If the trailer is anything to go by, the latest screen adaptation of Les Miserables certainly isn’t aiming for laughs. We catch fleeting glimpses of poverty, death, tragedy, and revolution, all plunged into the same gloomy, gritty atmosphere of historical verisimilitude. And in the background, omnipresent and all pervasive, we hear the musical’s signature song, ‘I Dreamed a Dream’. Given that the images of the trailer have been perfectly placed to match the lyrics, the song appears to embody the spirit of the film. The trailer displays no gratuitously bold lights and music, no coordinated dance numbers, and absolutely no frivolous outbursts of melodrama; there is essentially no conflict between songs and reality. The filmmakers even cast Hugh Jackman of X-Men fame in the lead role, clearly under the impression that there is nothing funny about a singing Wolverine.
Les Miserables is far from the first film, however, to face the apparent incompatibility between musicals and seriousness. No movie more perfectly demonstrates the problem than the 1961 classic West Side Story. The movie represents a fusion of disparate and seemingly incompatible elements; on one hand, it is a gritty, urban tale of discrimination, poverty and racism, displaying in uncompromising terms the violence and destruction that results from gang warfare. On the other hand, it is a finger-snapping, toe tapping musical extravaganza, featuring characters about as complex and multi-faceted as the inhabitants of Beano comics. The overt artificiality of the musical format lends itself to a light tone quite at odds with the serious subject matter; the audience is torn between admiring the coordination of the gangs’ dance moves and condemning the violence of their actions. The conclusion of the movie combines dramatic seriousness with musical simplicity in order to enter the realm of moral fable. Its didacticism resembles that of the other musical classics of the 1960s, like My Fair Lady and, of course, The Sound of Music. These movies prove once and for all that it is possible to be happy in a serious way; the songs are at the same time fantastically extravagant and perfectly sincere. Together, they helped establish the longstanding reputation of the musical as a genre the whole family can enjoy.
Only a few rare satirical movie musicals, like Little Shop of Horrors and The Rocky Horror Picture Show have ever sought to challenge this reputation. Little Shop of Horrors in particular magnifies the conceits of the genre to bombastic extremes, taking musical melodrama to the hilt with such unforgettable numbers as Suddenly, Seymour and Dentist! Such parodies ruthlessly expose the gap between songs and reality that musicals like West Side Story strive to amend.
Ultimately, the classic musicals are easy to ridicule because of their unshakeable conviction that bright colours and joyous dance numbers can convey moral truth. Contemporary musicals like Les Miserables and the recently released The Sapphires can even be said to take this conviction one step further, since they discard the colours and dance numbers in order to display moral truth in its naked reality. Admittedly, The Sapphires challenges the conventional definition of the movie musical, since it is more of a drama that just happens to contain songs. But with its deliberately decrepit, parochial settings, its emphasis on the reality of racism and social prejudice, it inherits the original musical belief in songs as a force for good.