Sunday, January 13, 2013

Looks Versus Personality

This won't be exclusively about Les Mis, I promise. It's just the easiest example.

While counting days to the premiere, and again now when the Les Misérables movie has premiered in most countries (but not all, so shhh, don't spoil us still waiting), a certain theme has popped up in fan discussions.
"Cosette can't be a blonde because the book says so!"
"Javert must have sideburns because the book says so!"
"Fantine isn't a brunette because the book says so!"
To some people, Victor Hugo's descriptions of the characters are of utmost importance so these arguments appear no matter which production the discussion is about. After the 25th Anniversary Concert, there were complaints that ranged from casting a person of the wrong skin colour as Javert to dying Ramin Karimloo's hair blonde because the book says so!! I wasn't yet old enough to discuss Les Mis at the time of the 10th Anniversary Concert, but I wouldn't be surprised to hear people argued about the importance of having a blonde Enjolras back then, too.

A Javert I like

This can be a problem with other book-based musicals, too, but I think Les Mis is the best example. The other really famous book-based show is of course Phantom of the Opera – but it's obvious you can't remove the Phantom's nose onstage, so you'll accept that the visuals differ from the book. In Les Mis, then, nothing but the designer's vision is stopping them giving sideburns to all Javerts. I guess it's easier to complain about that.

Personally, I have difficulty seeing why a character's looks meeting the book equivalent is so important to some. Let Javert have a beard like Santa Claus if he can act the part! My opinion about character looks is the same as my opinion about non-replica productions: the more different versions the merrier! But I don't mean to say I never get distracted by an actor's looks. This is usually when it comes to age. When I see a way too old or young person cast in some part, I have to suspend my disbelief more than when encountered with a brunette Fantine.

It's easier to make someone look older via theatre magic, so I don't think casting too young people is a really big problem. Sometimes it might be a bit silly. If you have for example a very young Valjean or Javert it might look a bit comical, like boys dressing up in grownup clothes. But it's still less notable than casting people who are too old. Too bad it seems the latter happens around here a bit more often...

A Cosette I like

Usually, I can suspend my disbelief, but it gets harder when the cast's ages clearly clash. Here, I have to use Samuel Harjanne and Tomi Metsäketo as Enjolras and Marius, in the Åbo Svenska Teater and upcoming Tampereen Teatteri productions, as an example. On their own, you can imagine the both playing the parts. Sure, Metsäketo is getting a bit too old for Marius, but you can ignore that. But when you see them onstage together, boom. Suddenly you notice that there's a notable age gap, that they don't seem members of the same group. I think wrong ages are less distracting if everyone in the cast, or at least the roles who interact the most with each other, are casted in a similar manner: everyone's either too young or too old or, preferably, the correct age. However, things like this aren't enough to stop me enjoying any show. They might be jarring, but I've never hated a production because the cast is the wrong age.

And overall, I try my best to ignore the ages. I guess acting is a rather cruel profession since there are so many things you can't change that can stop you getting a part – vocal range, age, even your looks... So if everything else but the age is perfect, if someone knows how to perform the part, I'll certainly rather watch them than someone who's lacking in the acting or singing departments. I could name a dozen performances where I initially thought that wow, they look completely wrong for this, but ended up applausing until my hands hurt.

Not to mention that sometimes it's good to have your pre-existing expectations twisted. Take Tanz der Vampire's Herbert, for example. Before the Finnish production, fans were used to a fairy-like Prince Charming reincarnated as a vampire. We all remember what Seinäjoen kaupunginteatteri gave us.

A Herbert I like, with his lunch

There are people, especially international fans, who had really strong opinions about this. There was some discussion even in this blog's comments. Some fans just weren't able to wrap their heads around this tall, robust guy as Herbert. However, it seems most people who actually saw the Seinäjoki production absolutely loved Jouko Enkelnotko in the role. Some think the chance in the looks made the character even better than the previous versions had been. To think that if hardcore fans had been in charge of the casting, this well-loved performance might not have happened!

So, in the light of this all... Even if it's sometimes jarring, I'm glad looks are sometimes ignored while casting musicals, or people who you initially couldn't imagine in the role looks-wise are chosen. Looks are of course a big part of each character, but if you stick to them too much, you might miss some unexpectedly awesome performances and interesting changes. I guess that's worth having to suspend your disbelief sometimes.

And when it comes to the brunette versus blonde Cosette or whoever thing... If someone's able to explain it to me in the comments how exactly changing the hair colour destroys the character Victor Hugo originally envisioned, or the performance in the musical, go for it. I'm all ears.

Photos by Malin Arnesson, Nana Simelius and Ari Ijäs. 


  1. Ditto, amen and so on. If hardcore fans could decide, we'd still be watching Michael Crawford as the Phantom because no one else were allowed to play the role. Because nothing can ever change. Because a changed something might turn out to be different or even better than something they currently love. Because there is only one way to do something and the creators / cast members are gods who should not be questioned by even suggesting that another options exist. A different colour or looks or vest is a blasphemy. It sometimes seems that in the German Tanz der Vampire for example Alfred's cloned looks is actually more important than the actor's ability to sing or act.

    I fangirl these posts of yours. You have several times saved me the trouble of writing a lengthy comment on some theme because you say all I'd say, too.

    1. Someone fangirls my posts? Heh, I don't think anyone's ever said that before, so I guess I'm a bit flattered. :D

      But yep... There's a nice article I just read, by Rebecca Caine, the original London Cosette: – "We watched initially as we were cloned around the world; as people wore wigs of our hair colour, did the moves and notes we had improvised--" – just wow. It's so weird to think that in these mega musicals they still do certain things simply because the first person in the role happened to come up with them, or look a certain way. Whoa. (I hear every Jean Valjean everywhere has a beard because Colm Wilkinson refused to shave his for the premiere.)

    2. Thanks for the link! Interesting. I hate it when every movement and detail gets cemented from here to eternity, and it must be so weird for the actors when some hand move originates from them discreetly fixing their hair or trying to kill a fly.