In Which I Ponder a Lily-White Les Miserables Movie

I’ve been a fan of Les Misérables since the 90’s.

Like, a big fan.  When I was a kid I had 5, count ‘em, 5 different cast recordings.

As long as I’ve been a fan, every production that’s striven to be a definitive cast has included people of color.  The Tenth Anniversary Dream Cast (meant to be the best of the best) included Lea Salonga as Eponine.  The Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Concert included not only Salonga as Fantine, but Norm Lewis (whom we all love in Scandal) as Javert and Iranian-Canadian Ramin Karimloo as Enjolras.  The Complete Symphonic Recording, which strove to be international as well as definitive, cast Kaho Shimada from the Japanese production as Eponine.  Les Mis has been around for a long time; it’s been performed in a huge number of countries; and more than many other musical theatre productions it’s understood to be about content and story instead of about people’s skin color.

And, yeah, maybe there are still barriers. I’m sure there are roles in Les Mis that people of color struggle to get cast in.  Salonga’s performances have broken boundaries.  But still, I’ve never seen anyone watch Lea Salonga sing and then turn around and complain about her race.  In fact, the definitive performances of Salonga and Shimada have probably caused a whole generation of Les Mis fans to picture Eponine as Asian (and guess what?  It didn’t make the world end).

It’s disappointing to me that the new motion picture has an all-white cast.  It gives fuel to the people who like to make noise about “historical accuracy,” and it feels like a step backward that they chose not to reaffirm that race doesn’t matter in casting the best of the best, that it doesn’t matter in a musical that’s supposed to be about the human condition, relatable to everyone.  (Also, the movie is, you know, a musical—hate to break it to anyone who wants to play the “historical accuracy” card, but people didn’t sing long ballads about their problems in nineteenth-century France.)

So it bothers me in a general sense.  But you know what?  I do wonder about the casting.  Because, out of all the people in the Twenty-Fifth Anniversary cast (almost everyone from the Dreamcast is too old for their respective roles now, but the Twenty-Fifth Anniversary people are current), Lea Salonga is by far the one with most “star power.”  She’s the only person who was in the 10th and 25th Anniversary concerts in different roles.  She’s incredibly well-known in the Broadway world—she debuted as the original Kim in Miss Saigon and hasn’t stopped.  If you’re trying to attract the musical theatre crowd, she puts butts in seats.  She’s about as much of a Name as it’s possible to be in musical theatre.

I’m not going to talk about Anne Hathaway’s performance (I don’t care for it, but that’s not the point).  Here’s what’s weird to me, though.  The producers of the movie felt they HAD to cast movie stars (which makes me die a little inside as a musical theatre buff), but for one role—the role of Eponine, which is arguably the meatiest, most exciting role for the ingenue-type actress, far more than Cosette—they went with the singer from the Twenty-Fifth Anniversary cast, who was out of the London stage production.  Her name is Samantha Barks.  She seems like a lovely actress and a wonderful Eponine.  But she’s a stage actress.  As far as movie star power goes, she has none.

Lea Salonga is a musical theatre household name.  You can’t even be on the fringes of the musical theatre world without knowing who she is.  Her performance of Fantine is so well-known that Anne Hathaway even tipped her hat to her.  If the producers of the Les Mis movie felt they could spare one role to give to a musical theatre actor instead of a movie star, why didn’t they choose Salonga?  Why didn’t they go with her for Fantine and cast some young Hollywood starlet as Eponine?

Did it have to do with race?  Did they even consider her?  I wonder.

Salonga would have gotten musical theatre buffs out to see this movie in a way Barks won’t.  And she would have been brilliant.  You can’t pull the “most talented person for the role!” line when people like Lea Salonga are not only capable of playing Fantine, but known for it.

Maybe the producers had legitimate reasons for not inviting Salonga to take the role.  But I have the sneaking feeling that if I brought this up on an Internet message board, I’d get someone telling me an Asian Fantine wouldn’t be “historically accurate,” despite the fact that she already plays Fantine, is considered a definitive Fantine, and nobody in the musical theatre world has a problem with it.  And that’s why I doubly wish the producers had cast her, because racist idiots will make comments like that until people with enough clout make diversity the norm.

Once people see a performer like Salonga, they sit down and shut up.  But POC have to be cast before people can see them.  The Les Mis movie would have, should have, been a brilliant opportunity for that.

Now, to celebrate some awesome POC and their awesomeness (spoilers for Les Mis ahead!  Do I need that?), from the Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Concert here is Lea Salonga singing “I Dreamed a Dream” and Norm Lewis singing “Javert’s Suicide” (yeah, I know “Stars” is the definitive Javert song, but Norm Lewis does this one so well; I like his version here better than either Terrence Mann or Philip Quast, WATCH IT WATCH IT HE IS AMAZING, THEY BOTH ARE AMAZING, I COULD WATCH THESE PEOPLE ALL DAY):


12 thoughts on “In Which I Ponder a Lily-White Les Miserables Movie

  1. “If the producers of the Les Mis movie felt they could spare one role to give to a musical theatre actor instead of a movie star, why didn’t they choose Salonga? Why didn’t they go with her for Fantine and cast some young Hollywood starlet as Eponine?”

