As you may already know, I am a total Les Miserables freak. It is by far my favorite musical and I listen to it on a regular basis. But just recently I finally got around to doing something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I took all of the recordings that I have and listened to each song from each recording back to back to find out which recording I liked best for each song. I have four recordings of Les Miserables in English and two in French, but I just stuck with the English ones for now. With four versions of each song, and considering that for many of the songs I had to listen to them all more than once in order to make a decision, it took me a really long time to get through everything. I’d say I probably took me around 30 hours to finish everything. I can do that much more easily now because I don’t have to take customer service phone calls at my new job, so I can listen to music for long periods of time without interruption.

The four English recordings I have (in order of release) are the Original London Cast (OLC), the Original Broadway Cast (OBC), the Complete Symphonic Recording (CSR), and the Tenth Anniversary Concert (TAC). As you might be able to guess from the name, the CSR contains the musical in its entirety (and therefore requires three CDs), while the other three recordings pretty much contain all of the songs but leave off a lot of the connecting material (and as a result those recordings are only two CD’s each).

In a broad sense, I discovered that there are certain things I really like about each recording, except for the OBC. There is not a single song where I thought the OBC had the best version, and there were only a handful where I thought it had the second best version. But don’t take that the wrong way. If the OBC was the only version available, I’m sure I would absolutely love it, but in comparison, I think it lacks something compared to the other recordings.

The most obvious difference about the OLC is the fact that it has some songs and lyric sections that do not appear on any other version. The OLC was the first recording to be released (since the show opened in London), and since then the writers have made several alterations to the show. There are two songs on the OLC that do not appear in subsequent recordings. The first is “Little People”, which is a short song by Gavroche that appears just before “Red and Black”. The second is “I Saw Him Once”, which is sung by Cosette before “In My Life”. ISHO is a lead-in to IML where Cosette talks about seeing Marius for the first time. On subsequent recordings, that material is reworked into an extended beginning to IML. The most obvious lyric change is in “Heart Full of Love”. In the OLC version, Marius says “for shame, I do not even know your name” and then a few lines later sings out “Cosette, Cosette”, which makes no sense. In later versions, that sequence was reworked so that Cosette tells him her name in between those two lines.

Another big difference about the OLC is the fact that many songs on the OLC have a different tempo than the tempo that is consistant across the other recordings. Some songs are slower than the “standard”, and some are faster. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. For example, the OLC has a noticably slower version of “The Confrontation”, and I think it’s fantastic (my number one pick). It also has a slower version of “Red and Black”, and in that song it just really makes things drag along, even though the singing is wonderful.

The TAC is a totally different listening experience than the other three recordings because many of the songs end with audience applause. I know it was a concert and perhaps the applause is appropriate to include on the recording, but it certainly takes away from the flow of the musical in a significant way. The worst offense is the audience clapping along for almost the entirety of “Beggars at the Feast”. The applause and clapping just pulls you out of the story. The TAC also contains more material than either the OBC or the OLC. I suppose that’s because the TAC was performed on stage before an audience, so they made a greater effort to tell the story as the musical moves along. Though it does not approach the CSR, it certainly contains a lot more connecting material than the other two recordings.

So that leaves the the CSR. If I could only have one recording of Les Miserables, at this point it would certainly be the CSR. I think the primary reason for that is because I have seen Les Miserables so many times and I really like the story and the CSR is the only recording that has everything. There are various lines and sections that I really like that only appear on the CSR.

As far as cast selection goes, the CSR does very well. It’s not perfect, but it is very good. The CSR has Gary Morris as Valjean, where all of the other recordings have Colm Wilkinson. I realize that Wilkinson is considered the definitive Valjean, but Morris really holds his own, to the point that I even prefer him on a handful of songs (that may cause some of you to write off my opinions right there). All in all I think Philip Quast does an admirable job as Javert. He is outdone on “Stars” on some of the other recordings (particularly Roger Allam on the OLC, who really knocks it out of the park), but his voice is good for the part (just the right amount of sinister and snarl) and I like the emotion he brings to the role.

The CSR has Michael Ball as Marius, which is a must in my book. He also appears on the OLC and TAC, but seems in particularly good form on the CSR. Tracy Shayne is a wonderful Cosette on the CSR, and I generally prefer her to all of the other recordings, especially in the critical “In My Life / Heart Full of Love” sequence. I’m not as crazy about Kaho Shimada as Eponine, which is unfortunate because I really like that part. Lea Salonga (who appears on the TAC) would be my personal choice as far as the other recordings go. Debbie Byrne as Fantine is good on the CSR, but Patty Lupone on the OLC or Ruthie Henshall on the TAC are probably my preferences. To be honest, even though I know some people love Fantine, that’s probably always been my least favorite “main role”, which certainly plays into my pick of the CSR as the best overall recording. If Fantine is your favorite role in the whole musical, you might prefer one of the other recordings.

