Saturday, August 30, 2014

Les Miserables: The Original French Concept Album


Most people don't know that the musical Les Misérables was originally going to be in French. In fact, the writers, Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg (both of whom are French) created an entire concept album in French before the producer Cameron Mackintosh asked them to turn it into a musical in the English language. And the product of that conversation is the musical we know today as Les Misérables, one of the most popular and longest running musicals in the history of theatre.

But the original French concept album still exists, and is very interesting as a prototype; many of the melodies from the current musical can be found in the concept album, though often attached to different lyrics and occurring at different moments in the plot. Some of the lyrics are also the same (though of course, in French rather than English). But there is also much that is different. The story itself varies in places from the current musical, with some parts left out and others added or changed. In many ways, the concept album follows the book more closely than the current musical does, but there are a few places where it deviates more from the book than does the current musical. There are moments in the concept album that send chills down your spine, but there are also moments that disappoint.

For example, the song that takes the place of "Castle on a Cloud," entitled "My Prince is on the Way," is absolutely beautiful and in some ways preferable to the current one, and the song that introduces us to M. Thenardier, "The Inkeeper's Motto," is, unlike "Master of the House," entirely appropriate. "À la Volonté du Peuple" (translated as "To the Will of the People"), replaces "Do You Hear the People Sing" with the same melody and more poetic lyrics. One scene in the concept album that I definitely prefer to the parallel scene in the current musical is Gavroche's death. But the song that takes the place of the current "Red and Black" is rather disappointing (it's just Marius soloing), and while the song that Eponine sings instead of "On My Own" is lovely, it doesn't hold a candle to the current showstopper.

I would like to do a little analysis of the concept album, because, while I still prefer the current version of Les Misérables, the concept album is very thoughtful and well-crafted. At the end of this post I'll share a link to the full text of the concept album (in French with a pretty spot-on English translation beside it) and another link to the music. Alors.

The second track in the concept album is titled, "L'Air de la Misére," or "The Air of Misery," and is sung by Fantine to the tune of "Come to Me" and "On My Own":

La misère n’est mere de personne
la misère est pourtant soeur des hommes
mais personne sur terre n’en veux pour fille
comme bâtarde née dans un cachot de la Bastille
La misère enfante la détresse
bien des vices et toutes les faiblesses
la misére lâche la bête en l’homme
et la mésange alors en chienne errante se tranforme

Then, in the final scene of the musical, entitled "Epilogue: La Lumière," or "Epilogue: The Light," Jean Valjean sings a different set of lyrics to the same tune (this tune is also utilized in the final scene of the current musical, by the way).

La lumière est dans le coeur des hommes 
mais s’épuise de brûler pour personne 
aimez-vous pour vaincre les ténèbres 
tant qu’il y aura partout 
orgueil, ignorance et misère
La lumière, au matin de justice, 
puisse enfin décapiter nos vices 
dans un monde où Dieu pourrait se plaire 
s’il décidait un jour de redescendre sur la terre.

OK, so I know you probably don't speak French (unless you do), but even so, you can probably tell that the two songs are echoing each other significantly. Both songs have the same melody and the same structure, and they use many of the same words and sentence structures. Let me give you an English translation so you can see the similarities more clearly. Here is Fantine's "Air of Misery":

Misery is the mother of no one
Misery is nevertheless sister of men
But no one on earth wants for a daughter
A bastard born in a dungeon of the Bastille 
Misery begets distress [or misery]
Plenty of vices and all weaknesses
Misery looses the beast in man
And the little bird then into a stray dog transforms.

Pretty bleak. But here is Jean Valjean's rewriting of Fantine's ballad:

The light is in the heart of men
But it will stop burning for no one 
Love each other to vanquish the shadows
As long as there is everywhere
Pride, ignorance and misery
The light, on the morning of justice,
Can finally decapitate our vices 
In a world where God could be pleased
If He decided one day to redescend to the earth.

You can see the echoes of Fantine's ballad in the first two lines of Valjean's song: "The light is in the heart of men / But it will stop burning for no one," echoes Fantine's "Misery is the mother of no one / Misery is nevertheless sister of men." Both singers take a subject - Misery or Light - and assign it to the human race, using the words "men" ("les hommes"), or "no one" ("personne"), at the end of each sentence. Moreover, both Fantine and Valjean refer to the vices of men, but while Fantine speaks only of their birth and existence in the world, Valjean reveals that love will one day destroy the vices created by misery. Fantine ends her song by lamenting man's transformation into a beast, but Valjean ends his song with the hope that man can someday transform into a more perfect and God-like being. Fantine's song reflects the uttermost depths of squalor and misery, but Valjean's song comes at the end of his life reflecting love, peace, and transcendence. As I read and listened to Valjean's final revelation, I couldn't help but think of my favorite quote from the novel Les Misérables: "To love or to have loved, that is enough. Ask nothing further. There is no other pearl to be found in the dark folds of life. To love is a consummation" (Hugo 1382). I find this quote echoed nicely in Valjean's song about "The Light."

If you're still here and haven't yet revolted over the length of this post and all the French text in it, I'd like to share one more song from the concept album with you. Here is (slightly shortened) the French text of "To the Will of the People," sung to the tune of "Do You Hear the People Sing" - side by side with an English translation:
À la volonté du peuple
Et à la santé du progrès
Remplis ton coeur d’un vin rebelle
Et à demain, ami fidèle
Nous voulons faire la lumière
Malgrè le masque de la nuit
Pour illuminer notre terre
Et changer la vie.  
À la volonté du people Je fais don de ma volonté
S’il faut mourir pour elle
Moi, je veux être le premier
Le premier nom gravé au marbre du monument d’espoir. 
À la volonté du peuple
Et à la santé du progrès
Remplis ton coeur d’un vin rebelle
Et à demain, ami fidèle
Nous voulons faire la lumière
Malgré le masque de la nuit
Pour illuminer notre terre
Et changer la vie.
To the will of the people
And to the health of progress
Refill your heart with a rebellious wine
And tomorrow, faithful friend
We want to make a light
Despite the mask of the night
To illuminate our land
And to change our lives.
To the will of the people I volunteer myself.
If it is necessary to die for her,
Me, I want to be the first
The first name carved on the marble of the monument of hope.
To the will of the people
And to the health of progress
Refill your heart with a rebellious wine
And tomorrow, faithful friend
We want to make a light
Despite the mask of the night
To illuminate our land
And to change our lives.


Well, I don't really have anything to say after that. If you want to check out the full text of the French concept album (plus an English translation) you can go to this website: http://www.placedauphine.net/translations/ofc.html

Then, if you'd like to hear the full French concept album, you can head over to this playlist on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLE4A332CE9F807D86

If you'd like to read more of my thoughts on Les Misérables and you haven't yet read my review of the novel by Victor Hugo, you can check that out here: http://woodbtwntheworlds.blogspot.com/2014/02/keep-calm-and-love-on-les-miserables.html

Until tomorrow. Adieu.

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