Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Book Versus Musical

This is a companion article to my previous rant about the importance of actors' looks in musical. I swear this applies to other shows than Les Mis. It's just, again, the easiest example for me to use.

I've been thinking about musicals based on something for quite a while. When you've doing a show that's based on a book or a movie, how much do you owe to the original? I discussed the looks of the characters already, but how about the personalities? Should your characters act like the original author wrote them, or do you, as a director or an actor, have the right to twist them to suit what you think serves the musical the best? Can you come up with your own backstory and ignore the source material?

Let's talk about Enjolras.

You know the guy.

I think Enjolras is one of the best exaples for this. Sometimes it's almost impossible to make the character in the musical to match the character in the source material (case in point: Wicked the musical vs. Wicked the book). But when it comes to Enjolras... There's room for interpretation since there's hardly anything about him in the stage show. We know he leads a revolution, we know he doesn't much care about Marius's lonely soul, and that's about it. The details in between can be done in a multitude of ways. You can take your inspiration from the book or come up with your own version.

There seems to be something of a consensus in the Les Misérables fandom that, when it comes to Enjolrati, David Thaxton is the best. It's been said over and over again how his Enjolras was as close to the guy from the book as possible. Personally, I can't comment – though I saw Thaxton live, I don't remember him, and I'm afraid I don't care quite enough to find out what he was like to watch any shaky bootleg. But I guess I'm lucky the first Enjolras I saw onstage was so well-liked, even though I can't remember details anymore.

Thaxton is by no means the only popular one, each Enjy has his fans. Some judge Enjolrati by qualities like voice and stage presence. But there's also always criticism based on a performance clashing with the book. Ramin Karimloo crossing himself in the 25th Ann. Concert, for example? Heresy! Even though majority of Les Mis fans are open for all sorts of interpretations, there are the people who prefer the stage actors to draw their inspiration from the book only.

An example of Enjolras

I'm not saying wanting to see the book onstage is a bad thing, not at all. But here's something I've been thinking about: how about if someone sees an Enjolras (especially from this point on, feel free to replace the word Enjolras with any musical character that's based on, well, something) that's nothing like the character in the book – and loves the interpretation? What if, to them, Enjolras is the guy they saw onstage and they don't care what the book says? Is their love for the character any less valid if the performance they love deviates from whatever is the source material?

There are two schools of thought when it comes to this, I guess. One would say that the guy giving the non-book-accurate performance should be locked away, since he's making new fans believe Enjolras is something he really isn't. The other would go meh, who cares, to each their own.

Personally, I think that's the beauty of theatre, in a way. On one hand, you have the same characters in each production of the same show. On the other, you get to see a different side of the character each time. Even though it's fantastic to see someone who acts like they leaped straight out of a classic piece of literature, would that be so special if every single performance was like that? And how about if someone can bring something to a role that's not in the book but enriches the musical?

I usually use book-accurate as a positive expression whenever reviewing shows. That's because I think it shows something: the actor cared enough about their role to research it thoroughly. That's not to say I can't love a performance by someone who hasn't read the book or doesn't show it. It just means I tend to respect those who decide to take the extra trouble a little bit more.

Another example of Enjolras

But still, when it comes to the person who loved the non-book-accurate performance – in a way, I think they're richer than a person who has only seen a performance that matches the source material (or a performance that's practically identical to some other actor's, for that matter). Maybe they can check out the source material for themselves and find out about the so-called original version. Then they already know two takes of the same thing. Maybe the different take helps them to understand the original version better, or maybe seeing the original enforces their love for the different?

Back to Enjolras. This all is not to say I enjoy all sorts of Enjolrati personally. (I'm not that fond of the angry ones.) It's not to say anyone should. It's not to say, even, that I have never used the phrase "but you can't like that, it's not book-accurate!"... But nowadays, I think matching the source material isn't the only route to a good performance. Knowing it inside out and showing that in one's performance is a nice easter egg for the fans – but I think the most important thing for a performance is to make sense in the musical's universe. It may result to lovely ah! It can also be done like that! moments. It might even result making the character more interesting.

We're back to the replica musical argument again, so I better shut up before I sound too much like a broken record. As a partially unrelated finale, let's have a minute's silence for all those long-running shows where the new cast members are still required to copy the exact hand movements of the original cast.

Photos by Robert Seger or scanned from programmes.
Other similar rants: non-replica productions, looks.
Book Enjy wouldn't wear the vest.


  1. Thanks for the interesting read! I agree with a lot of your points but it doesn't have to be between "makes sense in the musical" and "is book-accurate". You can achieve both. Some portrayals that are popular within the fandom for book-accuracy have managed to thrill normal audiences, too.

    1. Hi, and thanks for your comment!

      Of course it doesn't have to be one of those two extremes – I just meant to point out that sometimes, it may be. But nothing better than a performance both newcomers and hardcore fans can enjoy!

  2. let's have a minute's silence for all those long-running shows where the new cast members are still required to copy the exact hand movements of the original cast.

    This part, it's pure beauty.

    Needless to say, I agree with your text. Variety FTW!