And I just want to say that even though I am being picky about cast selection in the previous little bit, all of these artists are wonderful and their work is fantastic. Each of them has particular sections where they outshine the others, just absolutely nailing certain lines exactly the way I would want them to be. I could never in a million years hope to sing as well as any of them. But in trying to pick favorites, I have to make some kind of decision. So the comments above are not intended to slight any of the artists in any way. They just reflect my personal preferences.

In trying to sort out the results of all of my listening, there are several ways to look at things. The first thing that seems prudent in trying to compare one recording to another in a more detailed sense is to ignore all of the songs that do not appear on all four recordings. That takes the total number of songs from 56 (on the CSR) to 34, which is still a fairly sizable number. If we count how many songs in each recording were my number one pick we end up with:

CSR: 18 top picks
OLC: 9 top picks
TAC: 7 top picks
OBC: 0 top picks

So that places the CSR in the lead, with the OLC and TAC coming behind with fairly similar numbers, and the OBC trailing. Another way to look at things is to assign 4 points for first pick, 3 points for second pick, 2 points for third pick, and 1 point for fourth pick. That rewards excellent recordings that don’t quite manage to take the top spot for an individual song. Doing that, we end up with:

CSR: 110
TAC: 95
OLC: 88
OBC: 47

Those results still show the CSR in the lead with the OLC and TAC once again following behind with similar numbers. But this time they seem quite a bit closer to the CSR, and the TAC has also managed to jump ahead of the OLC, suggesting that it may be a more even recording overall, whereas the OLC may have more individual standout songs.

So those song-by-song numbers seem to support my overall impression of the CSR as my favorite recording. Once I finished listening to all of the songs individually, I also listened to each recording in its entirety without interruption, and that also reconfirmed that I personally prefer the CSR. I think that’s kind of interesting because if you had asked me before I started all of this, I would have guessed that the OLC would have been my favorite overall. I think that’s partly because the OLC is the first recording I purchased and listened to over and over again, so it sounds the most “familiar” to me.

When I mentioned to Joy that I was doing this she pretty much thought I was crazy. But I’ve always been curious how I would compare the various recordings song by song, and I guess now I know. I also know how to construct my own “perfect” Les Miserables by selecting the “best” version of each song from the various recordings and combining those together to reconstruct the entire musical (which I have done with a playlist on my computer).

In closing, you can find my detailed song-by-song breakdown after the jump.

Song 1st 2nd 3rd 4th
On Parole CSR TAC
The Bishop TAC CSR
Valjean Arrested And Forgiven OLC CSR TAC OBC
What Have I Done OLC CSR TAC OBC
At The End Of The Day CSR TAC OBC OLC
I Dreamed A Dream OLC TAC CSR OBC
Lovely Ladies CSR OBC OLC TAC
Fantine’s Arrest CSR TAC
The Runaway Cart CSR TAC
The Confrontation OLC OBC TAC CSR
Castle On A Cloud OLC CSR OBC TAC
Master Of The House CSR OLC TAC OBC
The Bargain CSR TAC
The Waltz Of Treachery CSR OLC TAC OBC
The Robbery CSR
Javert’s Intervention CSR
Eponine’s Errand CSR
Little People OLC
Do You Hear The People Sing CSR TAC OBC OLC
I Saw Him Once OLC
Rue Plumet TAC OBC CSR
A Heart Full Of Love CSR TAC OLC OBC
The Attack On Rue Plumet CSR TAC OLC OBC
Building The Barricade CSR OBC
At The Barricade TAC CSR OLC OBC
Javert’s Arrival CSR TAC OBC
Little People TAC CSR OBC
A Little Fall Of Rain TAC OLC CSR OBC
Night Of Anguish CSR TAC
First Attack TAC CSR OBC
Bring Him Home OLC TAC CSR OBC
Dawn Of Anguish CSR
The Second Attack CSR
The Final Battle TAC CSR
The Sewers CSR TAC
Javert’s Suicide CSR OLC TAC OBC
Empty Chairs At Empty Tables TAC CSR OLC OBC
Every Day CSR TAC
Valjean’s Confession CSR
The Wedding Chorale CSR TAC OLC OBC
Beggars At The Feast CSR OLC OBC TAC
Do You Hear The People Sing CSR TAC OBC OLC