To love another person is to see the face of God. [from Victor Hugo's "Les Misérables"]
Hugh Jackman’s spellbinding, not to mention Oscar calibre performance, is spectacular, with Anne Hathaway delivering a gut wrenching, emotional tour de force rendition of the song, “I Dreamed a Dream,” that demands it. And for all the criticism of Russell Crowe’s singing, that’s not even the worst of his epic film failing in “Les Mis.”
Having been on Broadway and a performer since I was a kid, I was in New York when “Les Misérables” opened in 1980, I’ve watched and learned from some of the very best in the musical business, including Jerry Herman, Joel Grey and Tommy Tune.
The amateur mistakes of Crowe were made worse by Tom Hooper, known for “The King’s Speech,” a director who seems to have not known what the hell he was doing after casting an actor who wasn’t equipped to tackle the vocal material. Staging Crowe flat footed and posturing as a preening baritone he is not, instead of an actor playing an inspector whose obsession with a convict and justice turns maniacal, set up Crowe to fail.
In the end, Hugo’s Inspector Javert, played by Crowe, is driven to kill himself, which is caused by his incessant drive with hounding Jean Valjean, played by Jackman, for the sake of justice, because Valjean consistently forgives him for it.
“A benevolent malefactor, a compassionate convict, offering forgiveness in return for hate, favoring pity over revenge, preferring to himself be destroyed to destroying his enemy, saving the one who had brought him down, this loathsome angel, this vile hero, who outraged him almost as much as he amazed him.” [Victor Hugo, h/t for the reminder from Adam Gopnik]
Yet there is no build to this event, because Crowe’s Javert doesn’t reveal his internal struggles for us to share, other than trying to sing and walk from scene to scene after Valjean.
Russell Crowe is not the first actor in a lead role in a musical who was ill equipped to pull off the musical score. He’s also not the first film star to be cast in a musical role he couldn’t handle. Watch Audrey Hepburn in “My Fair Lady.” Her brilliant character development saved her by completely distracting the audience from the dubbing of her songs (except for “Just You Wait”), which many weren’t aware had been done at the time. It’s fine that Hooper didn’t want to choose that route, but not cementing Crowe in a foundation of character development that presented Javert as the ultimate villain, because his fervor for justice turns unjust, is close to directorial malpractice. That Crowe’s a pro and should have known he hadn’t done this job proves he wasn’t up to the task in the first place, because he was distracted by the singing.
The audience is made to sit through wrenching song after song where Crowe’s Javert plods along trying to make note after note, while taking breaths and breaking up phrases that make any musical performer want to weep.
Getting into the technical weeds, Crowe should have been tasked with some physical movement, starting off small and getting more and more intense in every song until his obsession in the final scene where he kills himself is a result of being driven crazy by Valjean’s continual compassion that drove him to it. That’s the crux of Crowe’s tormented character. By using physical actions from which he could draw repeatedly, Crowe’s mind would have been on that task and focusing energy through action on the object of his character’s downfall, his prey Valjean, instead of placing every note he sang, adding heart to his character, Crowe’s only chance of pulling this role off. Giving physical action to an actor with difficult vocal material to tackle that’s beyond his performance grade is one of the tricks listed in Musical Theater for Dummies. If there were such a book Russell Crowe could have used it.
The foundation of Crowe’s failure is forgetting to develop the richly dense malevolence of Javert’s sense of justice, instead delivering a bellowing man in a uniform. Crowe is way out of his depth vocally, but there is no excuse for not delivering a spectacular Javert through his acting skills to mitigate the sound assault.
There is one consolation and it’s cruel. It comes when Russell Crowe’s Javert throws himself into the Seine, hitting a barrier below, with the shattering noise of his body cracking seeming like revenge from the performance gods for delivering such a pale rendition of a character so rich in possibilities.
Hugh Jackman’s performance should be rewarded with an Oscar. But if it isn’t it’s because the Academy members don’t have a clue of just how difficult Jean Valjean is to play on film and what singing of this material in a musical that’s not easily accessible demands. Never once did Jackman forget the character behind the notes he was singing. He is Jean Valjean the moment he’s seen on camera, his performance becoming richer by the minute.
Russell Crowe has earned the Worst Performance in a Musical not just because he couldn’t handle the vocal material. It’s because Crowe failed to develop Victor Hugo’s delicious character of Javert, which is his wheelhouse, choosing instead a posturing persona reminiscent of a second rate opera impersonator.
Musical theater history is replete with examples of mediocre singers who have delivered dazzling musical performances, because the character they create comes alive. Russell Crowe was given a great musical character and blew it. Badly. Notes aren’t just sung for the sake of it, they are made to breath life into the character being portrayed, which was on the page and in the score for Russell Crowe to mine, but missed.