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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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser