There’s nothing that demonstrates the difference between the “Les Misérables” stage show and movie more than the new Oscar-nominated song, “Suddenly.” The tender lullaby sung by Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) to little Cosette (Isabelle Allen) in a carriage never could’ve been carried off on stage, yet it’s one of the intimate highlights of the movie. For composer Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyricist Alain Boublil (who created the blockbuster stage musical in 1985), it was an opportunity to expand their vision by revisiting the famed Victor Hugo source novel at the insistence of director Tom Hooper.
“Hooper thought one thing missing from the musical was how an acknowledgment of the love that Cosette played in Jean Valjean’s life helped transform him,” Boublil explains. “Victor Hugo had written something about two unhappy souls making one happy human being, and Hooper asked us to think about that line and a song as a turning point for Jean Valjean, who’s filled with vengeance and who’s never bonded with anyone. Both of them have never known love in their lives. Hooper set it in a carriage. This song was completely new and spontaneous. And it’s an intimacy only attainable in a movie in close-up as a lullaby.”
So, after more than 30 years, the legendary “Les Mis” creators tried to get in the mood again, soaking up the religious and political weight of Hugo even more than ever before for Hooper’s gritty cinematic interpretation. However, despite the changes in location and placement and orchestration of their precious songs, Schönberg and Boublil always protected their integrity. They were total collaborators with Hooper and screenwriter William Nicholson. For “Suddenly,” Herbert Kretzmer was recruited once more to craft the lyrics in English after Boublil wrote them in French. In fact, Kretzmer came up with the song’s title after the word “suddenly” kept coming up in conversation.
“The song went through many stages, beginning with Hugh Jackman nearly crying at the end of being played the song by Claude-Michel for the first time at the piano,” Boublil suggests. “Then the song was recorded with many, many takes live just with the piano. Little by little, the song became a new melody. We tried it with a large orchestra and went simpler with piano and string quartet at the end.”
Ironically, Schönberg and Boublil initially conceived of “Les Mis” as a movie musical and first approached Alan Parker in 1980. But he had a problem with the sung-through style. It seemed too operatic and potentially static as a movie. Then, after it became an international theatrical sensation, there were various aborted attempts at turning it into a movie musical (Steven Spielberg even had a minor flirtation and wished them well).
But it wasn’t until Hooper (fresh from his “King’s Speech” Oscar triumph) grabbed a hold of “Les Mis” as an allegorical spectacle about the disparity between rich and poor that Schönberg and Boublil saw their project finally reach the screen. And it wasn’t until Baz Luhrmann (“Moulin Rouge!”) assured Hooper that the sung-through style was the only way to go, that Hooper made the bold decision to record all the songs live on set to make it more believable (as though the soliloquies were sung like prayers).
“It was experimental and risky doing a complete movie with live recording on the set with the actors and piano in a booth that they could hear with little earphones,” Schönberg explains. “It had never been done before and could only be accomplished with Pro Tools digital technology. When we finished the shooting and editing, we did the recording with 66 musicians in sync with the voices. That was tough. We were discovering it day after day and solving problems together. And it was new territory for us.”
Yet the filmmakers also realized that it would be tiring and dangerous without some dialogue support at the right place so the music could start again. “The combination is part of a new convention of full sung with bits of dialogue and that creates the flow,” Boublil says. “We needed a return to reality with easy transitions from singing to non-singing.”
At the same time, Schönberg and Boublil had a creative opportunity to make some dramatic improvements. For instance, by having Fantine sing the popular “I Dream a Dream” after she’s raped by her first customer instead of after losing her job at the factory, it adds greater intensity to Anne Hathaway’s Oscar-nominated performance.
They also turned “Do You Hear the People Sing?” into a more important anthem by opening it up. “It is now a real moment that illustrates the funeral of General Lamarque,” Schönberg adds. “In the show he’s just a name you hear several times. But he is the defender of the poor and his death is the key to the uprising. And we’ve properly staged his funeral and it does justice to the song as the students bring the nobility, majesty, and anger that it needs.”
From a quiet lullaby to a stirring anthem, that’s apparently the “Les Mis” movie musical that Schönberg and Boublil envisioned all along.
Original New Song: “Suddenly” featurette