    I’m not sure the producers wanted to even give Eponine to a musical theater actor. There were a lot of Taylor Swift rumors during the time of the casting, and then a month later she was supposedly offered the part, Barks’s name is suddenly announced. It was never really clear whether she was offered the role and then it was taken away, or if the casting was all just a silly rumor, but I’m inclined to believe the former. After the producers made a point of casting movie star after movie star in the other roles, even the Thenardiers, it seems suspicious that they went for a no-name actress with no film experience in the biggest female role. I think Swift was cast, and once they realized there was no way she could pull off the singing, they cast Eponine with no film experience who already knew the part.

    To your original point, though – there’s no reason why they couldn’t have included a POC actor or two for the film cast. Quast is my favorite Javert but I certainly would have preferred Lewis to Russell Crowe, whose singing voice makes me die a little inside (and not in a good way). Most people who talk about historical accuracy probably are not experts on the racial demographics of revolutionary France, anyway, and even though I’m not either, I can bet that there were a least a FEW people of color living there at the time.

    • Yeah, I did hear that about Taylor Swift, but then I read somewhere else that it was all rumor and they wanted Barks from the outset. But who knows?

      But you’re totally right, whether they went with all movie stars or not, whether they intended to give one role to a musical theatre performer from the beginning or not, there are people of color who are movie stars who can sing. And I am so with you on Russell Crowe’s singing voice. I’m just . . . stymied that they chose him. I love Russell Crowe as an actor, but he is not a singer! The few lines he sang in the trailer literally made me cringe. I can’t even imagine how Norm Lewis feels watching that; I wonder if he even got to audition — he’s probably not a big enough star for them. (And I love Philip Quast too, but would he be too old now? Not sure.)

      • I think every single person I’ve spoken to about the movie who is a fan of Les Miserables has expressed serious doubts about the casting (as have I). And I just went back and watched the international trailer and I’m absolutely with you on Russell Crowe. Ouch.

        Thanks for posting the two clips you did. I am absolutely in love with those renditions.

        • I think every single person I’ve spoken to about the movie who is a fan of Les Miserables has expressed serious doubts about the casting (as have I).

          Right?? I’m so disappointed across the board. And one of my best friends is a professional-level singer and she goes into stabby conniptions every time she sees an ad for it. What’s so weird to me is that there are movie stars out there who have Broadway backgrounds and are excellent singers — I don’t understand why they didn’t hire them!

  2. “And, yeah, maybe there are still barriers. I’m sure there are roles in Les Mis that people of color struggle to get cast in. Salonga’s performances have broken boundaries. But still, I’ve never seen anyone watch Lea Salonga sing and then turn around and complain about her race. In fact, the definitive performances of Salonga and Shimada have probably caused a whole generation of Les Mis fans to picture Eponine as Asian (and guess what? It didn’t make the world end).”

    I haven’t seen the film (though I’ve seen a very white theatrical production), but I think your thoughts about Les Mis expand to many classic remakes… there seems to be this conclusion that b/c the original script for something was made for a white character, then there can’t be a person of color playing an important role in the new rendition. Obvious to us, that just isn’t true, and, for me, it’s so disappointedly expected that revivals of classics are made up of an all-white cast– despite the fact that p.o.c’s can do a good job playing key roles, and p.o.c’s are also part of their loyal fan-base.

    • Even if it was true (and what’s the point of redoing something if you aren’t going to change it anyway?), that’s no excuse. If the story follows the tradition of excluding a group, find or make another story that does not. It’s not like people are suffering from a lack of white dominated films. Personally I’d prefer to see something new, even if it’s inspired by/ripping off something old, than someone tinkering with something that worked the first time anyway.

  3. Three thoughts:

    1. Salonga’s not traditionally “movie star” pretty (which Banks appears to be, at least in the trailers), and the producers may have been leery of casting someone not in the current mode in that way.
    2. Hathaway’s about due a hair-cutting Oscar-bait role, career-wise (which doesn’t mean this had to be it, but it wouldn’t surprise me if that informed the decision on both sides).
    3. Without Hathaway, their biggest female star is Helena Bonham-Carter, who doesn’t really appear in the trailers much. I wonder if they felt they needed more recognizable faces in the main roles precisely because so many people have preconceived notions of the “weight” of various parts?

    Please apply salt as necessary – I’ve not seen the movie, only the US trailers.

      • I wasn’t saying “they didn’t cast a POC because POC aren’t pretty,” just that they may not have looked at Salonga as seriously as they should have because of her not being the traditional “type”. (Which I think is both stupid and wrong-headed. I think there’s a separate issue to be discussed about how broken the current movie star standards are, and whether they can ever be changed to include more body types, and if that change would cause the inclusion of more POC in movies and TV, but it’s a bit off topic?)

        • The point is that even if they didn’t think Salonga was “movie star pretty” (which agreed is BS) they could’ve cast another POC who they believed fit the mark.

  4. (Also, the movie is, you know, a musical—hate to break it to anyone who wants to play the “historical accuracy” card, but people didn’t sing long ballads about their problems in nineteenth-century France.)

    BOOM!!!!! AND THAT’S ALL SHE WROTE!!!!

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