How does one follow up an Oscar-winning directorial effort, much less one as lauded as The King’s Speech? Such was Tom Hooper’s dilemma as he chose his subsequent project. However, good fortune befell him when he was offered a widely beloved stage musical to adapt into a major feature film. Les Misérables was the classic Victor Hugo story, often filmed throughout the 20th century, but never set to the music and lyrics of Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil. Their show, which debuted in London in 1987 before its inevitable Broadway run, followed by numerous international tours, had long been ripe for a film musical but had never fully come together. With Hooper aboard, the production was a go and success was inevitable — but not before several crucial production decisions were made.
Casting was perhaps the most pivotal aspect for the filmed Les Miz. One can argue that the less successful 2004 Phantom of the Opera musical-to-film adaptation had suffered from miscasting. At the time, Gerard Butler, Patrick Wilson and Emmy Rossum were relative unknowns, a factor which could have affected its lackluster box office, especially considering that on stage, it was a global smash. Thus, for the Les Mis film, Hooper brought aboard unqualified movie stars Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried and Eddie Redmayne, with Helena Bonham Carter, and Sacha Baron Cohen, among others, in supporting roles.
However, Hooper had a condition set forward to all cast members: live singing on set with minimal overdubs in postproduction. “The live singing became a condition of me doing a musical,” Hooper explained. “Even in very brilliant musicals that have been made in the past, I feel a disconnect of an actor singing to playback. It is very hard to pull the illusion off. If it is told entirely through song, that challenge is even harder. Acting is inhabiting the illusion of freedom in the present tense. If an actor is allowed to sing live, if they take a beat, to have an idea when an emotion is formed, they can do that. It’s giving actors that freedom to create the illusion of invention.”
As with its stage version, the entirety of the film incarnation of Les Misérables is nearly all set to sung dialogue with music and very little additional spoken dialogue. “The [spoken] dialogue is used for incidental reasons,” Hooper added. “Anything where characters are properly engaging is sung. On top of that, if you were to convert the dialogue to regular dialogue, you would lose what is fantastic about the score. So much of the singing moves the plot forward. When people are singing, the songs and the music are full of story and character content. I thought that was exciting.”
This Christmas Day, Les Misérables will open around the world, and Hooper, already an Oscar winner, has a chance for another statue, amazingly at the age of 40.