• Les Misérables, Stage vs. Screen: What’s the Difference? (Part II)

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    Castle on a Cloud

    Both stage and film now take us to Montfermeil, where we find little Cosette slaving away at the Thénardiers’ inn. But the film includes a detail from the novel not found onstage – the fact that this sequence takes place on Christmas Eve. Poor Cosette is shown gazing enviously out at the street where other children are enjoying a Christmas “Frost Fair,” eyeing a beautiful doll in a shop window with particular longing. Her song loses one verse, as it usually does onstage nowadays.


    Also cut from both film and most recent stage productions is a passage where Cosette hears Mme. Thénardier coming and panics that her chores aren’t done. Mme. Thénardier is as hateful as ever, though – at one point even more so on film. Her “Enough of that!” when Cosette begs not to be sent out into the darkness is changed to “Now shut your face!” Since the screenplay still reads “Enough of that!” I suspect that Helena Bonham Carter made the change herself.


    Master of the House

    Our memorable first view of the film Thénardier, asleep on the floor and making love to a barrel of wine, has no basis onstage, but the stage intro to “Master of the House” has no shortage of color as the inn customers clamor for drinks, complain about the service and gossip about the innkeeper’s shady past. The film drops all of this and starts with Thénardier’s “My band of soaks…” passage, the last line of which is changed (by Sacha Baron Cohen himself, according to an interview) from “And their money’s good as yours!” to “And they crawl out on all fours!” We also get a glimpse of characters who onstage don’t appear until Paris: Thénardier’s gang, here disguised as customers.


    Apart from being slightly shortened, the Thénardiers’ famous comic showcase transfers effortlessly to the screen. Specific visual gags obviously vary from stage to film, as they do among different stage productions, but the atmosphere of skullduggery and drunken antics is exactly the same. Onstage, of course, the action all takes place in one room, so there are no bedroom or bathroom gags, and since the Christmas atmosphere is film-only, so are all the adventures of the drunk Santa Claus from the Frost Fair. Another difference on film is that Young Éponine, a very brief silent role onstage, is more of a presence. She now talks a liitle (mainly to address the Thénardiers explicitly as “Mama” and “Daddy”) and is onscreen throughout the scene, learning “the tricks of the trade” from her parents.


    The presence of her little daughter does nothing to improve Mme. Thénardier’s behavior, though. Onstage, her mockery of her husband is usually delivered to all the costumers and the humor comes from the colorful insults themselves. On film, the sex appeal of Helena Bonham Carter is brought to the character, and she sings the passage to a handsome young soldier as she seduces him, picking his pocket in the process.


    Well Scene

    For the first twelve years of the musical’s existence, Valjean and Cosette’s first meeting was never shown. The two simply entered the inn after “Master of the House” and Valjean announced that he had found her in the wood. But with the show’s 1997 overhaul, the Well Scene was introduced, and the film retains it with only minor tweaks. Onstage, as Valjean and Cosette walk back to the inn, they sing a sing a duet reprise of “Castle on a Cloud” in ‘La la’s, as if to illustrate their instant emotional connection; on film, those ‘La la’s are sung by Cosette alone at the beginning of the scene, to give herself courage in the dark wood. The charming detail of Valjean doffing his hat and addressing Cosette as “Mademoiselle” upon learning her name is also unique to the film – I suspect it was improvised by Hugh Jackman, because it’s not written in the screenplay.


    The Bargain/Waltz of Treachery

    This comic scene takes place entirely in the inn onstage, while on film it starts at the inn’s doorway, giving Valjean a chance to see Cosette gazing at the doll in the nearby shop, then moves indoors. Onstage, Valjean sings the news of Fantine’s death to the Thénardiers, “Now her mother is with God” (many actors in the role make a point of singing this passage very softly, so as not to distress Cosette with the news just yet). On film, he addresses Cosette: “Now your mother is with God.” The Waltz of Treachery itself is also shortened by one verse, in which the stage Thénardiers suspect that Valjean’s “intentions may not be correct.”


    When Valjean and Cosette reenter the stage after their exit from the inn, we find Cosette now wearing an upper-class dress and bonnet, traditionally identical to the ones her older self wears in Paris. Valjean harks back to “Castle on a Cloud,” promising her that a castle is waiting for her, then gives her a beautiful doll, sweeps her up in his arms and dances with her as the orchestra reprises the “waltz” melody. On film, Cosette has no costume change, the gift of the doll comes at the start of their exchange (and has more meaning, her having admired it earlier), the “castle” reference is replaced with Valjean promising to be both father and mother to her, and instead of waltzing with her, he lifts her into a waiting carriage.


