The Apocrypha #4 - Can You Hear the Muppets Sing?

by Mr. Johnson
Charlie's Restaurant, Sesame Street

In 2011 Walt Disney Pictures released The Muppets, a return to the big screen (and the public eye) of Jim Henson’s timeless creations.  While the underlying plotline of the film, a struggle to save a beloved “fill-in-the-blank” from the machinations of an evil business man, has been one of the most grossly overused chestnuts in children’s entertainment (The Three Stooges, Dudley Do-Right, The Little Rascals – the list goes on and on), there were those who decried the film as propaganda that fostered a sentiment of class warfare in the minds of its youthful viewers.  While seemingly a stretch, the sociopolitical climate at the time bred such levels of paranoia that anything remotely suggestive of a threat to the status quo was attacked with fervor.  Just over a year later Universal Pictures released Les Miserables, the cinematic adaptation of the musical theatrical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s greatest work that was once lesser known than The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  Despite its every attempt to veritably cram class warfare down the throats of its audience, this particular social commentary super-charged movie received not so much as a raised eyebrow!

Alarmed by the combined commercial success and absence of backlash enjoyed by this Academy Award nominated tour de force of social unrest, Disney immediately sought the rights to produce their own adaptation of the popular musical – A Muppet Les Miserables!  What follows are recently leaked details on the production which is slated for a Christmas 2013 release.  Special thanks to our Ain’t It Cool News-like band of studio spies who managed to dodge a gauntlet of Disney security, both human and hand-puppet, to deliver this story.  No Bothans died to bring us this information; however we are sad to report that one did pass away from having mistakenly eaten a bowl of Hunger Games berries for breakfast.

In what is likely to be considered the most startling development of this production, there is not a single human actor making a cameo in this film.  This is a unique first for Muppet movies that may have fans crying foul.  From The Muppet Movie (1979) straight through to The Muppets (2011), films of this beloved property have starred at least one human lead and been replete with cameo appearances by B to N-list celebrities.  The producers of this outing have reportedly invoked 1982’s The Dark Crystal as proof positive that a Muppet-centric film can be a box office powerhouse.  How well Muppet Les Miserables will fare absent the Fantasy Island/Love Boat casting appeal of past incarnations remains to be seen.  

Until then, enjoy this report on the casting of the most socially relevant Muppet cinematic excursion since Muppets From Space

Muppet Les Miserables
Walt Disney Pictures
Christmas 2013

Gonzo as Jean Valjean/Monsieur Madeleine
The much plagued hero who finds nobility in the midst of proving himself the worthless thief that 18th century French jurisprudence had rightfully branded him is given ironic new life in the form of a Whatever. 

While seemingly odd casting, Gonzo lends the role its requisite humility while juxtaposing his slight form against the character’s immense physical strength.  Producers reasoned that like Chewbacca, his gangly exterior masks powerful sinews and raw muscle power that is not obvious at first glace.  Gonzo’s countenance, a permanent expression of exasperation and confusion, ideal for conveying Valjean’s lot in life, also played a role in putting the often underrated Muppet to the forefront of this tale. 

Beaker, Swedish Chef, Beauregard, Zoot, and Whatnots as Prisoner Chorus at Bagne Prison
Background and extras roles are the staples of any Muppet cinematic outing, and Muppet Les Miserables is no exception.  As the film opens, a disheveled and downtrodden Gonzo takes center stage amidst a collection of imprisoned Muppets pressed into service by the State.  Familiar faces abound as incarcerated workers toil in the blistering noonday sun, chipping the stone walls of an imposing quarry with the prison walls visible in the background. 

In brief solos, Beaker peevishly begs for the welcome release of death and the Swedish Chef declares that his love will patiently await his inevitable release, both to the discouraging refrains of dirge-like responses from their fellow prisoners.  Producers admit that placing largely incoherent Muppets in the mood-setting initial scene was a deliberate attempt to “inject a little of the trademark Muppet Show humor into the weighty subject matter of a forced labor camp.”  

Kermit the Frog as Inspector Javer
In a striking turn of casting against type, the affable Kermit lends unmistakable irony to the role of the obsessive and officious policeman.  Citing the amphibian’s ability to maintain focus when all around him was collapsing into utter chaos during every single episode of The Muppet Show, director Tim Burton defended his choice of Kermit in such a pivotal role.  Burton did confirm early rumors that Sam the Eagle was an early contender, but an urgent letter from the Department of Homeland Security expressing concerns that the iconic felt and feather jingoist cast in the role of a French national might reopen the rift in Franco-American relations that had gone the way of freedom fries in recent years.

Many in Hollywood have drawn comparisons to casting the face of Muppetdom in such a powerful role with Tim Burton’s decision to hand the cape and cowl of Batman to an actor best known at the time as “Mr. Mom”.  While theatre mavens are likely to complain that Kermit has no place in such a profound musical, producers of Muppet Les Miserables are confident that the sight of Javer effecting the frog’s trademark hard swallow as he prepares to fall to his death in the Sine will sway even the staunchest naysayers.   

Fozzie Bear as the Bishop of Digne
Amid the tragic circumstances that lead a beleaguered Valjean into the graces of the Bishop, the wacky antics of Fozzie offers the audience a welcome  respite. 

While the slapstick nature of this comical bear is toned down considerably, the production does take advantage of this unusual casting choice.  From a cassock that subtly suggests Fozzie’s polka dot pattern tie to the rubber chicken-shaped silver candlesticks gifted to the ex-convict upon his return to the abbey, a number of decidedly tongue-in-cheek flourishes instill the crucial scene with whimsy.  Furthermore, much of the Bishop’s singing is punctuated by oddly appropriate pronouncements of,  “Wakka wakka wakka!”

Pepe the King Prawn as the Arresting Officer (Abbey Scene)
While slight compared to most Muppets, the enthusiastic crustacean is commanding in his brief interlude escorting a thieving Valjean to face the judgment of the trusting holy man.  Producers felt that Pepe’s uncanny ability to convey a range of emotions, mostly varied species of bemusement, made him an ideal choice.

Annie Sue as Fontene
While technically younger than the Muppet’s most famous pig, Annie Sue was chosen to portray this vital character due to the similarities between the two Muppets. 

Seen as a means to get Annie Sue more actively in front of fans, this challenging role has proven none too difficult for the starlet wannabe.  According to eyewitnesses on the set her performance was so moving that boxes of tissues were commonplace off camera.  From the character’s expulsion from the factory that was the livelihood of herself and her daughter to her moving death scene in the arms of a contrite Valjean, an Oscar-worthy portrayal was delivered by a performer who will be patently ineligible for such an honor.  Annie Sue’s puppeteer was quoted as saying, “Now I really know how Andy Serkis feels!”

Sweetums as the Factory Foreman
The boorish foreman is given tremendous presence in the factory scene, towering over the rest of the cast including his charges.

While brief, the role does move the course of Fantine’s life, so producers wanted a character who would mke the scene that much more memorable.  Removing Sweetums from  his traditional characterization of a simpleton to that of a no-nonsense worker who feels slighted by having his advances dismissed serves to convey the atmosphere desired.  Many at Disney are calling this is a turning point in the career of the man-sized Muppet.

Camilla and Hens as the Factory Workers
Camilla heads up the troupe of busy-bodied factory workers as the jealous lover of the foreman in the crucial scene that places Fontene in he hands of cruel fate.  In the fashion of contemporary opera, the clucked lyrics of the scene are conveyed to the audience in subtitles. 

Omagrossa as the Crone
The one-off Grouch from a single episode of Sesame Street appears briefly to offer Fantine a pittance for her necklace.

Miss Maxwell  as the Old Lady
The bookish mouse of Bear in the Big Blue House fame has a brief cameo convincing Fantine to sell her long blonde locks in song. 

Dr. Bunsen Honeydew as Bamatabois
The brutish “gentleman” who assaults Fantine and demands her arrest when Javert enters the scene is masterfully portrayed by the affable scientist.  In another example of ironic role reversal, Honeydew is remarkably well suited for this particular character’s brief moment on screen.  Test audiences found his delivery of the lyrics, “It’s the same for the whore as it is for the grocer!  The customer sees what the customer gets!” to be strangely delightful.

Dr. Teeth and Janice as Monsieur and Madame Thenardier
Who better to conjure up the outrageous innkeepers than one of the most colorful Muppets in the troupe?  Dr. Teeth brings his trademark bombast to the whimsical scenes of comic relief while Janet provides an understated counterpart. 

