'Les Misérables': Aaron Tveit on filming and singing 'Red and Black'
Before every great battle there is a rallying of the troops, a rousing speech. In Les Misérables that speech is “Red and Black,” sung by the students-turned-revolutionaries on the eve of the Paris Uprising of 1832.
The musical number centers on the revolutionaries’ leader, Enjolras, as he reminds his friends what they are fighting for. In the film adaptation of the beloved musical, set to hit theaters tomorrow, stage and film actor Aaron Tveit plays Enjolras. Les Mis is Tveit’s first movie musical, but he came to the project with many Broadway productions under his belt, including Hairspray, Wicked and Catch Me If You Can.
Check out an exclusive clip from “Red and Black” below, then read on for Tveit’s memories from shooting the musical number.
As has been the subject of much buzz surrounding the film, Les Misérables director Tom Hooper made the unconventional choice to record the movie’s vocals on set (rather than the typical approach of recording in a studio a few months before production begins and having the actors lip-sync to a playback of the music). For Tveit, that made his first movie musical much closer to his experiences onstage.
“The stamina we needed on a daily basis was much like what you would need to perform a show live onstage,” Tveit said.
For “Red and Black,” that meant over a day’s worth of shooting the song that takes place in the revolutionaries’ gathering place, the ABC Café. But unlike performing onstage, Tveit and his co-stars were missing one element that feeds any theater musical actor’s energy: the orchestra.
“We had to imagine that we were singing over what you hear now [in the completed film], which is this lush, 60-piece orchestra,” Tveit said.
In place of the orchestra’s part that was recorded later, the actors had a pianist playing live on the opposite side of the Pinewood Studios soundstage where the café set was built. The actors could hear the piano via in-ear monitors, but everyone else on set was serenaded by what sounded to them like an a cappella rendition of Les Mis songs – an especially “surreal” sound when the song was the stirring, ensemble “Red and Black,” Tveit said.
Tveit got the chance to see and hear “Red and Black” a cappella when he watched taped rehearsals of the scene. The rehearsal was captured on camera because “Red and Black” was one of the songs used to test out the sound equipment for the live-on-set approach to the movie, but Tveit also used the rehearsal footage to help gauge how loud he could be with his performance.
Also keeping him on track vocally were those in-ear monitors – the actors had the choice of what mix to hear: the piano, the other actors, their own voice, or any combination of the three. Whenever possible, Tveit opted for the piano and his own voice, a mix that was closest to what he is accustomed to onstage.
“When you’re onstage and you have your mic on, there’s speakers right onstage that are throwing your own voice back to you,” Tveit said. “Singing for stage, if you don’t hear yourself, that’s when you push, and that’s when you can hurt your voice sometimes. So if I can hear myself in my ear, it really helps me to find that balance of how loud I needed to be singing.”
“Red and Black” was the second musical number Tveit shot (after “Do You Hear the People Sing?”). The production schedule had scenes being filmed in nearly the same order they appear in the film – Tveit was grateful for that considering what was coming up for him: Four weeks of shooting the climatic scenes of the revolutionaries’ fight at their barricade, where he had “a lot of screaming to do. The fact that I got to do [‘Red and Black’ and ‘Do You Hear the People Sing?’] before my voice had to go through all that screaming everyday was a real gift.”
The cast of Les Misérables have continually raved about singing live on set: Eddie Redmayne, who also has a key part in “Red and Black” as Marius, pointed out that it gave them the freedom to make their acting choices on set, not three months earlier in the recording studio; Tveit said “there’s such an immediacy to the story because of it.” It remains to be seen whether Hooper’s Les Misérables will influence how future musicals are shot — Tveit hopes it will.
“I don’t think I would want to do one any other way after doing this,” he said.
“Red and Black” is an ensemble number, sung by a group of young men. Enjolras is revving up all of the students, reminding them of their ideals, that this isn’t just a game. But it’s ultimately about a clash between two men, Enjolras and his friend Marius (Eddie Redmayne), who has just met and fallen in love with Cosette (Amanda Seyfried).
“Marius, who’s been right there with him the whole time – all the sudden his head is in the clouds,” Tveit explained. “Enjolras is saying, ‘Listen, man, I’m really happy for you, but you gotta come back here because there’s big, big things going on, and there’s people’s lives depending on it, so wake up.’ We wanted to make sure this was at the focal point of the song.”
Aside from his vocal preparation for the film, Tveit also devoted some time to seeing the stage production on the West End (he had seen it once before when he was in high school) and to reading the inspiration for the play, Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel. He said reading the unabridged version was “a task but well worth it.” The novel provides more details about Enjolras’ and Marius’ political beliefs and the events leading up to the rebellion. Reading it “really helps to create this complete world,” Tveit said.
Tveit found it helpful to keep the novel in mind as well as the real young revolutionaries who put their lives on the line for their anti-monarchist ideals. Tveit says he also got into the headspace of a revolutionary leader on the brink of a grassroots uprising by thinking about contemporary activists.
“The only reason to re-tell stories is when they’re really timely, and I think this is a really timely story even today from stuff going on on Wall Street and all of the rioting in Europe last year,” Tveit said. “So there are still these feelings of the anguish and unsettledness all over our world today. I did have that in the back of my mind.”
Period costumes and hair (Tveit said with a laugh that he had “the joy of wearing a glorious wig”), plus the frenzy of activity on the café set helped create this world for Tveit: During “Red and Black” the actors playing revolutionaries (many of whom had played Enjolras or Marius on the West End) had props like a Paris map to pore over, pamphlets listing the their ideals and materials to make bullets.
“Red and Black” is a song Tveit had heard dozens of times before working on the film – he pointed out that even for people who haven’t seen a production of Les Misérables, these are songs that most people in the U.S. and the U.K. have heard at some point because they’re so ingrained in our culture. But Tveit says he’ll never again be able to hear the music in the same way he heard it before signing onto Les Mis: “When I hear these songs I’ll forever think of these great guys and this amazing time we had in this café and on this barricade.”
Les Misérables opens in theaters on Tuesday, Christmas Day. The soundtrack is now available to purchase online and in stores.
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