Friday, May 27, 2011

Les Mis album comparison VI

It's been forever since I did the last one of these. (Edited to add: this is indeed the last entry in the album comparison series. Sorry for not finishing, if you enjoyed this...)
I don't know how many people read this blog, and I don't know how many of them care about comparing Les Mis cast recordings, but I want to finish what I started. So, Les Mis album comparison, part IV.

On My Own
I'll start this off by confessing two things:
The first time I saw Les Misérables, I literally thought "oh, I hate this song so much because it's the traditional sad unrequited love song and she's just moping for three minutes - but I'm still going to sing along this a million times when I get the CD". I was right.
Nowadays, one of these On My Owns is the Les Mis song with most hits in my iTunes.

London 1985
Francis Ruffelle as Eponine.
Starts softly, slower than what I'm used to. From the beginning, the instrumentals are pretty and mournful - they remind me of a cold wind, someway.
I know everybody doesn't like Frances Ruffelle, but I have always liked her Eponine. She's got an unique voice - I don't know why, but I love listening to her. And I really like this recording. When she starts the song softly and quietly, I feel like I'm walking next to Eponine in the dark streets, listening to her troubles. And the more powerful part's not half bad either. Great transition from huge "I have never know" to soft "I love him".
All in all, a gorgeous version.
7 points

Vienna 1988
Jane Comerford as Eponine.
The beginning has a couple of disorienting moments, a weird quick drum and a sound I can only describe as scratching a tile with a rusty nail. Mostly it's pretty though, and Jane Comerfold's Eponine sounds very pretty too.
The orchestration is very simple at some points, with just one wind instrument offering little notes in transitions. I like that. And the further the song is progressing, the better I like Comerfold's voice! How come I haven't listened to this more! The orchestration may get a little too loud by the end, but this is not a bad rendition by any means.
5 points

Paris 1991
Stephanie Martin as Eponine.
This beginning is maybe a bit too thin for my tastes, the previous two had a fuller sound. Same goes with the whole song, actually, except for the very end maybe.
I don't know if it's the language or what, but this Eponine seems a little bit more whiny than the previous two. Martin has a good voice, yes, but it sounds to me like she's complaining from time to time. The previous two held their misery with a little more dignity.
2 points

Denmark 1992
Birgitte Raaberg as Eponine.
Raaberg has a weirdly thin voice. It's pretty, but it does sound a little... I can't find a good word. Not suitable for this song. Also, further proof that Danish is one of the less attractive-sounding languages (I still love Denmark though!)...
And, oh, the orchestration tries to down the singer again, this time with a beat I swear escaped from Do You Hear the People Sing... But yeah, I don't really feel this is Eponine singing here - I think Raaberg might make a more believable Fantine instead.
Also, fail points for mashing four syllables in the space of three by the end.
1 point
Despite all I've said, + for this CD for including Javert at the barricade. He sounds nothing short of awesome when he rants on whatever Javert rants at the barricade in Danish, and the instrumental's are pretty snappy for a change.

10th Ann. 1995
Lea Salonga as Eponine.
Salonga's Eponine is more Eponine-ish than the previous one, but I think I prefer a bit more unique sound for the role. Don't get me wrong, I think Lea Salonga has a beautiful, even gorgeous voice. But it's, maybe, a little bit pretty-princessy for Eponine, the girl whose voice the book the musical is based on describes with quite distinctive terms...
The orchestration and mixing are gorgeous here as always, though. I don't really get the same feeling of intimacy as with some of these CDs, but this sounds good nevertheless.
4 points

Dutch 2008  
Céline Purcell as Eponine.
Purcell has a bit of a shrill tone in her voice that bothers me sometimes, but she's good otherwise and shows some strong emotion through the song.
I think the orchestration has pretty much reached perfection by this point, there's not a part where it wouldn't work. It's grand, of course, maybe too grand for some - but I like some spectacle every now and then!
3 points.

Live! 2010
Rosalind James as Eponine.
I admit, this is the one I've been looping pretty much to no end. I don't know why I like this - maybe James's voice just suits mine the best when I'm belting along the songs? Pretty harmonies, that's what singing along musicals is all about...
Compared to the other Eponines I've heard today, James isn't really the most Eponine-like. She has a great voice, but I remember thinking she's too modern when I heard this the first time, and even though I really like this now... I admit she might not be how most fans imagine the character. The riff she does with "pretending" sounds good, yeah, but, thinking about the nature of Les Mis, is very out of place. This one's hard to rate - I really, really love this as a song, but as Eponine and part of Les Mis... Something's not quite correct.
The orchestrations are as good as the Dutch ones though!
6 points - sorry, personal preference overrides sense this time.

Drink With Me
Guess who thought A Little Fall of Rain is not important at all?
Well, yeah, you know who. Those pølse-eating little... 

London 1985
The lovely, calm feeling I got from On My Own continues here. I can see the barricade boys in my head so clearly and am almost sitting there at the barricade in midst of them. There's a perfect calm, sad tone here.
The female chorus is a bit shrill, though, but the males do a great job. Maybe you could give a little minus from that the song is so beautiful, so calm, that you don't even notice Grantaire's part actually mocks their whole mission... But this is so good for the ears.
4 points

Vienna 1988
The prominent guitar's not a bad add. It might take some thoughts to songs sung by the campfire - but that's what this song essentially is, isn't it, even if the shadow of quick death is looming above them...
This Grantaire sounds a little angrier than the rest. Maybe he's kind of blaming himself. What is he doing here! He doesn't believe in the whole thing and is still killing himself for it!
Male and female choruses sound perfect together.
4 points

Paris 1991
Like the previous two, this had a beautiful, calm mood. The singers have great voices. And, oh, Grantaire... He's perfect. Just the right amount of aggression, not believing they can really stand behind this ridiculous revolution... I can see him, apart from the others with his bottle, alone and angry... And Marius finishes this one beautifully. Many good performances here!
5 points

Denmark 1992
The prominent guitar is back, to my enjoyment. And, for once, the Danish boys and girls do a good job I've hardly anything to complain about. This is beautiful like the previous ones. Their Grantaire is not very strong or different from the rest, but as a whole I think this is almost as good as the London one.
Too bad the overall quality so far is this high - I've a feeling even though this is one of the CDs best songs, it won't get that many points...
4 points

10th Ann. 1995
These soloists sound a bit more like normal people as opposed to many previous CD's great singers. They're not bad here, just more realistic! A good Grantaire again - not too much emphasis on anything, but it can be heard he's bitter for whatever reason.
A good version. Not very special, but a good example of a nice way to do this song.
4 points

Dutch 2008  
The recording makes the revolutionaries kind of closer to me than any before incarnation. And they sound good too! Argh, this is too hard to rank - there are no real weak links! Maybe Grantaire is a little bit too much just one of them here...
Maybe the loud orchestration that works beautifully with some songs is a little disorienting in quiet songs like this one, but the cast soungs very good.
3 points

Live! 2010
The first guy could sound a little calmer, but the others are great again. And this has my favourite Grantaire moment! He really takes all out of his lyrics (you can just see him smiling mockingly and then turning simply hateful there!) and is, thanks to this being a live recording, responded with a "okay, that's enough!" A great, great add.
The chorus sounds a little smaller as it is often with this CD, but here it just brings realism to this scene. There's a little loud orchestration problems here, too, though.
4 points - sorry. I was forced to cheat. These all are great versions and the differences are so minimal it's almost impossible to rank these. So we have a winner, the French, a loser, the Dutch, and everybody else is in between.

Rankings time!
London 1985: 35.5 + 7 + 4 =46.5
Vienna 1988: 20.5 + 5 + 4 = 29.5
Paris 1991: 20 + 2 + 5 = 27
Denmark 1992: 20.5 + 1 + 4 = 25.5
10th Ann. 1995: 48.5 + 4 + 4 = 56.5
Dutch 2008: 44 + 3 + 3 = 50
Live! 2010: 35 + 6 + 4 = 45

The sixth part's final results:
#1: 10th Ann. 1995: 56.5+
#2: Dutch 2008: 50+++
#3: London 1985: 46.5+
#4: Live! 2010: 45++
#5: Vienna 1988: 29.5++
#6: Paris 1991: 27++
#7: Denmark 1992: 25--

I really want to get my hands on the new Polish and Spanish CDs!
I won't be doing all this again, though, when I get them...

Monday, May 23, 2011

Through an Extra's Eyes

This is a bit of a special entry. Instead of my usual rants, I've gotten the incredible chance to interview a cast member of my favourite musical production ever. I give you...

Åbo Svenska Teater's Les Misérables, through the eyes of a professional extra!

“I was like a kid in a candy store who was paid to eat everything!”

According to Valde Wallenius, a 17-year-old vocational school student from Finland, that’s how it feels like to be a cast member in the most popular musical in the world. Wallenius works as an extra in Åbo Svenska Teater’s acclaimed production of Les Misérables. In exception of the child actors, he is the youngest person working in the production.                     
Working in Les Mis has been, to put it mildly, an amazing experience for Wallenius – even though he could hardly be called an expert on the subject when he started.
         “Les Misérables was my first time working in a theatre, and also my first real job! I didn't really know much about it beforehand. I had heard some of the music, but, amusingly, everything I knew about the story at the time was from a Donald Duck comic.
         Right from the first time I saw and heard Les Mis, I loved it. Getting the job felt really good because it was my first, but after watching the show for the first time I knew I was going to be a part of something great, something that was going to be successful. I felt, even back then, like I had been blessed by someone higher above.”

How did a 17-year-old with no theatrical experience become a part of a professional musical production?
         “I was playing video games one night when my father walked into the room with a newspaper, saying ÅST was looking for extras for this show called ‘Les Misérables’. He thought I would be interested. I took a look and said ‘maybe’, though that's usually what I say if I mean ‘yes’. So I sent an e-mail to the theatre.
         When I got to the theatre for an interview there was one other guy waiting outside. Another guy turned up after we had walked in – it didn't really feel like people were lining up for this. We met Georg Malvius, the director of the production, and he asked us some questions: experience in acting and singing, how often we were available, what we knew about Les Mis…
         Some days later about a dozen would-be extras gathered to watch the show so we would get an idea about it. I think if we still wanted to have the job after seeing the show, and weren't absolutely incompetent in the training, we got it.
         After a couple of weeks of rehearsals I met Malvius on the way home. We talked a little as we walked: he told me I had done a good job and asked me if I wanted to be one of the extras who would be on in almost every performance. I accepted this without hesitation. It felt great! Getting the job was one thing, but being told by the director that I did a good job and was signed up to do all shows was just priceless.”

Wallenius signed up to be one of the ‘standard four’ as they called it: one of the four extras who were on in every performance while the others took turns. He did three or four shows per week.
         “I didn't have as many onstage appearances as I had hoped for; there were only six of them. That includes a guard in the intro, a priest taking the beds in and out in Fantine's Death, a soldier attacking the barricade and a farmer in Epilogue.
         I had a couple more things to do, but they’re behind the stage and no one sees them. I didn't have any speaking lines, the only official time I open my mouth is in Epilogue. I did, however, scream a lot in The Runaway Cart from offstage.”

In this production, during the second act, the audience sees the both sides of the barricade: the revolutionaries die, but so do the French soldiers on the other side of the stage. Wallenius plays one of the soldiers.
         “Haha, the crown jewel of my career! I'm glad that Malvius took a different approach in the war scenes, otherwise I wouldn't have done anything for two thirds of the show!”
         Does it get boring to play a dead guy?
         “It doesn't, really. I sometimes had one eye open. My hat and the darkness assured that no one could see it, and from my position I could see almost the entire stage. I knew what was going on the entire time. There was something different every day that kept me from getting bored most of the time.”
         But trying to look dead is very difficult sometimes, if not always.
         “When Gavroche was in the area you were never safe! The three Gavroches we had got shot very differently. One fell by my feet, sometimes on them, sometimes just touching my boots. The second fell right on me. He kneeled beside me and dropped like a cannon ball, usually on my belly or chest… but sometimes he hit some of my softer parts down below, ouch. The third, however, didn't fall to the ground; he kept standing even after being shot twice.”
         And the hardships of playing a corpse don’t end there…
         “After Christmas Joachim Thibblin was often gone, so Markus Virta was the stand-in as Thénardier. He was good at the role, but there was something else... When he was in the sewers and took my watch as loot while singing, he sat right on top of me in a rather suggestive way. If anyone had said that it looked like we were doing something... specific, I wouldn't really have been able to deny it. Also, both Thibblin and Virta usually spat on me while singing. Especially Markus, it was almost raining. And Joachim slapped me every now and then, come to think of it.
         So… If you you're good with sitting about twenty minutes on the ground completely still, getting spat on, getting slapped, being a pillow for dying kids, getting carried away and being sexually harassed by singing maniacs twice your age… then you're good to go!
But I was good with all that. It was my job after all.”

