Many people have mixed feelings about Les Misérables’ Marius: he is a fickle character whose love-at-first-sight experience with Cosette, which is ridiculous in itself, allows him to endanger the lives of his friends on the barricades, and he undoubtedly contributes to the demise and weariness of Jean Valjean by getting in between him and Cosette. However, he is the romantic hero and does at least try to help his friends, even if it is somewhat misplaced, so he is still at least partially sympathetic.
With such a complicated “Marmite” character, it is essential for the musical that the singer portraying Marius is able to display this conflicting range of emotion with the flawless voice of a young, handsome lead. It is therefore interesting to compare the three most famous portrayals of the character – Michael Ball, the original, Nick Jonas in the 25th anniversary concert and Eddie Redmayne in the global smash-hit film – to see how much difference a voice makes.
Let’s start with the worst. Nick Jonas was clearly the mass appeal choice for the O2 concerts, designed to draw in normal punters as well as musical aficionados, a role he arguably shared with Matt Lucas since every other lead role was filled with a West End regular. He doesn’t have a bad pop voice, but it came across as too weak to carry many of Marius’ powerful lines, especially during One Day More, and he clearly found it harder to fill the vast space of the O2 than he would have done in his role as a Jonas Brother.
During One Day More, Nick stands quite rigidly whilst singing towards Cosette (an aspect which does recur throughout the show) and it largely feels like he’s just slightly on top of the note instead of comfortably singing through it; the nasally tone to his voice doesn’t help that either.
The unfortunate thing is that he could actually get away with this singing style for the indecisive, lovesick Marius (it certainly works in A Heart Full Of Love), but Ramin Karimloo’s Enjolras’ entry in this song for their alternating verse totally overpowers and overshadows him. His other biggest failing is on the “my place is here, I fight with you” line: it is supposed to be one of the most dramatic in this massive song, but he makes each line too clipped and abrupt, making it lose its weight.
The most annoying thing Nick does is use his pop inflections in Empty Chairs At Empty Tables; from the very first verse, he uses little slides and vowel emphases that make the song devoid of any emotion and make it purely a vocal performance.
Luckily, if you want to hear emotion in Empty Chairs, you need look no further than Eddie Redmayne’s embodiment of Marius in the 2012 movie. His version of the song, in which we vividly see him in the room in which he used to meet his friends and in which some of them died, concentrates much more on its grief-stricken nature; Eddie didn’t have to sacrifice his vocals, but instead could make them more quiet and intimate, a bonus of singing close up to movie cameras instead of having to project to a whole audience. He also replicates this devastating emotion during A Little Fall Of Rain, the duet with Eponine (Samantha Barks).
Equally, in One Day More, Eddie manages to perfectly contrast his two duet sections with Cosette and Enjolras, as in the former he floats effectively on the high notes, matching Amanda Seyfried’s thin soprano, and then he immediately sounds more resolute and full-voiced as he questions his purpose at the barricades alongside Enjolras. This isn’t easy to make sound so effortless, but he portrays both sides of Marius empathetically and admirably.
As accomplished as Eddie Redmayne was in the movie – especially considering his singing ability was previously largely unheard of, and despite the fact he didn’t receive the award recognition he deserved – there are few who can rival the original Marius, Michael Ball. It was unfortunate for Nick Jonas that the encore at the 25th anniversary concert featured some of the original cast singing One Day More, with Michael showing him how it’s done!
One of the best examples of Michael’s Marius is at the beginning of A Heart Full Of Love, in the way his vibrato-filled voice is able to start extremely tentatively but become more confident; this is notable throughout in the difference between lyrics like ‘for shame, I do not even know your name’ and ‘never go away’. Although his Empty Chairs is less devastating than Eddie’s version, that’s largely due to the difference between the stage and theatre mediums; Michael had to project more out of necessity, but he does use this to his advantage, creating a more powerful and tumultuous feeling, especially at ‘oh my friends, my friends, don’t ask me’.
Despite Michael’s all-round vocal prowess, there is one moment in the musical that he is still remembered for: on the line ‘my place is here, I fight with you’ in One Day More, he does a little slide down from ‘here’ which links the two halves of the line quite well and has become his trademark style. The difference between this and Nick Jonas’ slides is that Michael’s are more carefully crafted, whereas Nick’s just seem to come from his pop tendencies. Michael even joked about this trademark of his to Eddie at the movie premiere, where the latter insisted he hadn’t copied it for fear of being lambasted!
Overall, the singers’ results are quite clear. Nick Jonas seemed to succeed in his job of encouraging younger fans to see the Les Mis experience, and he wasn’t awful in the process; he just couldn’t match up to the more emotive singers/actors singing some difficult music. Eddie Redmayne and Michael Ball should both be congratulated in different ways; Michael will always be the definitive Marius, after many years of singing the music and debuting it in the first place, but it would be hard to find someone better than Eddie to adapt the character and his music to the film medium.
A special mention must also go to Craig Mather, who was Marius in the West End when I saw the show in 2012 and who very successfully brought across Marius’ cluelessness and innocence. Let’s hope his name is soon as famous as those of the other three.