Sir Mix-A-Lot: Interview with Oscar-winning sound mixer Andy Nelson

By Jedd Jong

Filmmakers strive to create an immersive experience, to give viewers a chance to step into carefully crafted realities that they can get lost in. Whether it’s an alien world, a distant period in history or a dizzying musical fantasy-scape, sound is an element that is often overlooked in creating this immersion. Every film crew includes sound recordists, designers, mixers, composers and editors who ensure that the audience hears exactly what they should.

Andy Nelson is a re-recording mixer with over four decades of experience under his belt. Growing up in London, Nelson’s career in the industry began at age 16, when he was a projectionist at a local cinema. He then moved into sound mixing for TV and movies, working on films like Schindler’s List, The Thin Red Line, X-Men, Moulin Rouge!, Star Trek (2009), Les Misérables and Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Nelson has garnered a staggering 21 Oscar nominations, and won for Saving Private Ryan and Les Misérables. At the 88th Academy Awards, Nelson was nominated for two separate films in the same year, Bridge of Spies and The Force Awakens. He has mixed for directors including Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Stanley Kubrick, J.J. Abrams and Terence Malick.

Nelson was in Singapore as one of the invited guests of the Disney Storytelling+ Bootcamp, joining others who have worked behind-the-scenes in film and television to share their expertise with a new generation of filmmakers and storytellers. Nelson spoke about an emotional moment he experienced working on Schindler’s List, how different musicals require varying approaches to sound mixing, the differences between John Williams and Hans Zimmer’s methods of film scoring and his work on Spielberg’s upcoming West Side Story.

JEDD: You have an illustrious list of credits. To the average moviegoer, they think of “sound” as just one element, but there are so many categories within that. There’s music, Foley, sound design, re-recording, sound mixing, ADR. Can you break it down for us and take us through what your job entails?

ANDY NELSON: I normally work with a partner. I handled all the music and the dialogue myself, and the other mixer handles the sound effects, but between us, we have to craft the tracks. I usually start with the dialogue and I try and make sure everything is perfectly clear and clean and the best it can be from the performance point of view, then I usually craft the music into that. When the composer’s written all the score, you assume you’re going to need all the music that’s been written, then we put the sound effects into that.

Then, once all the components are in, a little bit like a recipe, then we start to blend it and mix it together and pick our moments through each scene. Is this a strong sound effects moment? Is this a strong music moment? Should there be any sound at all? Silence is pretty powerful as well. We work in tandem, obviously with the director all the time, to design the track the way he or she wants it to be.

From left: Ron Judkins, Andy Nelson, Steven Spielberg, Bradley Cooper, Mark Ulano and Gary Rydstrom at the 2019 Cinema Audio Society Awards

Many elements of filmmaking require a balance of creativity and technical mastery. How do you achieve that balance with regards to sound mixing? 

NELSON: The way I approach it is I have to know what I’m doing from a technical standpoint, but I never want to let that get in the way of telling the story. Sometimes you just do something that maybe technically isn’t the right thing to do, but if it works, it works. One of the things you have to do as the mixer when you create the final soundtrack is you have to create a trust between you and the director, because they’re putting their baby into your hands, essentially. One of the things I’ve never wanted to do is let the technology get in the way, or make them feel that I would say “no, we can’t do that because…” I treat it much more as a creative process for that reason.

Avatar

Over the years, you’ve worked with directors including Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, JJ Abrams, Terence Malick and Stanley Kubrick. How much are directors typically involved in the process of sound design, mixing and re-recording?

NELSON: Oh, heavily, very heavily. Somebody like Jim Cameron on Avatar, he would allow us to do our pass and get us into shape, but then when he came in and sat down and wanted to start, then we would roll our sleeves up and get to work. He would be very pinpoint precision, laser-sharp about what should happen at this moment, how that sound should be at that moment. With Steven, I’ve done 18 films with Steven so we have shorthand between us that’s pretty good nowadays. I get a first pass at the entire movie and then he’ll come and sit with me and we’ll work through it together.

Schindler’s List

As a fanboy, I have to ask, do you have any memorable Steven Spielberg stories? 