Wallenius doesn’t have a bad word to say about his workmates, though:
         “There were so many wonderful people working along with us who always kept the spirit up for the rest! But almost all of them were overshadowed by our Javert’s, Sören Lillkung’s, pure skill and friendly personality. Never have I met a more open and friendly person. If I had to point out one person who people would look at to get new energy from, it would be him. I’ve learned a lot from him and he was one of the things that gave me inspiration to go on.”

Wallenius is a bit of a lifesaver himself, rescuing one of his co-workers from complete embarrassment. On Saint Lucy's Day the theatre was gathered to celebrate, and Markus Virta granted Wallenius a diploma in which he said:
         “This person has during the autumn worked as an extra in Les Misérables and gotten a complete check on the show. In some cases he has a better check on what the actors are doing then the actors themselves. During one show Rune Sæter [who plays Enjolras] begun changing costume for his last entrée despite having another scene to do. The extra, however, reminded him about the scene and therefore saved Rune's hide.”
         “It does sound a lot more romantic than it really was”, Wallenius adds. ”One day when I was changing to my farmer outfit during Empty Chairs at Empty Tables, I saw Rune coming down the hall. As he walked past me I stopped him and asked a bit sarcastically: ‘Are you supposed to be here?’ He was quiet for a couple of seconds, said ‘Thanks, Valde!’ and went back. I didn't really think much about it, but later learned that it was a bigger deal than I had guessed! Rune told me that he had never forgotten to go to a scene before.”

What does the future have in store for Wallenius?
         “I hope to act in more musicals in the future. I haven't really decided what I want to do later in my life yet, but at the moment I'm planning on that.
         I will play Les Miserables again of course, we’ll perform the show again next autumn. And I would most certainly like to be in Les Mis in the future, too, if I got the chance. Who I would play? Enjolras, maybe. He's a great character and I like his vest. Or I could just be in the ensemble, as Babet or Brujon – those two are badasses. Or Thénardier… But only ÅST's Thénardier, not the drunken clown he is in other Les Mis productions!”

Any last words?
         “I have learned a lot by working together with the wonderful people ÅST gathered to make Georg Malvius’s vision come to reality. I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world! And love to all you Les Misérables fans out there for your support. We’ll be back in the autumn.”

Sunday, May 15, 2011

About Applause

As weird as it may sound, my favourite part of any theatre performance is the curtain call.

Don't get me wrong. Usually I love the stuff before the final bows and wouldn't want it to end so soon.
However, despite that, that I find curtain calls magical. Just the thought of not saying goodbye just yet when the curtain closes excites me. To see the actors once more, the most evil of villains smiling happily and blowing a kiss towards the audience, the stars of the piece joking with each other and me trying to guess what they're saying, all the flowers and gifts people have sent to the cast... The excitement and decibel levels rising and rising when getting nearer and nearer to the biggest role's bow.
To me, curtain calls are beautiful.

I remember the curtain call back when I saw Mamma Mia!, my first musical, in 2007.
I don't know where I'd gotten the idea - probably from TV, since the tour had a lot of media coverage when it first arrived to Finland - but I was absolutely certain it was a crucial part of the etiquette to stand up when they do the encores by the end of the show. And so I did. I seem to recall a lot of people raising with me, so I didn't have to stand there alone, wobbling along the music. A good start for anyone's theatre-going career.
I raised to dance a little when I saw the tour the second time in 2008, too - I was still convinced you simply have to do that if you see Mamma Mia! - but some maniac had just shot students in a Finnish school a couple of days ago, so the feeling in the theatre (or actually, ice hockey rink transformed into an auditorium) was less than enthusiastic. Still, I wasn't alone. Maybe the kind people around me thought they can't let the silly-looking girl in a Mamma Mia! t-shirt completely embarrass herself.

Despite doing a standing ovation the first two times I saw a musical I was well aware it was not an usual custom in this part of the world. And when I saw my first non-jukebox musical, the one that made me a Broadway fan for life, the thought of rising from my seat never occurred to me. Never, even though I loved Cats almost more than my own mother. I clapped my hands sore and felt my heart leap when my recently found favourite actor came back onstage, but that was it.

