My girlfriend came out to visit for the week, and on Sunday we accomplished our sole pre-existing objective: Les Mis.
Somehow, despite a lifetime of music and theatre, I had managed to avoid seeing Les Mis. Maybe I thought it was in French. Anyway, I got to see it from a clean slate, apart from the saturation advertising and reviews through the grapevine.
To the best of my knowledge, Les Mis is unprecedented in that it’s a complete musical, with a bare minimum of spoken dialog … and it was sung entirely live. Moulin Rouge, The Sound of Music and every other musical film I can name were all made in the classic manner, with the audio in the theater recorded in a studio, not on the set. The fundamental limitation was the need to keep singers in tune and in time. The natural way to do that is to play along with instrumental backing … but then the on-set music ends up in the recording, which isn’t high enough quality for the final mix. You could fix this by playing the music in headphones, but it’s hard to explain why your protagonist is wearing a big beautiful pair of Grado’s in the workhouse in 1822.
But it’s 2013, and we have miniaturized in-ear monitors (basically high-fidelity hearing aids) and tiny (or long-range) microphones. To me, this makes Les Mis a great example of the way art benefits from the progress of technology. The result is a new kind of musical, with long takes, unvarnished performances, and stark closeups with no need to fear failures of lip sync. The directorial freedom, and musical performances in character, allowed them to make probably the most effective tearjerker I’ve ever seen … and I felt proud of them, for doing it without resorting to anything more manipulative than crying through a song without cutting takes or losing pitch.