Do you hear the actors sing?

A story everyone needs to hear at least once.

Les Misérables
dir: Tom Hooper

One of the most striking things about Les Misérables is the volume of tears it generates. These aren’t snivels but full-blown, tubeclearing excavations of the nose (I count myself here, I’ve seen it three times). It’s not the schmaltzy bits that make people cry – the song of the fallen woman Fantine (“I Dreamed a Dream”, as popularised by Susan Boyle), the sight of the urchin or the show’s wig-waving climax – but moments of greater emotional complexity: the happy death of the street-girl Éponine, or the ballad “Bring Him Home”, in which the hero Jean Valjean (played by Hugh Jackman) risks his life to save a young blade he’s never even met. In the Times last month, the theologian Ian Bradley recalled the Easter Sunday address in which Archbishop George Carey described Valjean’s early redemption scene (he is blessed by the bishop whose house he’s robbed) as “the finest description of grace outside the pages of the New Testament”. But even for heathens, the real thrill of Les Misérables is about watching one eye-popping gesture of human self-sacrifice after another and thinking, how can anyone be so . . . good?

Tom Hooper’s new film adaptation remains a hard sell for non-fans of musical theatre. For a start, it features Hollywood A-listers singing; many people are still haunted by the mahogany tones of Pierce Brosnan in Mamma Mia!. Second, the show is not exactly easy on the ear. It always felt, superficially, closer to opera than a musical, not just for its hefty themes and historical setting but for its sheer unwieldliness. The lines of exposition, written in French by Alain Boublil and translated into English by Herbert Kretzmer, are often deliciously gauche and clunky: “There was a time we killed the king/ We tried to change the world too fast/ Now we’ve got another king/ He’s no better than the last.” Hooper’s decision to record the songs “live” has, as well as generating most of the film’s publicity, enhanced the music’s ragged, chaotic feel.

With tiny mikes shoved down their ear canals, linking them to a piano accompanist hidden somewhere in the corner of the set, the actors were in charge of setting their own pace for each song and occasionally, it seems, their own pitch. The fugal “Confrontation” between Valjean and his relentless pursuer Javert (Russell Crowe) – the first a piercing tenor, the second a throaty rock-and-roll voice – is just one of several moments in the show where you feel a bit like you’re trapped in a chicken run. But this is exactly what Les Misérables ought to sound like. It’s a brave production: Hooper could have sweetened the meal for the cinema but instead he’s made it even tougher.

The story, based on the 1862 novel by Victor Hugo, takes place not during the French Revolution (a common misconception) but starts in 1815 and culminates in 1830’s June Rebellion, a damp squib of an uprising in which the Parisian populace failed to turn out and 93 students were killed.

The outdoor set gives Hooper – who cleaned up at the Oscars two years ago with his last film, The King’s Speech – an opportunity to close in on the theme of personal bravery over politics. In the stage show, the famous “barricade” looks like part of the action, a symbol of wider revolution.

On film, as all manner of junk is tossed out of shops and houses including, memorably, a couple of coffins, you realise just how small and ineffectual the real-life barricades were. When things get ugly, the good folk of Paris lock their doors on the rebels and leave them to the National Guard.

“Here’s a handsome, charismatic student on the street outside your house, saying all the stuff you want to hear,” said Hooper in a recent interview. “Would you actually let him in, with his gun, when the police are chasing him? No.”

There are various other moral grey areas explored more pointedly in the film than in the stage show. There’s a new song (“Suddenly”), commissioned from the original writers and inserted after Valjean’s adoption of the orphan Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), which explains that the child is the second redemptive moment in his life: character change, unlike in the movies, is a long, complicated process.

The villain, Javert, has been fleshed out too, with a new scene taken from the book in which he asks Valjean to punish him, convinced he’s been pursuing the wrong man. “People who are unforgiving and unrelenting to those in their professional life,” says Hooper, “are often even harder on themselves in private.” Funny to think that Les Misérables, among all those other things, is about a jobsworth maddened by the kindness of someone more at peace with the world than himself. See the film, or the show, or read the book, but this remains a story that everyone needs to hear once. Then maybe five more times, if it gets to you.

Les Misérables is released on 11 January

Anne Hathaway as Fantine in "Les Misérables".

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Dinosaurs vs modernisers

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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle