The more I go over it, the more I’m torn on how to react. My instinct is to despise and dismiss. But many viewings of the trailer for the new film interpretation of Les Miserables – due out Christmas 2012 – force a more considered analysis of my concerns.
After hearing Anne Hathaway singing “I Dreamed A Dream,” though I have been a fan since the Princess Diaries, my immediate response was to see her as a vessel ill-equipped for the musical delivery of a song as untouchable in the musical theater world as “And I’m Telling You” and “I Will Always Love You” are in R&B diva-land. Incidentally, Jay Caspian King of Grantland presents a marvelous breakdown of all the monumental performances of those two songs. And I was tempted to do the same here. I combed through every possible distribution channel for recorded music in order to make an airtight case against this new “musical mockery” of Les Mis.
But, in my fervor to defend the truly great singers of the stage against this “interloping hack,” I stumbled upon something truly beautiful.
I make no apologies for having nearly impossible standards of excellence for female vocal performance – regardless of genre. And as a result I can only really enjoy the singing of a small, select handful of women, and can barely listen at all to those that fall even a little short. This is by no means braggadocious, in fact, quite the opposite. As a result of what simply amounts to snobbery – well-founded snobbery perhaps, but snobbery nonetheless – I am unable to enjoy a whole host of beautiful songs and the “good” singers that perform them. I am locked in a prison of the “great.”
So as I embarked on a mission to annihilate Ms. Hathaway’s daring attempt at musical theater (based, of course, solely on the film’s trailer – more on that later) I found myself unable to compile much evidence of singers, that in my opinion, are so monumentally superior to her in skill and execution, that she has disgraced the very thing she – in all likelihood – adores.
That is, until I rediscovered Judy Kuhn.
Judy Kuhn has been a major Broadway performer since the 1980s. She ought to be a Broadway legend, but it seems she may fall into that honorable, but unfortunate, designation of a “singer’s singer,” those who are venerated by other performers for their talent and skill, but are mostly unknown by the public. She’s received several Tony nominations, but hasn’t won. She’s overshadowed by Elaine Paige, Lea Salonga, and, hell, even Susan Boyle. But her voice soars over all theirs with a grace and completeness only a handful of women come near.
The irony is that we’ve all heard her and didn’t know it. She was the singing voice of Pocahontas in the Disney feature by the same name. But unlike Jodi Benson (Ariel), Paige O’Hara (Belle), or the aforementioned Lea Salonga (Fa Mulan AND Princess Jasmine), Ms. Kuhn has not garnered as much notoriety for the role. (Perhaps because that movie wasn’t nearly as well-liked as the others.)
But, her version of “I Dreamed A Dream,” which I discovered while trying to smite what may be the greatest-threat-to-musical-theater-in-the-history-of-the-world-embodied-in-the-person-that-is-Anne-Hathaway, immediately halted my crusade. I was transfixed. I played the clip over and over and over again. It was a breathtaking experience. One very unlike those sublime moments in life that defy explanation. This one I can explain.
What struck me first was the effortlessness with which she sings. As a listener I’m cradled comfortably in her mastery of her voice. This is the opposite feeling of hearing anyone sing on American Idol. There, at any moment, the whole thing might come derailed. That foreboding, awkward dread of what might happen in another note or two, is entirely absent when listening to Ms. Kuhn. As I rest assured in her control I start to notice other things. The pacing of the lyrics is relaxed but doesn’t lack motion. Her diction is clear without getting too “Whitney Houston” with the consonants. The front of every word holds pitch and tone cleanly and with precision that comes only from years of labor. Often you can hear an affectation of the voice’s timbre when certain vowel-consonant combinations or diphthongs occur. Kuhn’s timbre is thoroughly consistent and changes only when she commands it to. Her releases are full of energy. Her vibrato is pure, even, controlled and balanced.
The true test of her mastery of the song comes as the melody’s direction turns downward on the line “but the tigers come at night.” The word “night” is placed near the low-end of the vocal range for an average mezzo-soprano. If you listen to many versions of this song you frequently hear a loss of power behind that note. Not in Ms. Kuhn’s performance. She arrives at that moment with such rich presence and darkness to the sound. If that wasn’t difficult enough, a few bars later a parallel phrase occurs with the lyric “as they tear your hope apart.” Here the gesture is lowered a whole step, and yet she delivers with just as much strength and resilience. That gauntlet is chased by the next stumbling block for most performers. The line “as they turn your dream to shame,” concludes with a stepwise ascension in the melody, accompanied by a necessary increase in volume and intensity. In order to amplify the emotional moment, a singer can often fall prey to the temptation to over-sing, which results in a loss of control of the timbre and vibrato creating what I hear as schmaltziness. Yet again, Ms. Kuhn maintains musical integrity without losing any of the emotional effect the composition works to evoke in that moment. Then there’s the high sustained passages, the emotional connections to the lyrics, the tension between hope and despair, intonation, pitch, breathing… I could go on and on with the technical analysis, but I trust my point has been conveyed.
The fact remains, Judy Kuhn’s singing is truly inspiring. What makes this rendition all the more awe-inducing is the time and place of its performance. She’s singing a concertized version – sung outside the context of the actual theatrical work in which it would naturally occur – for President Reagan and the First Lady who were truly beloved figures. Let me not forget to mention this was a live performance captured with the A/V technology of 1988, observed decades later though YouTube, and lacking any kind of substantive musical production. This song ought to have a whole orchestra filling every corner of the room and allowing the voice to truly flourish. Instead she’s got one piano and a snare drum (other guys are on the stage but it’s hard to tell what or if they might be playing). No offense to those musicians, but, the accompaniment is garbage. Still Kuhn completely obliterates this song. I’ve never heard a better version. Period. Go ahead and take a couple of hours to listen to all the different versions you can find. It’s possible you might prefer another one – and you have every right to do so – but it won’t change the fact that, from a musical and technical standpoint, Judy Kuhn is untouchable.
So where does that leave Ms. Hathaway. Well, it is terribly unfair to judge her, her performance of the song, and the movie solely on a 90-second preview. We don’t even get to hear the whole song. It’s decontextualized from its true dramatic setting, and the emotional connectedness between her performance and the drama is interrupted. This song is a total downer. As Hillary Busis put it, “”I Dreamed a Dream” is one of musical theater’s greatest bummers — a pathos-drenched ballad about one woman’s descent into despair[.]” It may be that the cinematic elements and Ms. Hathaway’s performance work together in a way that overcomes whatever deficiencies would be exposed in a more traditional staged performance. I hope.
If, and it doesn’t seem like much of an “if” at this point, the filmmakers are going for a very dismal, dark and über-realistic interpretation of Les Mis, then a realistic and somewhat poorly sung version of the song might work to great dramatic and narrative effect. Though by listening to what evidence is currently available, it does seem that Ms. Hathaway is attempting to do a mixture of both pure singing and melodrama. She may be biting off more than she can chew. My hope is also that all the filmmakers recognize their actors’ strengths and limitations, and use that to great advantage in giving us a profound and potent story. If, on the other hand, they hope a few months of singing lessons and a highly paid vocal coach can help Hathaway go toe-to-toe with Judy Kuhn, I’m afraid it may be their dreams that turn to shame.