BBC Video // 1995 // 148 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Brett Cullum // March 3rd, 2008
Fantine: I had a dream my life would be/So different from this hell I'm living/So different now from what it seemed/Now life has killed the dream I dreamed.
Les Miserables, one of the most successful theatrical musicals ever, was written by French composer Claude-Michel Schönberg on a libretto by Alain Boublil in France during 1980. It has been running in the West End of the London theatre district going on a record setting 23 years and is currently ranked as the third longest running show in the history of Broadway, behind only Phantom of the Opera and Cats. It is based on the classic epic novel by Victor Hugo, and ambitiously tells a tapestry of stories around the French Revolution. The show first opened in France in 1982 in a severely faithful and depressingly austere version that played 100 performances in a sports arena. English producer Cameron Mackintosh wanted to help adapt it for the English theatre, and his reworked version (more visually spectacular and uplifting) opened in London during 1985. Mackintosh's team added razzle dazzle with sprawling sets, an expanded running time, and more inspiring anthems pulled forward. Two years later, the show opened on Broadway, and shortly thereafter Les Miserables became an international hit, produced all over the world many times over. Les Miserables: 10th Anniversary Concert at London's Royal Albert Hall is a two-disc DVD set that captures the celebration of the show at the 10-year mark of its London run. This is the second DVD release of this 1995 concert.
The story begins with Jean Valjean being paroled after serving many years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread out of desperation to feed his starving family. He is given a second chance by a generous patron once he is on parole, but he has to hide his past as a petty criminal, changing his identity completely. It fans out to include a variety of stories centering around a police inspector, Javert, who becomes obsessed with finding and exposing Valjean; Fantine, the single mother of Cosette, who is forced to become a prostitute to support her daughter; Marius, a French student who falls in love with Valjean's adopted daughter, Cosette, and gets involved in the student revolution; Eponine, the young daughter of the Thenardiers, who is hopelessly in love with Marius; the Thenardiers, who own an inn and exploit their customers and any situation they can; and Enjolras and the other students, who are working toward freeing the oppressed lower class of France. Lots of heroic deaths punctuate the show, and the songs mainly contain the prayers and hopes of the dying or fighting.
The entire musical is "through-sung," which means every single line (save for just a precious few) is delivered in song. The music starts at the first curtain, and does not end until that final one falls. For this special occasion concert at the Royal Albert Hall, the producers assembled an impressive list of singers from the various productions to perform with a 150 member chorus and full orchestra. The performers are fully costumed, and where they can, they insert props and sets. But this is a stripped-down version and does not include all of the pageantry of the official West End or Broadway show, both of which had incredibly large sets on a giant turntable. The whole affair uses a cantata style, in which the singer stands in front of a microphone to deliver a song rather than use full-stage blocking, and the chorus accompanies the performer in the rear of the stage. Sometimes they use video or stills from other productions to fill in gaps in action. I was pretty impressed with how they staged the barricade battle, though it obviously lacks the oomph found in a live professional production. Orchestrations vary slightly from the actual stage production with the always on-point Royal Philharmonic Orchestra belting out slicker arrangements than you'd find in a real theatre. The high point comes in the final encore, when 17 Jean Valjeans from around the world take the stage to sing parts of "Do You Hear the People Sing?" in their native languages, and then the entire cast and chorus joins in for a spectacular rendition of "One Day More." This special concert has been seen many times over during PBS pledge drives and has been released before on a couple of different video and audio formats.
The cast is sublime, and the performances are very well done. You're not going to ever get a chance to see this many renowned singers and musicians joining forces for this kind of project. For fans of the show, this is an exciting chance is to see English singer and actor Colm Wilkinson reprise his role as Jean Valjean. Wilkinson was made famous by the role when he originated it when the show debuted in London, and he remains the definitive actor to take on the part. Another veteran of the show is Judy Kuhn, who here reprises her Broadway role of Cosette. Lea Solonga (more known for her portrayal of the lead in Miss Saigon) takes on Eponine. The cast is assembled from two London productions, an Australian one, and the Broadway version. We get a good mix of original cast from London, a replacement West End group that was featured during the time of the concert, the New York veterans, and the Sydney stars all of whom got rave reviews for what they did with each of their roles. The performers get the chance to focus on singing with some of the staging removed, and as a result, we get the strongest versions of the classic tunes you will hear. The only original cast member that I truly missed was Patti Lupone as Fantine, because as good as her replacement is here, it's not as powerful.
This release of Les Miserables: 10th Anniversary Concert at London's Royal Albert Hall rectifies some of the sins of the past from the now out-of-print first DVD release. The entire concert is delivered in widescreen on a single-sided DVD rather than full screen on a flipper disc like the original disc. The widescreen provides a much better view of the stage, and you can see actors you couldn't see before in certain shots. The composition of the visual presentation makes more sense in widescreen, and this was how the cinematography of the special was envisioned. Added in are optional English subtitles that help to make lyrics clear and are handy with this international cast of various accents. On the second disc is an exciting extra: "Stage by Stage: The Making of Les Miserables" is an hour-long documentary showing the creation of the full symphonic recording and featuring interviews with the original producing team and composers. Also included is what is being billed on the set as a "collector's edition commemorative booklet," but it's simply a 10-page glossy insert that recreates a program with a synopsis of the plot and pictures from the concert. Missing are any artist biographies or even a cast listing. The case is in book style, which is a nice touch given the literary roots of the source material.
The 1998 DVD often sold on eBay for over $100, but those who own it may still want to hold on to it. Savvy, rabid fans who are lucky enough to still possess that original set will notice there is a small sequence with Gavroche missing from this new disc where the young man identifies Valjean in the song "Little People." Also eliminated are parts of the speeches given by the creative team right before the encore presentation. Eleven minutes have been cut from this concert to make it all fit on one disc, and that has hurt it a little bit in the eyes of completists.
I'm also surprised the audio for this new presentation is only presented in two channel stereo as it originally appeared. Ten years ago when this first came out, I understand why two speakers would be the default configuration. But hello, it is now 2008, and we're sticking to this when most people have added three more speakers in their TV rooms. A remaster of the soundtrack to five speakers would have been revolutionary, and an honorable thing to do. Unfortunately we can only hear the people sing in two sides of the room. The recording is clear, but it seems a touch thin when you consider what could have come out of a newly mastered full mix.
This is perhaps the best way to see Les Miserables outside of the theatre. Certainly a big screen Hollywood adaptation will be inevitable at some point, but I fear stunt casting will dilute the singing and presentation. Here you have some of the strongest singers from official productions of the show assembled to present the show concert style with an impressive orchestra. Where else are you going to find legends of the London, Broadway, and Aussie casts together with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra? Throw in 17 Jean Valjeans for one historic moment, and you've got an absolute jaw dropping spectacle. Sure, they've trimmed the running time a bit and eliminated some of the spoken content from the creators. Les Miserables: 10th Anniversary Concert at London's Royal Albert Hall still feels like a significant event that any Broadway fan would be remiss not to have in their DVD collection. It's a welcome reissue from BBC Video.
Guilty of dripping with excessive amounts of talent on display, Les
Miserables: 10th Anniversary Dream Cast in Concert at London's Royal Albert
Hall is a must-have sentenced to musical lover shelves around the world.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 148 Minutes
Release Year: 1995
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* "Stage by Stage: The Making of Les Miserables"