NELSON: Gosh. I’ll tell you a story about when I was working on a scene on Schindler’s List, a very complicated scene we were doing. I played it to him and I finished playing and I put the lights up. He was sitting right next to me. He had tears rolling down his face and he said “I don’t know what I would do to change this, so let’s move on.” It was a very important moment for me because it told me so much about him as a director. It wasn’t that I had done an incredible sound mix or anything, it was just that the scene was working and as a director, that’s all he wants, for the scene to work the way he imagines. For me, that’s a master storyteller at work. As a director, he could’ve said “let’s go through it again ten more times or 50 more times,” but he was so precise in what he wanted and it achieved what he wanted on an emotional level. I’ll never forget it. It was only my second film with him. I’m going to be doing West Side Story with him next year; that will be my 19th film. I hope it continues.

Steve Pederson, Steven Spielberg, Michael Kahn, Andy Nelson and Scott Millan, on the mixing stage for Schindler’s List

I think it was Marco Beltrami who said “befriend the sound mixer so music gets placed louder in the mix than sound effects.” What is it like determining what gets priority in the mix; who decides that? 

NELSON: We all kind of chip in, really. I’m handling the music physically myself, I happen to love music, it’s one of the reasons I got into it in the first place, was falling in love with what music does to visuals, it just took me to places in my mind and it still does today. I’m a defender of music, but I feel that music is overused in movies nowadays. I think that sometimes there’s too much score – I’m the first to put my hand up and suggest “Do we need it here? Is it coming in at the right point emotionally? Does it connect with the story correctly?” I’m definitely always trying to advocate to make the music work, but I’d be the first to say if it’s not working, we shouldn’t be using it.

Leading on from that, I wanted to talk specifically about musicals. You worked on Moulin Rouge!, Les Misérables, La La Land and you’re going to be working on West Side Story. Each of those movies is quite different from the others, even though they’re all musicals. What was the approach to the sound of Moulin Rouge!, Les Misérables and La La Land

Moulin Rouge!

NELSON: They were all completely different. First of all, Moulin Rouge!, you’re dealing with Baz Luhrmann. Baz Luhrmann is the most incredible creative director you could imagine. He spins with ideas constantly. His films are so richly layered that it took us weeks just to dig through and find all the little moments that worked in the way he wanted to tell that story. It was an incredibly complicated soundtrack to mix.

Les Misérables

Jump forward to Les Misérables, that was a completely revolutionary film in the sense that they recorded everything live. That took a tremendous amount of organisation. Tom Hooper started talking to me months before they started shooting about the approach and how we’d have to paint microphones out digitally and how the set had to be much quieter than normal because you had to protect the vocal. All we were relying on was the best vocal we could get.

La La Land

La La Land was a mixture of the two, oddly enough. There were some live moments in La La Land, particularly the Audition piece at the end, which was all live, little bits of the duet on the hill were live. There were also big playback moments – you can’t really do live recording if there’s a lot of instance, for instance. With Les Misérables there was no dancing, so it could be live. La La Land was a little bit of both, and I thought it worked really well for that reason.

West Side Story (2020)

With West Side Story, there has been an earlier film adaptation of that musical. How much will your approach to the sound be influenced by that? 

NELSON: I think Steven wants a different sort of style and a different take. It’s obviously the classic music with Leonard Bernstein’s score, it’s exactly the same songs, but he’s going to approach it in a different sort of style altogether. I can’t really speak to it because they’re right in the middle of shooting, I haven’t really seen anything of it yet. There may be some live recording; we’ll see.

Gary Rydstrom, Gary Summers, presenter Anjelica Huston, Andy Nelson and Ronald Judkins at the Oscars in 1999

There are hundreds, sometimes thousands of people who work on a given movie. To a certain extent, your contributions to a film might be considered less “visible” than say that of an actor or a director, but you are doing crucial work and you have been recognized for it. What are your thoughts on the concept of recognition within the industry, and what do you feel gives you validation and satisfaction in your work? 

NELSON: Look, anything that you get an accolade for is always a real treat; I don’t take it for granted in the slightest. I think what I’ve always tried to do is value the relationship I’ve created over the years with directors and composers, because I’m very close with people like John Williams and Hans Zimmer, I’ve worked on many, many different films with them all. Those relationships to me are the most satisfying thing. If a film happens to get some accolades on top of that, then we all celebrate, but the work is the most important thing. The sense of accomplishment when we seem to pull something off, that’s the satisfaction for me, not the awards.