Director Tim Burton makes exquisite use of the flamboyant showman, muting his color palette in his initial scenes to juxtapose his more humble attire against the psychedelic finery he comes to sport at the Pontmercy-Madeliene wedding.  Even Teeth’s famous gold tooth plays a role, obtained in the sewers below Saint Michele from the corpse of a fallen Muppet during the “Dog Eats Dog” number.

Janice, it is reported, has surprised even the casting director, belting out stunning counterpoints to her on-screen husband’s claims during “Master of the House”, the first set piece to be filmed when principle photography began in February.  “She really did Jim proud!”, became a catch phrase repeated on set throughout a week of grueling takes.

Miss Piggy as Cosette Madeleine

Utilizing both the Muppet Babies and traditional incarnations of the porcine femme fatale, Miss Piggy takes on the challenging role of Valjean’s adopted daughter.  

Early call sheets reportedly had Piggy in the vital role of Fontene, but both the director and the studio felt that she was too powerful a performer to be limited to a first act performance alone.  With the fanciful younger form of the character well established since 1981’s The Great Muppet Caper, Miss Piggy proved a natural fit to take on both the child and young adult roles of the hapless illegitimate orphan.  Screen tests shown to focus group audience were found to be so moving that the decision was finalized and Piggy began filming Cosette’s wedding to Marius within a week.  

Prairie Dawn as Young Eponine
On loan from Sesame Street for the production, the veteran Muppet acts as the counterpoint to the waifish baby Miss Piggy in subplot developing scenes at the inn owned by the Thenardiers

Robin the Frog as Gavroche
The youngest of the Friends of the ABC, the Dickensian street urchin is portrayed with aplomb by Kermit the Frog’s diminutive nephew.  

A child of the slums, Gavroche acts as a youthful everyman (or everyMuppet) to introduce the conditions under which the poor and oppressed of Saint Michele labor.  And he further serves to add an indelible layer of poignancy to the fate of the student revolution when he is gunned down in cold blood while seeking to supply his comrades with much needed cartridge boxes.  Preproduction notes leaked last month suggest that Rizzo was originally considered for the role, but producers felt that Robin’s inherently adorable nature would give the character’s murder in cold blood by French troops even great weight to audiences.

Rizzo and Rats as Urchins and Orphans of San Michele
Accompanying Gavroche as he leads audiences through his poverty-ridden neighborhood is a mischief of rats led by the ever-present Rizzo.  The simplicity of their form allows a large population to be performed by a handful puppeteers, providing a savings to the budget-heavy production.

Walter as Enjorlas
The newest Muppet to take center stage, Walter proved himself in the lead puppet role of 2011’s The Muppets.  It is little wonder given his acting and musical talents that he was hand picked to appear as the leader of the band of students known as the Friends of the ABC.
Where in his cinematic debut Walter questioned his status as man or Muppet, in this stirring role he asks of his fellow non-humans, “is this just a game for rich young boys to play?”  With the future of his beloved country at stake, this bold Muppet leads the vanguard against French troops determined to put down the revolution and restore the poor and downtrodden to their former state of quiet desolation. 

Scooter as Marius Pontmercy
The no-nonsense stage manager of the gaffe-plagued Muppet Show is ideally cast as the lovelorn Marius.  His commitment to the revolutionary cause is distracted by a whirlwind romance with a woman he fell for after a passing encounter of less than five seconds.

With his patient demeanor and the scholarly air implicit in his nerdy spectacles, the self-effacing young Muppet makes bold strides as the first new love interest for Miss Piggy since she broke into super-stardom in 1976!   While the studio initially rejected the casting given the character’s eventual marriage scene, a test reel of Marius pining over Cosette proved more than ample to sway even the staunchest detractors.

Wanda as Eponine
With a female population not much greater than that of the Smurfs, finding ample Muppets of the fairer sex proved difficult for casting directors. 

Called out of relative obscurity, the female half of the ill-fated duo Wayne and Wanda provides a compelling portrayal of the conniving daughter of a family of crooks who’s love of Marius leads her to find compassion while becoming one corner of a love triangle of which her would-be love is oblivious.  His realization comes too late but adds poignancy to their tragic duet before Eponine succumbs to a combination of a musket ball to the abdomen and a falling spotlight to the head.   

