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The women of Les Miz

On Christmas Day, the eagerly-awaited movie musical Les Misérables — “A Musical Phenomenon” the advertisement promises — opens across the United States. If it makes half the splash that its Broadway source did in 1987, we’re in for a long ride. The musical ran for 6680 performances, and won Tony awards for Best Musical, Best Book, and Best Score. It closed and then re-opened for another 463-performance run in 2006. It continues to tour the US.

Extensive production gossip on the movie has focused on Anne Hathaway’s brave hair-shaving, braver weight loss of twenty-five pounds, and bravest willingness to sing live during filming. Director Tom Hooper has repeatedly noted the incomparable intimacy achieved by actors singing live on film. Barbra Streisand, at age 25, knew the same thing when she insisted on singing live for the film of Funny Girl in 1968 (she shared the Best Actress Oscar with Katharine Hepburn in The Lion in Winter).

The 60 million people who have seen the stage version of the Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil musical will no doubt compare the movie to their memories of a dark and shadowy stage, the crowd of actors marching in step during the thrilling Act One finale of “One Day More,” the huge rotating barricade littered with fifty bloody bodies of the revolutionary students, and a breathtaking theatrical moment when the evil Javert jumps to his death off the upstage catwalk bridge.

Given Hathaway’s stardom, movie goers might also compare the film’s portrayal of the tragic Fantine with her stage character, played by Patti LuPone, Ruthie Henshall, Lea Salonga, and Daphne Rubin-Vega. Film critic A.O. Scott recently commented on the number of strong women in 2012’s movies. What will Les Miz bring us?

If it’s anything like the stage musical, don’t get excited, fellow feminists. For all of its theatrical heft, musical power, and romantic reputation, Les Miz leaves women in the lurch.

Women in the musical play small and insignificant roles. First, they appear late: Fantine’s first song halfway through Act One is a woman’s first solo, well after the male characters have been introduced and have sung and the story is well on its way.

Second, the three featured female characters — Fantine, Cosette, and Eponine — are delineated from the other minor female characters and ensemble players by their spiritual purity, a narrow female stereotype. Third, the women only exist to set off the complex decisions, ethical struggles, and brave actions of the men. Finally, the women only sing about men (though, according to the Bechdel test that Scott cites, there are more than two women in the show and they do have names: a hopeful sign, perhaps?).

The central story of Les Miz has nothing whatsoever to do with women, but rather follows the battle between Valjean and Javert. Dramaturgically, the women only function to strengthen the men’s characterizations. Fantine’s sole purpose, for example, is to show Valjean’s extraordinary generosity when he agrees to raise her soon-to-be-orphaned daughter, Cosette, as his own. Cosette serves as Marius’s love interest so that he can choose her over a political career. (Unlike the musicals of the 1950s where the individual lovers each signified political differences that the musical eventually resolved through their union, in Les Miz, the lovers are a mere diversion from the real plot, which is “political” and decidedly homoerotic.) And Eponine exists so that she can pine for Marius and die for his cause. During the stage musical’s production process, in fact, codirectors Trevor Nunn and John Caird worked with the composers to eliminate the women characters’ back stories and reduce their stage time.

Equally important for this stage production was the amazing sceneography, designed by Royal Shakespeare Company veteran John Napier. The musical’s Act Two climax, when two giant towers, weighing three tons and driven by computer, glide, merge, and interlock to form a stage-filling structure on which the bodies of dead rebel students lay signals how Les Miz sceneographically values men and their world. In his review of the Broadway production, Frank Rich in the New York Times described how “in a dazzling transition, the towers tilt to form an enormous barricade.” The male characters interact with the set from this barricade to the tower to the tavern. Valjean carries the wounded Marius through the sewers of Paris, evoked by fog and dim grey lighting, and even the villain Javert kills himself by jumping off a high bridge upstage, a moment that invariably elicits gasps from the audience when the actor disappears below the stage floor.

The musical’s principal women, on the other hand, are excluded from the impressive, visually engaging scenes. Each female character’s song is staged with her alone, almost as if in concert, apart from the story, performing in a single pool of light. Now there’s nothing wrong with an actor being onstage in a single spotlight: that’s what stars are made of. But according to the visual codes that tell an audience what’s important here, the women are shut out. Fantine sings both of her two songs in Act One alone, one before she succumbs to prostitution and the other — her big death song — on a cot; Cosette’s key number is staged in front of the gates of her house.

Eponine does a bit better: her showstopping “On My Own” begins with the actor walking on a slowly revolving platform, but by the second verse, the turntable stops and she stands still for the number’s climax.

Eponine does get one opportunity to interact with the musical’s remarkable scenery — in her death scene. Although her involvement with the students’ rebellion is not because she is political, but because she wants to be on the barricade to be near Marius, she gets caught in the crossfire. Marius takes her into his arms, soothing her and kissing her gently, and they sing, “A Little Fall of Rain,” leaning against by the barricade, and she dies. The message is clear in this touching moment: the women only get to be on Les Miz’s big set when they die.

In front of the barricade in Les Misérables (opened on Broadway in 1987), Eponine (Frances Ruffelle) dies in the arms of Marius (Michael Bell), her love for him still unrequited.  Enjolras (David Burt) stands by. Photograph by Michael Le Poer Trench © Cameron Mackintosh Ltd. Used with permission.

This account of women’s sad situation in Les Miz relies on the languages of the stage. It may be that the film adaptation will give women more to do. Or maybe the tools of film will alter the architecture of this musical. Or maybe Hathaway — thin, bald, and singing “live” — will deliver a performance that will vindicate the women in Les Miz.

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