Andy Nelson and John Williams at the 2014 CAS Awards

Speaking of composers like John Williams and Hans Zimmer, what is the process of working with them like, and what are some of the differences that you’ve seen between the way different composers work? How do you accommodate that in your mixing? 

NELSON: Well, if you take John Williams, John Williams has a very classic style of writing and he is much more about the performance of the orchestra and tends to want the orchestra to play together, because that’s where he feels the cohesion happen between the players.

Does he still mostly conduct himself? 

NELSON: He does whenever possible, yes, absolutely – and the orchestra loves it, you can tell.

It’s a thrill.

NELSON: It’s a thrill. With somebody like Hans, he’ll approach it differently where he’ll record the strings, then record the brass, then we blend them together afterwards. There’s good and bad in both of those [approaches]. The good part is I have more control, but the bad part is they’re not playing as cohesively as if they were all playing in one go, so you win some and you lose some. It’s just different approaches. With someone like Hans of course, he wants to layer in his synthetic sounds with it, the Hans Zimmer sound, which is often string samples that go with the real strings, whereas someone like John would rely more on the real strings only.

Was there a particular film (or films) that you watched as a kid that make you first sit up and take notice of that film’s use of sound? 

NELSON: Funnily enough, the first film I was ever taken to as a kid was West Side Story.

Full circle!

NELSON: Very much full circle. I can’t say I sat up and took notice of it at the time, but I think I was aware of it more and more. When I started working at a cinema at the age of 16, the first film I learned to throw on the projector was actually Midnight Cowboy, and I remember thinking how great the sound was in that, how great John Barry’s score was. I became very aware, and I started collecting soundtrack albums at that age just to take home and listen to because I just fell in love with cinema music, without even knowing I’d be handling any of it to come, because at that point I didn’t know what my career was going to be like at all. Easy Rider was playing at the same time as Midnight Cowboy; another fantastic soundtrack.

What a moment that was!

NELSON: It was a great moment. The James Bond movies, you know. Music in film has always transported me, as a kid right up to today. When the lights go down and the music plays, I’m in another land. I’m in heaven. [Chuckles]

With Jerry Goldsmith, I’ve never seen a single episode of Star Trek Voyager, I heard the Voyager theme and started crying. He has that power.

L.A. Confidential

NELSON: Jerry is great. I worked with him once on L.A. Confidential, which was a terrific film Curtis Hanson made. I loved Jerry, yeah, never got to work on any of the big shows with him before he passed away, sadly, but what a talent.

What are some of the most cherished memories in your professional life that you find yourself revisiting? 

NELSON: I honestly can’t tell you that there’s one; I tend to categorise them in different ways. To this day, the smile on my face when I first ran The Force Awakens with J.J., just because I felt he’d gone back to…tapped into the real magic of what Star Wars was, I’ll never forget that moment. I had a smile on my face through the whole time we worked on that movie. Can’t wait to see the new one.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Did you work on the new one?

NELSON: I haven’t started it yet, but I am going to do the new one. Probably in about a week’s time I’ll be starting.

Exciting!

NELSON: Yeah, I’m looking forward to it.

The Thin Red Line

Avatar was obviously fantastic, very challenging for me. A lot of Steven’s films, just because he’s such a master filmmaker, obviously. Terry Malick, Thin Red Line, another good one. I could go on and on. They’re like favourite kids, what’s your favourite child? You can’t say. [Chuckles]

Finally, you have won and been nominated for many awards and have attended awards shows including the Oscars and the BAFTAs. Do you have an awards show story you’d like to tell?

NELSON: I mean, getting up on stage and having to accept the award for Les Mis, I’d never wanted to stand up on that stage and speak because I was terrified at the thought of that. We’d made an agreement that if win [the BAFTA], one person would speak in London, and if we were lucky enough to go to the Oscars, I would speak for that. I said “we’ll never be there”.

Simon Hayes, Mark Paterson and Andy Nelson at the Oscars in 2013

You thought you were safe.

NELSON: I agreed to it and I wasn’t safe. I had to stand up. That was in itself extraordinarily terrifying because there’s nothing quite like that moment. Then we celebrated a lot afterwards, so that’s good [chuckles].

Les Misérables Musical Review

For F*** Magazine

LES MISÉRABLES

Cast : Simon Gleeson, Earl Carpenter, Chris Durling, Patrice Tipoki, Kerrie Anne Greenland, Emily Langridge, Paul Wilkins
Run Time : 2 hrs 55 mins (With 20 mins interval)
Runs : 31 May to 24th July 2016 at Esplanade Theatre

When one thinks of juggernaut musical theatre extravaganzas, the show that immediately comes to mind (apart from the one about a disfigured genius who kills a bunch of people in an opera house) is Les Misérables. Based on Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel, considered to be one of the greatest works of 19thCentury literature, the musical was composed by Claude-Michel Schönberg, with French-language lyrics by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel. After becoming a hit in Paris, an English-language version with lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer premiered on the West End in 1985 at the Barbican Theatre. Weathering some nasty reviews from the British press, the show has gone on to be a worldwide sensation, with touring productions, translations into multiple languages, anniversary gala concerts and a 2012 Oscar-winning film adaptation. Touring productions have previously visited Singapore in 1994 and 1996.
            It is 1815, and Jean Valjean is a convict who was sentenced for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s dying son. Valjean breaks parole to start a new life, eluding the capture of Inspector Javert. Following an encounter with a gracious bishop, Valjean reinvents himself as “Monsieur Madeleine”, eventually becoming the mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer and a factory owner. Factory worker Fantine gets fired and is forced into prostitution. As she lies dying, Valjean vows to care for Fantine’s daughter Cosette. He rescues Cosette from the cruel innkeeper Thénardier and his wife. Years later, Cosette meets and falls in love with Marius, a dashing young student drawn into a rebellion led by the passionate Enjolras. In the meantime, Thénardier’s daughter Éponine pines for Marius but goes unnoticed. Through all this, Javert continues his relentless pursuit of Valjean, whom he sees as no more than “Prisoner 24601”.
            The show has such an in-built following that one has to remember that for audiences who have had no prior exposure to the story in any form, there’s some legwork to be done. While the lush score and exceedingly memorable songs do sweep one up, it’s clear that even at a running time of 3 hours (including intermission), the story has been greatly truncated. There are two major time skips: the story begins in 1815, then skips to 1823, and then further ahead to 1832. Characters reunite out of what seems like sheer convenience –Thénardier even references the serendipity that fuels the plot with the line “Ain’t the world a remarkable place?”. The bulk of the story is set against the 1832 June Rebellion in Paris, but even given spirited speeches from student revolutionary Enjolras, we don’t get all that clear of an idea what exactly they’re rebelling against, apart from vague injustice.
            That said, this is still a show with tremendous emotional impact, enhanced by big-budget spectacle. This new production, patterned after the 25th anniversary reworking of the show, features set designs by Matt Kinley, inspired by the original paintings of Victor Hugo. Hugo’s paintings are also worked into the projected backdrops. The multimedia effects include splashing water projected onto the scrim in front of the chain gang rowing away in the galley, as well as 3D animation of the cavernous sewers through which Valjean carries Marius. It’s a tiny bit tacky. The set is detailed and elaborate, with hinged flats swinging open to let in shafts of light; Paule Constable’s lighting design always dramatic. The askew back-alleys do look authentic enough, though the stage does often seem cluttered because so much is going on at once. Fans of the original staging might find themselves missing that turntable once the barricade goes up or pining for the way the sewer scene was originally lit, but there’s still no shortage of awe-inspiring visual splendour in this staging. Also, those gunshot effects are wont to give everyone in the first five rows mild tinnitus.
            Simon Gleeson’s Valjean is a man who begins as violent and bitter, and through his quest for redemption, never completely shakes that. It’s an interpretation that this reviewer found quite compelling, as Gleeson constantly reminds us that the feral beast with nigh-superhuman strength has never really gone away, and that Valjean is a man who has never been at peace with himself. While he delivers Valjean’s Soliloquy with great conviction, Gleeson has a tendency to go a little shouty during the opening act. His take on Bring Him Home, typically thought of as a tender song, is a little angrier than fans might be used to, but it does work with Gleeson’s characterisation of Valjean. Gleeson has, quite touchingly, said that the moment in each performance he most looks forward to is when Valjean meets little Cosette for the first time. One does get the sense that Valjean is valiantly trying to better himself for the sake of his adopted daughter, and the conclusion of Valjean’s odyssey is both satisfying and heart-rending.
            Earl Carpenter reprises the role he’s played on the West End and in other touring productions, the antagonist Javert. The character is driven by a singular obsession and is unwavering in his hunt for the fugitive who has eluded his capture, so it is easy to make him a moustache-twirling villain. Carpenter stays a safe distance away from that, but his Javert is still easy to root against. The superciliousness and condescension that are vital components of the character are very much present in Carpenter’s interpretation, and the actor’s imposing physical stature certainly helps. His take on Javert’s signature tune Stars is a genuine show-stopper and is one of the best renditions this reviewer has heard.
            Patrice Tipoki’s Fantine is perfectly serviceable and her rendition of the iconic song I Dreamed a Dream is a decent one, but she ultimately doesn’t plumb the depths of the character’s tragedy, failing to make enough of an impact in her limited time on stage. Incidentally, her sister Laura is the conductor and musical director for this production.
Both Paul Wilkins and Emily Langridge are expectedly pretty in appearance and vocals as Marius and Cosette respectively. The “love at first sight” arc, complete with a meet cute in the town square, will set more than a few eyes rolling.
Enter the hypotenuse in our love triangle, everyone’s favourite character Éponine. Kerrie Anne Greenland is plucky and feisty, but is also capable of becoming heart-achingly vulnerable during On My Own and A Little Fall of Rain. Her Australian accent creeps in quite often (listen out for how Greenland sings the word “only”), but it actually adds to ‘Ponine’s charm. She might just be this reviewer’s favourite performer in the show.
            The designated scene-stealers, Mr. and Mme. Thénardier, played by Cameron Blakely and Helen Walsh respectively, with great aplomb. The characters provide much of the comic relief in a relatively downbeat show (it’s there in the title), but also have to possess actual malice and make the audience’s skin crawl. Some of the slapstick in Master of the House is a little too silly, but an elaborate gag involving a blind traveller and his pet bird is downright hilarious. We have to laugh at the Thénardiers and also find them utterly despicable; Blakely and Walsh have got all the bases covered. Over at the barricade, Chris Durling imbues Enjolras with great vigour, but did go off-key a few times while issuing his calls to arms.
            Because of the nature of the 1900-page (in the original French) source novel, Les Misérables might not be a work that’s readily understandable in full, but it is a musical that is easy to connect with. The stirring music, powerful characters and dazzling eye candy stagecraft all make for a thrilling night at the theatre. Despite the long running time, there’s nary a dull moment in this show rife with incident. Rather than pulling one out of it completely, the moments of melodramatics and overall lack of subtlety add considerably to the charm of the show. Those attached to the original staging might bemoan what seems like change for change’s sake, but if you’re experiencing the show for the first time, it will be difficult to resist.
Summary: The storytelling is hampered by various practical limitations and some of the changes in this new production are unnecessary, but there’s no denying that this beloved musical remains a visual and aural treat, with powerful performers leading the cast.
 
RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars
 
Jedd Jong
Photos by Matthew Murphy, courtesy of MediaCorp VizPro International

Join the Upri-sing: Les Misérables Singapore press call

For F*** Magazine

JOIN THE UPRI-SING
F*** Magazine peeks behind the barricade at the Les Misérables press call
By Jedd Jong
It has been 22 years since the barricades arose at the Kallang Theatre, when the blockbuster musical Les Misérables first arrived in Singapore. Arguably the best-known adaptation of Victor Hugo’s landmark 1862 historical novel, the story is predominantly set against the backdrop of 1832 June Rebellion in Paris. Composer Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyricists Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel’s original French-language musical debuted in 1980, with the English adaptation featuring Herbert Kretzmer’s lyrics opening in 1985. Les Misérables has since become the longest-running musical on the West End, and has celebrated its milestones with all-star anniversary concerts. A feature film adaptation of the musical was released in 2012, winning three Oscars.
On Thursday morning, F*** was in attendance at the Esplanade Theatre as a press preview was staged, followed by interviews with the cast and crew. This production is at the tail-end of a two-year tour, which began in Australia and is fresh off their Philippines leg. This staging is different from how fans of the original might remember it; the show was reworked for its 25th anniversary with new set designs and a re-orchestrated score. While iconic elements like the turntable and the barricade set that splits in half have been excised, Matt Kinley’s set design takes inspiration from the paintings of author Hugo, who was also an accomplished visual artist. The paintings, projected onto the backdrop, further enrich the depiction of 19th Century France.
“We’re getting older, but it looks like the show is never aging, and is [in fact] getting kind of younger,” Boublil said. “All the people who play in the show now were not born when Claude-Michel and I were writing it!” Boublil told us about the process of adapting the 1500-page book into a musical. When it debuted in 1985, the English-language version was four hours long; this has now been whittled down to around three hours. Boublil stated that the novel is required reading in most French schools, “but you don’t understand it – you know it’s about injustice, but apart from that, you don’t get the heart and soul of it.”
Boublil is of the opinion that not everything makes a good musical, and described how he and Schönberg were convinced of Les Misérables’ potential. “Many of them are musicalized in an opportunistic way, or they don’t last,” he said of other source material. When asked whether or not he remembers the feeling of first seeing the musical on stage, Boublil replied “I remember it very well.” On the cast of the original West End production, which included such luminaries as Colm Wilkinson, Frances Ruffelle and Patti Lupone, Boublil commented “We had the crème de la crème of musical theatre, but we didn’t know it yet! We didn’t know that they would each become a star in his or her own right.” It might be hard to imagine now, but the show opened to scathing reviews on the West End. Boublil remembered a headline in an English daily which read “What can be worse than a bad musical? A French musical.” “That day was like a death sentence is ringing,” he recalled, thinking that the show would surely close inside of a month after those notices. “To my amazement and pride, it has become the world’s longest-running musical,” he said.
The lead role of Jean Valjean is played by Australian actor Simon Gleeson, who won a Helpmann award for the role. The character, an escaped convict who embarks on a journey of redemption, is one of the most prominent roles in musical theatre. When asked what aspect of Valjean he most connected with, Gleeson answered “My job is to connect with all of them. The frustration that he feels at the start, the anger that he feels towards the world at the start, the joy he gets when he meets little Cosette, I connect with all of them.”
The part Gleeson most looks forward to during each performance might surprise audiences, since it isn’t the grand solos like Valjean’s Soliloquy or Bring Him Home. “It’s meeting little Cosette. Meeting the little girl is the first time the character gets to smile. It’s the first time he goes ‘I can live for something now’.” He had quite the heart-warming story to relate about his daughter. “When I first was rehearsing for the audition years ago, I would sing Bring Him Home in the house and she actually said ‘I forbid you to sing in the house’.” Gleeson related to us. “I didn’t realise it was because she would go to her room and cry, because she locked on to the fact that something was wrong, that I wasn’t happy, that I was in pain and something was going on and she couldn’t comprehend it, she understood just from the music alone.” His son’s reaction after watching the show was a little less complicated. “He just liked the guns,” Gleeson chuckled.
