Can ‘Les Mis’ transform from hit musical to movie?

Anne Hathaway as Fantine

If Cameron Mackintosh can pull it off, he certainly will have achieved the greatest marketing coup of this or any year in the movie business — a business that has, in America at least, sadly become almost all about marketing and little else.

We — along with surely hundreds of thousands of others in love with the film’s source material — will be watching with great interest to see if Mackintosh, perhaps the savviest marketer of live theater alive today,  can in fact transform his megahit stage musical “Les Miserables” into a widely popular movie masterpiece of the same magnitude.

The first real hint of how Mackintosh intends to market the film version of his hit show (still running in London more than 25 years on) to appeal to the mass movie audience came last week with the highly-buzzed-about release of the first 90-second trailer, more than six months before the film’s expected release on Dec. 14th.

The movie starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway is just completing location and soundstage lensing in England and France. That means the production team, headed by Academy Award-winning director Tom “The King’s Speech” Hooper, will have a relatively short window in which to complete what is bound to be a very complicated postproduction.

Marketing a basically inherently sad story

Huge Jackman stars as Jean ValjeanFor unlike most movie musicals, all the singing in “Les Mis” is being shot live on set — no little feat because “Les Mis,” unless it has been radically altered for its celluloid version, is primarily a sung-through show.  In most movie musicals, actors typically lip synch songs to a prerecorded soundtrack to ensure a quality product.

So how is Mackintosh whetting the mass audience’s appetite for this story that earned the none-too-appealing nickname “The Glums” soon after it first premiered on stage in London?  Even though he runs the real risk of alienating a large segment of  moviegoers, Mackintosh clearly is not shying away from  — not yet anyway — the inherent sadness in much of the show’s story line, based on the classic Victor Hugo novel.

Trailer injects a note of hope in basically sad story

Indeed, in this first trailer, Mackintosh has opted to feature Hathaway singing perhaps one of “Les Mis’s” most familiar, yet downbeat songs — “I Dreamed a Dream.” 

In the show that song is given to Fantine, a woman unlucky in love who is forced to sell her long hair and turn to prostitution to secure money to raise her illegitimate child Cosette.

Russell Crowe is Javert As we watch a swift montage of images from the film, we hear Hathaway’s rather plain and plaintive interpretation of the song, which ends most depressingly with the lyric “life has killed the dream I dreamed.” 

But as sad as Fantine’s song is, it is also clear Mackintosh is trying to inject a note of hope at the end of the movie trailer. It is there we see the familiar poster image of Cosette used to market the stage show ever since it first began in London, as well as the movie’s title and — at the very end — the line “The Dream Lives This Christmas.”  

That line, in its concise way, may be sufficient to telegraph to many viewers that there is emotional uplift in the story of “Les Mis” along with much that is sad, even tragic.

Challenge is to convince audiences of absorbing tale

The question now becomes, as the film’s release date draws nearer, whether Mackintosh and his marketing minions will be brave and bold enough to continue to emphasize the core truth that this isn’t one big musical joy ride, but rather an absorbing tale that reflects the reality of life with all of its potential for happiness and sorrow.

More than anything the challenge of marketing the movie of “Les Mis” probably resembles that of selling the recent film adaptation of  composer Stephen Sondheim’s grim musical tale  “Sweeney Todd,” which starred the popular actor Johnny Depp. 

Widely admired by many critics, “Sweeney” still never broke through at the movie box office. After all, how many of the masses really would want to devour a tale about a guy who kills folk and then, along with his accomplice, turns them into meat pies for sale?

Producer attempts to sell a palatable story

Though it is a much more well known product than “Sweeney,”  “Les Mis” may face similar obstacles, despite the allure of major talent like Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe.

Mackintosh’s own dream, no doubt, is to make “Les Mis” at least as successful in movie terms as it has been on the stage. 

Whether or not that dream comes true will depend, in the end, on whether the producer’s further marketing efforts can honestly position the film and the often painfully raw story and still make it a palatable buy for millions of moviegoers worldwide.

At this juncture, it certainly looks as if Mackintosh is making a real stab at doing both.

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