Do You Hear the People Sing?

“Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.” — Victor Hugo

I have seen Les Misérables not once, but three times.  Yes, I have thrice contributed to the film’s over $200 million in ticket sales (money well earned, given the movie’s eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture).  I cried all three times.  I am not ashamed.

Les Miz is unique as a film because its storytelling is its music.  Though generally classified as a “Broadway musical” and often labeled as an operettaLes Miz in both its theatrical and cinematic forms is in fact a “sung-through” or “through-composed” musical, characterized by limited spoken lines as most speeches and dialogues are communicated through song, recitative, or aria.  The entire 157-minute duration of this move is full of music, with even its silent and spoken moments designed to generate additional musical impact.  Every character has a theme, and their themes intertwine as their stories intertwine.  A purely acted adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic novel, either on stage or on screen but sans music, would be emotionally stirring, yes — I mean, (spoiler alert) everyone dies.  But it wouldn’t be as jarring, as heartbreaking, as memorable without the music.  Enjolras’ death in silence would be tragic, but with French horns sweepingly proclaiming the red-and-black lifeblood of l’ABC, his death is anthemic.  

Claude-Michel Schönberg’s brilliant score is richly, colorfully, undeniably symphonic.  It is dramatic like Wagner, symbolic like Mahler, melodic like Tchaikovsky, passionate like Rachmaninoff.  Les Miz is Romanticism for a modern era.

Pandora Radio’s genius Music Genome Project identifies some intriguing characteristics of a few of the most iconic musical numbers from Les Miz: 

  • Bring Him Home: “acoustic sonority, intricate melodic phrasing, use of a string ensemble, major key tonality and melodic songwriting.”
  • Who Am I?: “acoustic sonority, use of a string ensemble, mixed minor & major key tonality, the subtle use of a horn section.”
  • In My Life / A Heart Full of Love: “mild rhythmic syncopation, acoustic sonority, varying tempo and time signatures, intricate melodic phrasing and chromatic harmonic structure.”

“Melodic phrasing”, “major key tonality”, “rhythmic syncopation”, “chromatic harmonic structure”… These descriptions could have been taken straight out of a tonal theory textbook.  The music of Les Miz is truly classical music on a grand scale — accessible (who doesn’t love the movies?), popular ($200M don’t lie), and unstoppable.


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