Gleeson played Raoul in Love Never Dies, the sequel to Phantom of the Opera. “The role I played was a horrible man – alcoholic, abusive, he was a terrible father, he was all the things that Jean Valjean isn’t,” Gleeson remarked, admitting “I had such a good time! It was really great.” Gleeson said the music plays an enormous part in helping him get into character. “The music is so evocative that you can’t helped but be seduced into where you need to be. Good luck if you can resist, you’d be a fool to try.” Gleeson worked briefly with Hugh Jackman, who played Valjean in the 2012 film. “He actually said to me ‘I don’t know how you do it eight times a week,’” Gleeson revealed. Gleeson said that, “frustratingly” enough, Jackman lives up to his reputation as being an affable person. He’s so generous and an incredibly talented guy, I can’t speak highly enough about Hugh.”
Valjean’s arch-nemesis Inspector Javert, a dogged police officer who pursues the fugitive over the course of almost two decades, is played by Earl Carpenter. The English actor has played Javert on Broadway and the title role in The Phantom of the Opera on the West End. He also performed in the 25thanniversary concerts of both shows. “Everyone says he is a bad guy! Not at all!” Carpenter insisted, describing Javert as “a robust individual that knows one thing, which is his belief in the law”. “At that last moment, you see something very different happen to him, which is the fact that somebody has knocked his beliefs off the track and there’s no other way for him to deal with it, he doesn’t have the capacity to deal with it,” Carpenter said of Javert, who is ultimately undone by his own unwillingness to see Valjean as anything other than a criminal. Recalling his first time seeing the show at age 21, Carpenter said “it was just incredible to see something so epic but live, rather than seeing it on the screen, it was extraordinary.”
On Russell Crowe’s much-maligned portrayal of Javert in the 2012 film version, Carpenter pragmatically stated “There’s a reason for everything. Everybody makes decisions. That film had to appeal to a massive audience and to do that, maybe just Les Mis as a musical, wasn’t going to be enough to sell the film. It’s incredibly expensive to put a film on these days.” Coming to Crowe’s defence, Carpenter said “I know he confessed to being very nervous, in front of musical theatre singers. It was an incredibly scary time for him.” Carpenter shared that he thought that “there were moments of Russell’s character that were just absolutely spot on. His persona, for that role, was great.” Quite graciously, he added “there could be people who probably don’t like my singing, it doesn’t matter.”
Central to the story is the love triangle between Valjean’s adoptive daughter Cosette, the dashing, rich young Marius and Éponine, whose parents mistreated Cosette when she was in their care. Emily Langridge plays Cosette, Paul Wilkins plays Marius and Kerrie Anne Greenland plays Éponine. Most fans gravitate to the character of Éponine, who is placed squarely in the ‘friendzone’ by Marius. “Actually, the funny thing is that especially in the rehearsal room, I get to see a lot more of A Heart Full Of Love, where Cosette and Marius finally get to really see each other for the first time, and it’s so beautiful,” Kerrie admitted. “I know I’m Éponine, but it’s really awesome what they’ve got going on!”
“I think it’s hard for Cosette because she actually has gone through a lot,” Langridge said. “We see Cosette as a child and we see Éponine as a child and their roles really swap when they’re older. I think they’re really similar. Maybe if Éponine didn’t die, then they would be friends.”
Commenting on the perceived obtuseness displayed by Marius in his interactions with Éponine, Wilkins said “I think that comes with the territory of young love and experiencing it for the first time and kind of not knowing the signs.” He related a story from his own youth: “When I was in primary school, a girl used to kick me under the table in music. She kicked me, and I thought she hated me – little did I know, months later, that she really, really fancied me!”
Greenland added that Éponine might have stood a chance “if she had a bath”.
The actors spoke of going back to the source material, since much of the material was cut down in the adaptation process. “Cosette as a character has so much description in the book and in so much detail, where in the musical, her role is scaled down quite a lot, so I really try to get as much detail as I can from the book to give the role the most amount of depth in a short time,” Langridge said. This process was also helpful for the actors in creating something that resonated with them, rather than attempting to replicate past portrayals.
Out of all the characters, Fantine, Cosette’s biological mother, probably has the most number of tragic calamities befall her. Fantine sings what is arguably the best-known song in the show, I Dreamed a Dream. Australian actress Patrice Tipoki, who has starred in productions of The Lion King, Wicked and Beauty and the Beast, plays Fantine. She has been a fan of Les Misérables since she was young. “I used to sing Master of the House when people would come to the house, I don’t know how appropriate that was for a seven-year-old girl!” she laughed.

