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):