Friends of the ABC
Clifford as Combeferne
The bulk of the Muppets portraying freedom fighters at the barricade are culled from the ranks of Muppets Tonight.  The hipster proved an ideal choice to be second in command of the student warriors siding with the oppressed people of France.

Floyd Pepper as Jean Prouvaire
The flag waving revolutionary of “Do You Hear the People Sing?” is lent additional screen presence in the form of the most eye-catching member of the Electric Mayhem aside from the band’s front man. 

Bobo the Bear as Fleuilly
The non-student member of the Friends of the ABC is brilliantly portrayed by this humble ursine, clearly representing the common man in the impending struggle.

Johnny Fiama as Coufeyrac
The womanizing student siding with the cause of the people is brilliantly cast in the form of the stylish crooner. 

Animal as Grantaire
The boorish and drunken member of the inner circle of the Friends of the ABC is masterfully portrayed by the Electric Mayhem’s uncontrollable drummer.  His ever-present drumsticks are replaced by a flintlock pistol and a wine bottle.

Rowlf the Dog as Joly
Speculation abounds that Rowlf’s part in Les Miserables as the hypochondriac medical student is little more than typecasting based on the long-running “Veterinarian’s Hospital” segment of The Muppet Show.

Seymour as Lesgles
The sizeable elephant bellhop becomes a student revolutionary with minimal alterations to his bellhop’s uniform in this cuddly adaptation of the Victor Hugo classic.

Thenardier’s Gang
Farmer Lardpork as Brujon
Unseen since his appearance in Muppet Musicians of Bremen (c. 1972), the brutish Lardpork is the muscle of the gang.

Behemoth as Babot
The friendly exterior of his massive Muppet mingles well with the impending menace of Thenardier’s scheme to extort the much-plagued Valjean.

Banana Nose Maldonado as Claquesous
As obscure as he is culpable, the tropical fruit-faced criminal was a given when casting began for this minor role.

Big Mean Carl as Montparnasse
Rounding out the vile assembly, this traditional Muppet monster gives the group a foreboding screen presence.

Muppet Cameos
A puppeteer who worked on the production during what was described as “a Muppet-heavy week”, and spoke under condition of anonymity, reported that a number of Muppets not commonly seen were utilized as extras and background characters in a variety of set piece shots.  Among these were a variety of Koozebane aliens, cows from The Muppet Show, Uncle Travelling Matt (Fraggle Rock), Blotch (Kermit’s Swamp Years), and Big Bird.  Saturday Night Live’s King Ploobis and Scred were said to have been visible at the barricade and the sharp-eyed should be able to spot The Mighty Favog acting as set dressing at the wedding feast in the role of  a fountain.  A number of penguins can also be found milling about the background of that scene.

Statler and Waldorf
Fans of the acerbic pair fear not, they have not been left out of the proceedings!  The bellicose hecklers provide running commentary throughout the film in the form of prison guards (Work Song), Abbey priests (Valjean Arrested, Valjean Forgiven), road-weary travelers (Master of the House), and residents of the Saint Michelle slums (Do You Hear the People Sing) to name but a few of their cameos. 

While most of the gags are being filmed on closed sets to be added to the film in post production, two distinct interactions have leaked to the entertainment press.  Following the conclusion of the innkeeper’s introductory number the pair are seen peeking out of a room in the inn where one admonishes, “I told you we should have gone to the Super 8!”, followed by a shared laugh.  The second such scene, filmed only this week, involved the two Muppets throwing furniture from a second story window to student revolutionaries building the barricade.  Waldorf says to Statler, “Why are we tossing out all of this great furniture?”, to which his companion replies, “Because this isn’t our house!”  Again, their trademark wicked laughter ensues.

Photo smuggled from the set shows Javer contemplating suicide.
One prevailing concern expressed by many who have seen the leaked script and casting is the apparent lack of human stars.  From The Muppet Show straight through the cinematic career of these endearing puppets there have always been human co-stars with whom these endearing puppets can interact.  Insiders have indicated that the director felt that the scope of the production demanded a full Muppet cast devoid of human co-stars.  This despite a threatened lawsuit on the part of the Screen Actors Guild demanding that a number of their members be allowed to appear in the feature.  In the end the decision was made to go full-Muppet after negotiations with SAG reached an agreeable conclusion.  

“Besides”, said one Disney executive who asked to remain nameless, “If it worked for The Dark Crystal there is no reason it won’t work for Muppet Les Miserables!