A little later I left for my first trip to West End.
I was having a horrible day when I saw Wicked since we had just heard bad news from home. Maybe due to that, I didn't see anything special in the show. I was very bemused when everyone in the audience, even in the way back where I sat, jumped up from their seats the moment the final note of the show had stopped playing. I had seen The Phantom of the Opera just a day before and found it a lot better, but no one had stood up in the Dress Circle then. I, however, followed the current and rose on my feet. When in Rome, do as the Romans do.
The next day it was Les Misérables's turn. The effect of the bad news had vanished a little, and I was actually able to enjoy the show. When people in Stalls, where I happened to sit with my dad, started rising up and my dad whispered "should we stand up too?" to me, I was quick to say yes. It still felt very weird to me, since I had never seen that happen in Finland, but I was starting to like the custom.

Back home, I had time to see almost two dozen musicals before encountering my first Finnish standing ovation. I was absolutely certain Finns would never do it. We are famously shy, famously introverted... How could one of us ever make himself to stand up in a huge auditorium?

But in Wicked's premiere, the moment the final note had finished - again - two girls next to me and my friend stood up. Random thoughts of solidarity between musical fans shot through my brain and I knew I had to follow them. Maybe the rest of the audience would join us? It was the premiere, after all, and the show hadn't been half bad.
But nope. Me, my friend and the two girls to our left were the only ones standing during the curtain call in the great big theatre. It was only after Stephen Schwarz himself joined the cast onstage the rest of the audience felt it necessary to show some enthusiasm.
I felt kind of embarrassed. But maybe the actors appreciated our gesture. At least the girls next to us did, that's what I'm sure of.

Cue many less-than-excited curtain calls. Cue many shows I liked, cue many audiences that couldn't bring themselves to show that with me. Cue many hands clapped sore but no feet tired from standing.

Cue Les Misérables.

I went to see my favourite musical in in Turku, Finland, in Swedish. For the second time. Strangely enough, I hadn't thought that much of it the first time. It was good, that I was certain of. But brilliant? Well... Meh. It was a kind of a cloud between my ears. I know I had been there, but it still felt very unreal and I didn't remember a lot of it. Luckily I had gotten more tickets as a gift. Maybe second time would tell the truth?
It did.
By the very end, when everyone had taken their individual bow, I saw someone rising up in front of me. I jumped up the very second - and soon so did the entire audience. The miracle had happened. A Finnish (though, if you think with stereotypes, Fennoswedes may have a little less inhibitions on average than us Finnish-speaking Finns) audience had overcome their shyness. All thanks to my favourite musical - and a production of it that now, with no doubt, was my favourite too.
Ever since that I've seen two more standing ovations in Les Mis and one in RENT's Finnish premiere. Every time in Les Mis the standing ovation seems to occur earlier. The last one happened in between the actors leaving the stage and the extras coming to take the first bow! If we want to make it even better, I guess we have to rise at about when the final reprise of Do You Hear the People Sing begins...

I love standing ovations maybe more than anything else in theatre.
I love getting to show the actors how much I appreciate their job. I love for once being able to cheer, scream and clap all I want without getting one of those "shh, shuttup, we're in public and people are looking and you're sooo embarrassing, act your age" looks I know all too well. I love showing positive feelings without disdain, I love forgetting all worries and just feeling happy for a moment.

But it doesn't always work.
I saw Next to Normal the last Wednesday again. It was the last night of the spring. With Les Mis, the spring's last night was completely crazy - people actually banged their feet on the floor in the manner you do in concerts when you demand an encore. I know people in Helsinki sometimes think themselves a little cooler than people in the rest of Finland, but this cool...
It started like standing ovations do. Few people popped up, and so did I - solidarity between musical fans was again in my mind, not to mention I had truly liked the piece.
But in a few moments they started to sit back down again. Not even my friends, with whom I was in the theatre, rose up to support me. Suddenly I noticed I was one of the three people standing in the whole auditorium. And the two others were way nearer to the stage than me. I stuck out like a sore thumb and felt embarrassment creep down my spine.
But I didn't sit down. How could I? It's like saying to the cast that I suddenly stopped liking them. I hate when that happens, being in a space full of others and still being very, very alone, but I knew I was going to stand there for the rest of the night and even completely alone if I had to.

Despite some weird experiences, I always look forward to curtain calls, even though they mean the musical is over and my favourite tunes have been sung for that night.
If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands!

P.S. I apologise calling Next to Normal's Finnish translation tired earlier on. Hearing it again, I can say I've heard way more tired. N2N actually had a couple of very inventive moments.