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So You Want to Buy a Recording of ‘Les Miserables’ . . .

December 29, 2012

So you saw the Les Misérables movie and liked it and now you want to buy a recording of the music, but the movie soundtrack doesn’t even have half the songs and when you search iTunes for other recordings, you’re overwhelmed by the myriad of results. Fear not. That’s why you have a friend like me, who knows all the English recordings through-and-through.

For lazy people and cheaters, I’ve given score on each recording, but your choice ultimately depends on what you’re looking for, so it would behoove you to read this:

Rundown of Les Misérables Recordings

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Highlights from the Motion Picture (2012)
Rating: 2/7

Not only is this sparely orchestrated and incomplete, missing such gems as “A Little Fall of Rain” and “Fantine’s Arrest,” but it’s literally an audio rip from the film. While the rawness of the performances may work well on screen, it comes of as ugly and almost unfinished when you’re listening to it without the visual. This does the most disservice to Anne Hathaway’s Psalm 22-inspired “I Dreamed a Dream,” which should garner her a both regular Oscar AND a special one. Only the “Epilogue” and “On My Own” manage to escape this effect. The extreme ritard on the trio of I-love-hims at the end of “On My Own” is possibly the most heartbreaking interpretation to happen to an already-heartbreaking song. But “One Day More” ends up as a disconnected and poorly-mixed mess, instead of the rousing anthem that it should be. Someone needs to figure out how to do live-on-set recording for contrapuntal chorus numbers before the next big movie musical.

EDIT APRIL 2013: Republic Records has now released a “Deluxe Edition” of the film soundtrack, consisting of the entire score as the film presents it. Though it is more complete, it still suffers from the above problems. Also, the attentive listener will note that some of the musical numbers have been shuffled around from their classic stage presentation, namely “Lovely Ladies”, “I Dreamed a Dream”, and “Do You Hear the People Sing?”
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Original London Cast Recording (1985)
Rating: 4/7

Though many associate Les Misérables with Broadway, the original Cameron Mackintosh production first appeared in London’s West End in 1985, before making the transfer to New York the following year. It’s still running in London today, while the Broadway production closed nearly 10 years ago. Go to this recording for Michael Ball as Marius and the definitive Valjean, Colm Wilkinson, for whom the exceptional “Bring Him Home” was written. Other highlights? Broadway legend Patti LuPone as Fantine and the sympathetic simpering Eponine of Frances Ruffelle, differing from later fiery interpretations. Drawbacks? Again, no “Fantine’s Arrest,” which is a favorite of mine, and much of the fun recitative is absent. That said, it does contain two songs not heard on any other recording as they’ve been cut from subsequent productions. Cosette’s “I Saw Him Once” and the full version of Gavroche’s “Little People.” Both were cut with good reason.
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Original Broadway Cast Recording (1986)
Rating: 3/7

This recording has nothing good that the London Recording doesn’t already have, but many worse things such as the lack of Patti LuPone and Michael Ball. One time I accidentally put it on my iPod instead of the London Recording and was severely disappointed when I went to listen to it. It’s not bad, just not as good as the others. And, due to union costs, the orchestra is pretty pitifully-sized.
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10th Anniversary Concert [CD or DVD] (1995)
Rating 6/7

This DVD is how my Grandpa introduced me to Les Misérables when I was about 13 years old and there was no turning back. It’s the definitive recording for meLea Salonga’s “On My Own” was my first Broadway obsession and Ruthie Henshall’s “I Dreamed A Dream” remains the standard by which I measure all others. This crew is called the “Dream Cast” for a reason. There’s not a bad one in the bunch and the orchestrations are lush and beautiful. Philip Quast is so exceptional as Javert that one wonders why anyone else would attempt to follow him. Michael Ball is still great as Marius, but his voice is noticeably older than in the London and Symphonic Recordings. The only downside is all the applause that often interrupts the flow of the recording. And it still has Colm Wilkinson, whom I never really liked all that much, though that makes me a bit of a pariah in the eyes of musical theatre fans.
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Complete Symphonic Recording (1989/Remastered 2004)
Rating 6/7

The title is no lie. Clocking in at 2.8 hours, this is literally a studio recording of the entire show. The stage version contains not a word of spoken dialogue and this recording contains every note of recitative. The recording keeps favorites Michael Ball as Marius and Philip Quast as Javert, as well as Japanese star Kaho Shimada singing Eponine in English for the first time ever. And she’s brilliant, sort of a midway between the simpering Eponine of Frances Ruffelle and the fiery Eponines of Lea Salonga and Samantha Barks. It’s a testimony to her skill as an actress and singer that she learned her part phonetically and still managed to get all that across in her performance. Gary Morris as Valjean also does well in what really amounts to a carbon copy of Colm Wilkinson’s performance. Also Grantaire (of “Grantaire, put that bottle down” fame) is completely soused in this recording and it’s hysterical.

But what this recording REALLY has going for it is the enormous orchestra with its lush orchestrations that include the ’80s-style synthesizers and electric guitar/bass that the 10th Anniversary Concert tried to do away with whenever possible. I like how the orchestrations remain beautiful while reminding the listener that this was, in fact, written in the ’80s. Javert’s bit in “The Robbery” has the greatest wailing guitar going on behind him. It’s fantastic. This will be any orchestra geek’s favorite.
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25th Anniversary Concert [DVD] (2010)
Rating 5/7

This one is only available on DVD thus far, but audio rips are available, if you know where to find them. The biggest drawback on this recording is that the part of Marius is played by Nick Jonas (of the teenybopper band The Jonas Brothers). He’s a good singer, but has a penchant for not holding notes to the end of each phrase and he can’t act worth a damn. But Alfie Boe is easily my favorite Valjean and, as a high baritone, Norm Lewis brings out the angry in Javert’s upper registers with growls and operatic yells. Boe and Lewis are the best Valjean/Javert combo recorded to date. During “The Confrontation” you feel like some on-stage thunder and lightning would not be out of place. Lea Salonga (formerly of Eponine fame) returns to take on the role of Fantine and does so brilliantly, while Samantha Barks successfully ousts her as the Best Eponine Ever. Much of it is her perfect chest/head mix for the money notes in “On My Own”—including the optional step up on “I’ve only been pretending”—but her expressive face has a lot to do with it. I’m thankful that the movie exists if only so I can hear Barks sing, “A Little Fall of Rain” with someone who is not Nick Jonas. TOO BAD IT’S NOT EVEN ON THE MOVIE SOUNDTRACK! *ahem*

The orchestrations have the same pro/con as the 10th Anniversary, with a large orchestra and additional choir, while ridding itself of the ’80s flair as much as possible, but this one is also missing a considerable amount of the woodwind section. Still, it’s in regular rotation on my iPod with the 10th Anniversary and the Symphonic.

Of course, if you have Spotify, you can also listen to all of them and decide for yourself that way. In the end it’s more about personal opinion than anything else. Have fun!

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. March 24, 2013 1:22 AM

    What were your thoughts on the 25th Anniversary Live CD recording, with John Owen-Jones and Earl Carpenter? My main issue was what they trimmed out (bits of Runaway Cart and Fantine’s Arrest come to mind). I rather like orchestral works, so the departure from the powerful synths (this being the first of the new 25th Anniversary productions) are not completely unwelcome. I do very much enjoy the CSR, though. I much prefer it to the original London and Broadway casts. It’s a shame there’s no 7 out of 7, eh?

    • April 8, 2013 8:30 AM

      I haven’t actually listened to that one. I didn’t notice that it existed until rather recently and by then I was Les Mis’d out. I’ll probably give it a listen the next time the mood strikes. But yeah, a 7-out-of-7 would be nice.

  2. April 25, 2013 2:53 AM

    Appreciate this post. Will try it out.

  3. Rob permalink
    May 3, 2013 7:37 PM

    I find the CSR a bit patchy as the audio is taken from a variety of concerts rather than just one. At the moment my prefered method of listening to the show is unofficial bootlegs. The Broadway 87 bootleg is really good as it is soundboard quality and contains the whole show.

  4. Yi-Peng Li permalink
    March 6, 2014 7:12 PM

    The international symphonic version and the 10th anniversary version are fine choices for a Les Mis recording. However could I add the recent 2010 UK tour cast recording? I know that we need to respect the original orchestrations and arrangements and I know that this recording has cuts, especially in Act One. However, it’s a top-notch, compelling overall performance of the musical. I thought I might mention it in case you haven’t worn yourself out from too much Les Mis.

  5. July 13, 2014 9:09 PM

    Thank you!!! I have the Complete Symphonic Recording (which I absolutely love: I bought it after watching West End’s 2013) and I recently bought the 25th Anniversary Concert. I was extremely disappointed to find Nick Jonas was Marius and wanted to see if it was still worth my money. I’m glad to hear it is! Thank you!

  6. Andrew permalink
    September 14, 2014 4:45 AM

    For the Record, the “Deluxe Edition” of the Motion Picture Soundtrack has a bunch more tracks. Some are still shorter for time, but at least it has “A Little Fall of Rain.”

    • November 5, 2014 1:26 PM

      Yeah. I added a little addendum to the end of my review of the Highlights album to reflect the update. Thanks!

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  1. 25th Anniversary Concert – Les Misérables « 熊伊娃的北極圈

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