    Onstage, this is where we shift to Paris, 1832. As Valjean and Cosette exit the waltz melody slows and turns ominous, leading into “Look Down.” Not so on film. Instead, first of all, we have a new scene at the Thénardiers’ inn. Javert arrives in search of Cosette and learns that “she’s gone with a gent,” while Mme. Thénardier browbeats her husband for failing to get more money from Valjean. Both of these details pave the way to “The Robbery.”


    FILM: Suddenly

    We now follow Valjean and Cosette on their carriage ride. As Cosette sleeps in Valjean’s arms, we come to the film’s most significant departure from the stage version. A new solo in which Valjean sings of the fatherly love he finds himself feeling for the little girl. Sung by Hugh Jackman with a blend of joy, fear and awe, “Suddenly” may lack the sheer musical luxury of other parts of the score, but it develops Valjean and Cosette’s relationship better than any impromptu waltz or “La la” duet. Onstage, while Valjean’s love for the girl is clear, it’s given less emphasis than his general goodness and selflessness. On film, his devotion to her takes its rightful place as perhaps the central aspect of his journey.


    FILM: The Chase

    After our foray into new material, we transition into old material. When the stage version was first shown in previews, it included a chase scene of Valjean and Cosette running from Javert, but this was soon cut. Twenty-seven years later, the film brings it back. Valjean and Cosette arrive at the north gate of Paris, only to find Javert there. He spots them and a chase ensues, with the convict and little girl running through archways and alleys, Javert close behind them, first on horseback, then on foot. They finally escape him by scaling a wall, which turns out to belong to a convent. There, in a classic Victor Hugo coincidence, they meet Fauchelevant, the man Valjean saved from the runaway cart. Amid the voices of nuns singing a Latin hymn to the Bishop’s theme melody, Valjean and Cosette take shelter with Fauchelevant in the convent.


    FILM: Stars

    Javert’s song of devotion to law and order was originally placed at this point onstage, but moved to a later point after the chase scene was cut. With the latter reinstated, the film brings “Stars” back to its original spot. But it does so with a new location for the song, Paris’s police headquarters, where Javert sings on a rooftop ledge. His precarious position, emphasized by close-ups of his feet, may foreshadow his suicide a bit ham-fistedly, but this is compensated for by the new, beautifully sinister ending in which Javert’s final note is dissonantly juxtaposed against the intro to “Look Down.”


    Look Down

    Our introduction to the squalor of Paris takes place in an abstract slum onstage, but the film gives us a real location specified by Hugo: the Place de la Bastille, identified by the massive Elephant of the Bastille, out of which pops the urchin Gavroche in an unforgettable character introduction. The filmmakers’ special affection for Gavroche is clear from the outset. He becomes our viewpoint character in this scene, running through the streets followed by a band of other urchins and dashing between the wheels of elegant carriages. This brings us to another stage-to-screen difference: greater emphasis on the callousness of the rich to the poor. Onstage the beggars sing their pleas out to the audience, but on film they crowd en masse around the coaches of the bourgeois, who all respond with either indifference or disgust. Gavroche’s introductory verse (“How do you do? My name’s Gavroche!”) is sung to the audience onstage, but on film is addressed to a particularly stone-faced couple in a carriage.


    Emphasis both on Gavroche and on socio-political criticism continues as the boy hitches a ride on another carriage and sings a new verse, describing how France overthrew one king only for another, “no better than the last,” to take over. This replaces a random street fight vignette from the stage and leads directly to the introduction of the revolutionaries.


    We only meet two students at this point onstage: Enjolras and Marius, who stand in the slum either talking among themselves or giving a speech to the beggars, depending on the production. On film we follow Gavroche out of the slums and arrive at the house of the dying General Lamarque, where all the rebels are gathered in what is more explicitly a public demonstration. Enjolras’s “Where are the swells who run the show?” becomes “Where is the king who runs the show?” and all the students sing “…before the barricades arise?” rather than Enjolras alone.


    It’s also at this point on film that we meet a prominent character from the novel, nowhere to be found in the stage version: Marius’s grandfather, Monsieur Gillenormand. He berates his grandson for disgracing the family with his revolutionary activity, but is ignored, and the scene ends with the rebels shouting, en masse, “Vive le France!”


