Friday, August 24, 2007

Sing with me the songs we knew

Since I saw Les Miz on Tuesday, I've been hearing the music from the show playing on an endless loop in my head. Actually, to be more accurate, I have mainly been hearing the music that is assigned to the character of Fantine. And to be even more accurate, I have been hearing Fantine's music as performed by Patti LuPone on the 1985 London Barbican cast recording.

Those who felt I was insufficiently reverent when discussing Patti's performance in Gypsy might be comforted to know I think she was all kinds of awesome in Les Miz. I didn't see the original London production, of course (and at 5 I wasn't the most discerning of critics, anyway). But she is and will always be the Fantine in my head, for all the same reasons that she isn't my ideal Momma Rose. When Patti belts "I Dreamed a Dream," she makes it sound like most moving, most powerful ballad ever written. She makes the music sound majestic; she makes the lyrics sound insightful; she makes the song sound like a masterpiece. Then you hear someone else sing it and you think, "Hm, this tune is actually kind of banal. And... 'tigers'? What is she talking about? 'With their voices soft as thunder'? Tigers don't have 'voices,' do they? Is thunder 'soft'? What the hell?"

The same goes double for Fantine's recitative during "At the End of the Day" and "Lovely Ladies," which, on paper, makes me grind my teeth. But who else could sing a line as ludicrous as "Come on, Captain, you can wear your shoes" and inspire pathos? Listen to the way she modulates from loud ("That WOULD-n't PAY for the CHAIN") to soft ("It's all I have") to loud again ("Please make it ten!!") during the pre-prostitution haggling sequence in "Lovely Ladies." Hear the desperation in her voice as she wails, "Ten francs may save my poor Cosseeeeette!" This is a Fantine to root for, and feel for. And [SPOILER ALERT - but come on, if you're still reading, you know the plot of Les Miz] when she dies, she is a Fantine to mourn. Patti belts the hell out of that sing-songy deathbed lullaby ("Come to Me"), which may be why I never had much affection for "On My Own." Why should a lesser (and unrelated) character get to reuse the melody from Fantine's death? Is the poor woman to be allowed no dignity, even in death? And for crying out loud, could Claude-Michel Schonberg not have noodled on his keyboard for five more minutes and come up with a new tune?

The other reason I never liked "On My Own" is that professional Eponines so often sound like Cyndi Lauper. Much like the synthesizers that sap the grandeur from the other songs on the Barbican recording, the pop-vocalist pauper must have seemed more natural in the '80s. That's probably one reason I was pleasantly surprised by Megan McGinnis's sweet and spunky Eponine -- and the fact that she doesn't have Patti LuPone to contend with probably helps her stake a claim on the tune. As for Fantine, I saw Lea Salonga's understudy, so I can't say much about her approach. But I can say that "I Dreamed a Dream" is suprisingly unmoving when you strip away all of Patti's pyrotechnics. To sum up: Viva LuPone! And, it's kind of fun to have pretend conversations in your head using the various sung-dialogue-music from Les Miz. "Pardon meeeeeee, I need to board the su-ub-way. / I would like to catch a train this morning. / Please don't walk so slowly on the plat-FORM / Or I will have to push past you and you will be of-fen-ded."

I confess to not knowing my Les Miz cast recordings all that well; my introduction to the show was a mix tape that I used to sing along with in the car, and I think it had tracks from two or three different versions. So I need your advice, O Les Miz completists: Is the 1987 Broadway recording worth checking out? How does Randy Graff measure up to Patti? What's the deal with this "complete symphonic recording," and how is it different from this 10th Anniversary Concert at the Royal Albert Hall? Do they all feature Colm Wilkinson, and if so, why? Most important, which version has the best "Drink With Me" (my favorite song)? I know some of you have strong opinions on the subject. Let's hear them.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

At one point I had both the Symphonic and 10th Anniversary recordings, and I far and away preferred the symphonic one. It has ALMOST all of the music of the entire show (a few times they randomly leave out a few measures, but otherwise its REALLY complete). Their Eponine is from the Tokyo cast and there are a few times where her pronunciation is slightly off, but overall I really like the cast. Their Javert is awesome.