, even from Santopietro, who seems to love the movie, the common and rather condescending explanation for the film’s popularity is that it is an elaborate form of wish-fulfillment. People can escape into a perfect world for three hours and secretly wish that the von Trapp family was their family, that our world was as simple as their world, that good and evil was so clearly delineated in life as it is in the film. Santopietro especially emphasizes people’s desire for their family to be like the von Trapp’s family as seen in the film.

This insistence that The Sound of Music is one of the most effective forms of escapism seems simplistic. All movies, even movies that are critically acclaimed, movies with violence, with unhappy endings, with cynicism and irony, are a form of escapism. It is not real life, your life, my life, anybody’s life, and is therefore a safe place to visit.

But also, the insistence that The Sound of Music is escapism doesn’t ring true with my own life. In looking back, I was a happy child with a happy family and I loved The Sound of Music. There was no wish-fulfillment going on, no desire for a simpler time, for happily-ever afters, nannies to sweep in and set everything right. The biggest drama in my life was preparing for a dance or piano recital and my greatest desire was for my parents to buy an RV (I liked the idea of the bathroom being right there with you; no rest stops or uncomfortable long waits for rest stops to appear).

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The film, then, cannot be dismissed as escapism. That implies that the film is essentially a lie, an untruth, a fantasy that people indulge in. But The Sound of Music resonates with so many people because it actually expresses genuine emotions.The story may not be reality, but the emotion is (though, actually, much of the story did really happen).

For me, music has always represented something inarticulate within myself. I have tried, multiple times, to express in words what I feel with music and it can’t be done, because they’re not precise emotions. I don’t love musicals because I want to get into their world; I love them because they express something I feel in my own….at least in certain moments And there is a catharsis, a relief, a joint celebration and affirmation of those feelings in watching a musical (well…some musicals) that gives voice to those emotions. It’s like when you hear somebody say something you agree with, but have never heard anyone else say before. The relief is enormous.

But The Sound of Music in particular gives expression to that particular uplift I cannot describe: an emotional response to life, the joy of being alive, of being a part of this world, of responding to the beauty of nature, of responding to the love of people, of going always forward, of those moments of optimism…I’m gushing. This not really a defense of the movie, more like an alternate or supplemental explanation for its enduring appeal. But I do get frustrated to hear The Sound of Music perpetually referred to as wish-fulfillment. It does not take into account that for many people, the film is not a fantasy. Via song, it is actually expressing an emotional reality, a genuine, human response to life that people have – not constantly – but definitely real.

 
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Posted by on July 16, 2015 in Movies, Music

 

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