    Onstage Gavroche has one last verse (not needed on film because it’s “telling” rather than “showing”), in which he re-introduces the audience to the Thénardiers, as well as their gang and the now grown-up Éponine. On film we don’t see the Thénardiers again until “The Robbery” and first see grown-up Éponine among the crowd at the demonstration – not until after her first exchange with Marius do we even learn her identity.


    The Robbery/Javert’s Intervention

    This scene, which onstage directly follows “Look Down” in the same location, is given a setting-shift onscreen, as well as some reordering. Onstage the action starts with Thénardier giving orders to his gang. Then, amid disparaging remarks from her mother, Éponine approaches Marius in the street and the two have a friendly chat, which ends with a sigh of longing from Éponine. Then Valjean and the now grown-up Cosette appear and Mme. Thénardier points out their presence. Marius worries about the gang’s intent, but Éponine gives him a sharp warning to “stay out of this” and runs off. Marius runs after her – and in doing so, bumps into Cosette, instantly changing both her life and his own.


    The film moves Marius and Éponine’s exchange to the start of the scene, places it in Marius’s shabby apartment, and rewrites it to reveal more about Marius’s character: his devotion to revolution, his penniless bohemian lifestyle and his estrangement from his grandfather. Only the final two lines are the same as onstage, and only now does the scene move outdoors. Marius and Cosette still fall in love at first sight, but no longer bump into each other, instead glimpsing each other from across the street. Only then does Thénardier finally give orders to his gang. Incidentally, this is an evening scene onstage, with “Stars,” “Éponine’s Errand” and “The ABC Café” all happening in immediate succession afterwards. The film spreads out the timeframe and makes this a day scene instead.


    The gang’s assault on Valjean takes place in a small room off the street on film, rather than on the street itself, and it’s Mme. Thénardier instead of her husband who sings “Wait a bit, know that face…” Onstage in the ensuing struggle, Valjean’s shirt is ripped open, revealing his brand to Thénardier, who taunts him “You know me! You know me! I’m a con just like you!” On film, with no brand, this becomes “You know me! I know you! And you’ll pay what we’re due!/And you’d better dig deep, ‘cause she doesn’t come cheap!” Also noteworthy, I think, is one traditional bit of stage business not seen on film: while the others all pounce on Valjean, gang-member Montparnasse usually grabs Cosette, only for Marius to rescue her, further solidifying their love. On film, Cosette goes untouched by the gang.


    When Javert arrives and Valjean flees, stage Thénardier reveals that “the gentleman” had a brand on his chest; Javert puts the pieces together and realizes that it might have been Valjean. The film Thénardiers instead tell him that “the gentlemen” was the one who “stole” Cosette from them. (Incidentally the running gag of Thénardier mispronouncing Cosette’s name is film-only: onstage he does it once, if at all.)


    STAGE: Stars

    Alone, having cleared the “garbage” off the street, stage Javert now sings his song of faith and conviction. After he exits, Gavroche mocks him with a jaunty little ditty, cut from the film.


    Éponine’s Errand

    The beginning of this scene is slightly longer onstage, as Éponine tries to take Marius’s mind off Cosette with chatter about the robbery.


    The ABC Café/Red and Black

    Both film and stage now bring us to the revolutionaries’ meeting, with an added time-skip on film that moves us from day to night. The stage version both precedes and follows “Red and Black” with reports from various students on the support they have from various quarters of Paris. The film cuts this and starts the scene with Enjolras’s “The time is near…” which is itself shortened. Onstage, Marius arrives at this point and Enjolras exclaims “Marius, you’re late!” The film Marius is there from the start, lost in thoughts of Cosette; the student Joly now sings “Marius, wake up!”


    “Red and Black” itself is slightly reconfigured. Onstage, first Enjolras and then Marius address the whole group. But on film the two share a more intimate exchange with each other, with a few lyrics changed accordingly (e.g. “a rich young boy” instead of “rich young boys”). Marius’s references to “tonight” are also changed to “today” (see “The Robbery”).