 

“It took a while for me to shake other people’s versions of this song, especially in my head, because I grew up with it,” she said, on the subject of making the role her own. “It was nice to have the rehearsal process that we do to be able to find my voice and my story that I wanted to tell. And of course, that still changes every night, depending on how I’m feeling and how receptive the audience is. It’s nice to know that everyone already loves the song, so it’s starting on a good note.” Fantine’s appearance in the musical, while impactful, is relatively brief. “Every night I go ‘maybe I’ll live tonight!’ It’s never happened yet, still trying!” Tipoki joked.
Co-director James Powell explained the lasting appeal of the show, saying “The story itself is about the human condition. It’s a classic story that’s just as relevant today as it was 400 (sic) years ago. The generosity of spirit is what I think people are moved by, in the face of adversity, they come through, and I think that’s what people find very uplifting. And the music helps a bit.” Working for super-producer Cameron Mackintosh has kept Powell on his toes. “When you work for Cameron Mackintosh, you are always evolving, you don’t stay still,” Powell said.
So, why should audiences go see Les Misérables? Producer Nick Allott, who is the managing director of Cameron Mackintosh Ltd., has the answer. “This is a story that covers everything: it covers love, it covers conflict between two people, it covers the triumph of good over evil, it has battles, it has epic scale and it has fantastically strong characters, characters you can fall in love or identity with,” he enthused. “I can’t think of anyone sitting there being bored. This is a show that picks you up and carries you through in this extraordinary way.”
Les Misérables runs from 31st May to 24thJuly at the Esplanade Theatre. Please visit http://www.sistic.com.sg/events/mis0716 for ticket information.