Picture obtained from: http://www.musicaltheatrenews.com/les-miserables.html
Given our readings like Watching the English and our everyday observations of English, the subject of accents has come up a lot on our trip. Many ‘English’ seem to be very conscientious of one’s accent, and can determine one’s native origin and class based on a few sentences. While I have come to expect different situations surrounding speech during my time here in London, one place I did not expect to encounter the topic was at last night’s performance of Les Miserables.
After all, the show takes place in France about 150 years ago. If any accents are going to pop up in the show, you would expect them to be French. This was definitely not the case. All of the characters primarily associated with the lower classes, and usually the ones used for comedic effect (For those familiar with the show, The Thenardiers and Gavroche primarily) had Cockney accents. It struck me as particularly odd. The show as it was performed was, apparently, responding to the English social cue that Cockney accents are associated with a lower class. Therefore, even though it makes no sense for French characters to have Cockney accents, it made sense to the director for these actors to employ them anyway.
I find this very distinct from my experience in the United States. If a show/film is set in a different country than the U.S., all of the actors will either use an accent, all speak in one distinct type of American accent, or use their own accent. While the U.S. certainly attributes certain stereotypes to certain accents, I cannot imagine any show or film using one regional accent to denote someone of a lower class. I think this may be because the Americans simply do not associate speech with class as strongly as the English do. The only case, that I can think of, where the characters from a lower class employ different accents is, interestingly enough, the U.S. version of Les Mis. Even more interesting, in that version (at least on the CD and I’m pretty sure the performance I saw), Cockney accents are employed as well. I never even thought about it until last night, but that leads to a whole slew of questions concerning why the U.S. would employ an English dialect in a show about France. Certainly, the U.S. show was imported from the West End, but it still seems odd they would continue to use Cockney accents.
I am curious to see what others think about this: Is this fixation on accents distinctly English? Why does the U.S. version use Cockney accents as well? I find it very interesting that speech and class find their way, inadvertently, into the arts in London.
If you want more information about the show, you can visit the website: http://www.lesmis.com/