    Onstage, Gavroche bursts into the bustling café shouting for everyone to listen to him. On film, thankfully for those of us who despise screaming children, the “Listen, everybody!” is given to Courfeyrac, who, in a film-only touch, is shown to be the student most attached to Gavroche. (Onstage that role usually belongs to Grantaire, if anyone.) But either way, it leads to the news of General Lamarque’s death and Enjolras’s realization that this death will help them rally the people – though on film the whole group sings the final “They will come when we call!” rather than just Enjolras. At this point onscreen, Éponine appears and leads Marius away to see Cosette. On stage, however, the action leads into the musical’s signature song.


    STAGE: Do You Hear the People Sing?

    The stage version of this revolutionary anthem revolves around rallying people in the streets after the news of Lamarque’s death breaks out. The first iteration of the chorus is sung by Enjolras in the café, but after the whole group sweeps out into the “street,” each subsequent chorus is sung by all the rebels, as well as women whom they rally to the cause. Individual students sing the bridges. The traditional staging has Enjolras and Gavroche paraded on a cart, Enjolras waving a red tablecloth appropriated into a flag, a humble and ragtag yet stirring image. At this point comes one of my favorite orchestral passages: the sweeping transition from this song to “In My Life,” which beautifully carries us from the masculine sound world of the revolution to the feminine world of Cosette’s romantic dreams, a moment unfortunately cut from the film.


    In My Life

    Onstage we never see the inside of Valjean and Cosette’s house at Rue Plumet; only the garden, which is where we find Cosette singing of her newfound love. On film we find her in her bedroom in nightgown and negligée. But location-shift aside, the song is unchanged, except for a few lyrics in the father/daughter exchange. While stage Cosette longs to know “of the child that I was” and complains that Valjean sees her as “just like a child who is lost in a wood,” film Cosette longs to know “of the man that you were,” rather than be treated “still like that child who was lost in a wood.”  The stage libretto seems to keep the novel’s conceit that Cosette has virtually no memory of her childhood before Valjean found her, while the film seems to discard that conceit as unrealistic.


    A Heart Full of Love

    The famous love duet-turned-trio loses a verse onscreen, but otherwise the song is unchanged. But once again, the blocking is different. Onstage, Marius climbs over the gate to join Cosette in the garden. On film (probably to reduce any possible sense of “creepy stalking”) he stays outside and the lovers confess their feelings through the bars of the gate, while Éponine sings unseen beside a nearby wall. This may lack the obvious symbolism of Marius and Cosette in the garden/Éponine outside the gate, but still it’s a pretty, romantic tableau in its own right.


    Onstage at this point our attention turns to the street (traditionally via turntable), while Marius and Cosette remain together in the garden. On film, however, their interlude is cut short when Cosette is called into the house by Valjean, who scolds her for being outside alone and peers through the gate with a suspicion he never has the chance to convey onstage. Marius leaves, taking with him Cosette’s dropped handkerchief, which he later is shown pining over at the barricade.


    The Attack on Rue Plumet

    In the complete, uncut stage version, gang member Montparnasse enters and describes the plot to rob the house to Éponine, who panics that Marius will think she set him up to be ambushed. Thénardier and the rest of the gang then enter and discuss their plans before noticing Éponine. On film, their plans are left for us to infer, as everything up to “Who is this hussy?” is cut. But the ensuing action in both versions is identical: Éponine defies her father and screams, forcing the gang to flee. On film the street scene ends there, but onstage it continues as Éponine’s scream brings Marius and Cosette to the gate. Marius thanks her for saving the day and introduces her to his lover, then hears Valjean coming and scrambles to hide just as the worried Papa bursts into the garden.


    Desperate to keep Valjean from finding Marius and Éponine hidden just feet away, stage Cosette lies that it was she who screamed because she saw three strange men. Valjean instantly assumes that Javert has found him. On film, with Marius safely gone and Cosette indoors not knowing of Éponine’s presence, we cut straight to Valjean’s “Must be Javert!” While onstage he declares “Tomorrow to Calais and then a ship across the sea!” the film Valjean, truer to the novel, resolves to flee that very night to “our apartment at Rue de l’Homme-Armé” and then “to England.” The stage Cosette’s mute dismay is replaced on film by desperate protesting, but when this proves in vain, she writes a letter containing the Rue de l’Homme-Armé address and leaves it on the garden gate for Marius to find. Now comes an especially controversial change from stage to screen. Éponine, a purely selfless, admirable character onstage, is given back a moment of selfishness from the original novel. She steals Cosette’s letter.


