Craig Schulman and J. Mark McVey have performed the role of Jean Valjean in “Les Miserables” about 6,000 times between them.
The two actors with Triangle ties, and Raleigh’s Lauren Kennedy, who played Fantine in “Les Mis” on Broadway, pretty much agreed with Academy Award voters that the film adaptation of Victor Hugo’s great work was good, but not great. Nominated for eight Oscars, it won three, including Anne Hathaway as best supporting actress. She played Kennedy’s former role, the tragic Fantine.
The three Broadway actors enjoyed the film, but said it wasn’t as powerful as the Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boubil stage musical.
“It is a deeply flawed film that I loved anyway,” said Schulman, who has performed in Triangle operas, in N.C. Theatre productions, sung with the N.C. Symphony and is coming to Garner this week in its Broadway Voices series. “As a stage production, ‘Les Miserables’ is extraordinary. As a film, this film, it is good.”
Kennedy, a graduate of Raleigh’s Broughton High School with a lengthy Broadway resume, said it was impossible for her to watch the movie without comparing it to the stage version.
“I just couldn’t look at it with fresh eyes and take it in as a movie,” she said. “I’ve had friends who said they could hear the words more clearly and could understand the story better, but I kept thinking of the play.”
The movie was a relief to McVey, who was in Raleigh last year as Valjean in the 25th anniversary tour of “Les Mis.” He has been in N.C. Theatre shows and also has sung with the N.C. Symphony and in Garner’s Broadway Voices. He has performed Valjean more than 3,200 times – he has stopped counting – and he was concerned that the film might miss the show’s theme of grace and redemption.
“Actually, I think the film did a good part with the message of hope and forgiveness,” he said.
Schulman isn’t so sure.
“Watching the film I wondered if they really understood the story,” Schulman said. “Valjean isn’t sad to die. He is ready to go. Life has worn him out. He has done all he can, all he had promised to do, and he is ready to go to his heaven. He has no regrets.”
The actors noticed things in the film that many movie-goers probably missed. The policeman Javert pulling a sword in a confrontation with an unarmed Valjean was a major flaw to Schulman.
“In every confrontation with Javert, Valjean prevails whether it is with words or physically,” Schulman said. “On stage, Javert brings a club, but Valjean fends him off with a chair and forces Javert to drop the club before physically overwhelming him. By putting the sword into the fight, it becomes more of a chase. It robs the story.”
Schulman, who will perform some songs from “Les Mis” during his “Heroes, Monsters and Madmen” concerts in Wilmington on Friday and in Garner on Saturday, liked the movie score, but was not as enthusiastic about some of the singing.
Schulman loved Colm Wilkinson, the original stage Valjean, being cast as the priest who changes Valjean’s life. But Schulman got a chuckle out of the publicity the movie received for having the actors sing during filming rather than dubbing songs from a recording studio session. The technique was the butt of jokes among Broadway performers, who sing live in eight shows a week but without the movie’s retakes, do-overs and editing.
But films are a very different genre than the stage. The person in the front row at the movies sees the same show as a person in the back and the movie is the same every time it is presented.
That’s not true in a theater, which is a living, changing thing and where seats at the front cost more than the seats at the back.
The audience can’t change what is on film, but it plays a major role in a stage production, McVey said.
“We give our energy and focus to the audience, and they give it back to us,” McVey said. “If the audience comes in excited and ready to enjoy the show, it is very different than if everybody is just sitting back waiting to be entertained.”
An enthusiastic audience intensifies the energy on stage.
“Empty seats absorb energy and sound,” Schulman said. “The actor is prepared and focused and motivated, but the audience needs to bring some energy. In a movie, it doesn’t matter if there is one person in the room or if the place is packed. The movie is going to be the movie.”