    FILM: On My Own

    As if to ensure that Éponine’s new “darkest hour” doesn’t rob her of our sympathy, the film follows it with the solo in which she pours out all her love and longing. Onstage this song doesn’t come until Act II. While this earlier placement is less climactic than the stage’s, the image of Éponine singing in her ragged blouse and skirt (onstage she sings the song in the boys’ clothes she wears to the barricade), drenched by rain, beautifully enhances our sense of her vulnerability.


    One Day More

    This beloved epic song works equally well on both stage and film: much like the “Tonight Quintet” from West Side Story, to which it obviously owes some inspiration. The classic Nunn/Caird staging of the number, rarely much tampered with, is an atmospheric montage of images that have become iconic. We find Valjean and Cosette at stage left with a travelling crate and their belongings, Marius and Éponine at stage right. Marius and Cosette meet at center stage to lament their separation. Then they draw apart, just (as if to symbolize the revolution coming between them) as Enjolras bursts onto center stage, wielding a rifle and singing out his fervor while his followers gather around him. The rebels form a triangle and march in place, while at stage right Valjean and Cosette pack their crate and at stage left Javert dons his spy garb. The Thénardiers pop up out of a manhole to sing of their plans. At last Marius, Éponine and Javert join the triangle, and the turntable brings Valjean and Cosette to the front of the stage for the song’s grand final lines, while a student at the back of the triangle waves the enormous red flag of the revolution.


    On film, of course, every character or group is shown in a separate location, with constant back-and-forth cutting. We find Valjean and Cosette riding in their carriage to Rue de l’Homme-Armé; Marius (having been informed of Cosette’s departure by Éponine) standing in despair outside the empty Rue Plumet house; Éponine in a dingy room binding her breasts and dressing as a boy to join the uprising; Enjolras rallying his followers at the café, where Marius eventually joins them; Javert at headquarters briefing a hundred policemen about the coming day; and the Thénardiers in the café, pretending to join the uprising while picking students’ pockets. The number ends with a wide shot of the café, Marius and Enjolras at the window, with masses of revolutionary followers (tragically not enough, as it turns out, but no one knows that yet) gathered below and waving flags from windows. Not an ounce of the stage version’s “epic” atmosphere is lost.


    Part I

    Part III

    Part IV

    • Again, as in Part I, your attention to every minute detail is amazing. I forgot so much of these details as I sat sobbing in the dark theatre during certain scenes. you really must get this published! Brava.

    • “On film, the sex appeal of Helena Bonham Carter is brought to the character, and she sings the passage to a handsome young soldier as she seduces him, picking his pocket in the process.”

      I would like to add that in the film, her insults to her husband appear to be made-up just to seduce the customer and get his money – and that really she is quite happily married. Not sure how much you can read into this though!

    • “The stage libretto seems to keep the novel’s conceit that Cosette has virtually no memory of her childhood before Valjean found her, while the film seems to discard that conceit as unrealistic.”

      I think the film is better here, as Cosette must be around 8 or 9 when the bargain takes place, as the film has a screen caption ‘8 years later’ before Cosette appears all grown up! Surely the older Cosette would remember being 8 or 9.

    • One key detail not mentioned here. During the robbery, as Javert speaks his name he picks up Gavroche and they get a good look at each other. This quick bit explains how Gavroche can identify Javert later in the barricade, a necessary addition since Gavroche’s taunt of Javert was cut, which let the audience knew Gavroche knew him.

      Strangely, in the film Gavroche is present when Javert first volunteers to help the students, but doesn’t rat him out yet.

      As to the Thernardiers, the observation that the madame’s complaints about her husband to seduce the soldier I think are valid. At the end of the number, she clearly mouths “I love you” to her husband. Another great detail I love in this scene is that when Thernardier “waters the wine” he is very clearly peeing in the bottle, but at the end its the same bottle Thernardier ends up with at the end of the song and drinks from, and he chokes on his own pee in a bit of karma.

      According to Tom Hooper on the DVD commentary, Sacha Baron Cohen and his writing partner came up with many of the sight gags used in the scene.

      Also note that in one of the trailers, there is a scene of Marius asking Eponine who that girl is, and she answers “Cosette.” Obviously this scene can’t appear in the film itself because of the significant portion of their love song where they tell each other their names.

      • Yes, I noticed all those details. I just didn’t mention them because they could easily be worked into any stage production – I was mainly concerned with details that are absolutely exclusive to the movie. I just got the DVD too and I love Tom Hooper’s commentary! So many insights!

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