Hi Everyone! Welcome back.
A few items of business–I was interviewed for the bold and wonderful “Marriage Project” by Chanel Dubofsky. Check it out! http://themarriageprojectblog.com/2014/06/25/reflection-132-i-didnt-want-to-be-a-bad-feminist-or-a-bad-wife-later-i-would-learn-they-are-not-mutually-exclusive-terms/
Also, GO USA!! I am seriously into the World Cup, despite not being a major sportsfan. I am in love with the Olympics-like nature of it all. I saw my first match at a bar and the joy running through the crowd was infectious. I think I don’t like sports generally because I think rivalries are idiotic (like people not letting their kids eat popsicles that are the color of a rival team, etc), but when the whole country can get together and root for AMERICA, then I am into it! Here’s hoping we beat Belgium on Tuesday.
Now, onto business. Since I received precisely no suggestions on what I should be blogging about, I shall proceed to discuss precisely what I want until I hear otherwise 🙂 On Tuesday, I saw Lyric Theater of Oklahoma’s “Les Miserables”. (full disclaimer-my brother Perry Sook played Grantaire, but this post is more about my love of Les Miz than of this production, so bias has not affected me. Much.) And I loved it, like I always do. As I once read in a theatermania.com review, “the musical that always delivers never disappoints!”
Now, before you say it, I know. Les Miz is widely regarded in hoi polloi musical theater circles as a joke, right up there with the big old helicopter landing in “Miss Saigon” (same composers, btw). The movie aside (that’s a whole different can of worms I could write a book about), the stage musical is risible to Important People Who Would Know. It’s an adolescent phase, a rite of passage to obsess over and outgrow. It is the poster child of the excess of the 80s musical: like CATS and Phantom of the Opera, it is rococo in its sensibilities, going for too much instead of just enough. My beloved BBC “Sherlock” worked it into a gag this season about how attending it is a fate worse than torture for refined, educated people. There is nothing quiet, understated, or nuanced about it. And it’s embarrassing to admit in public that I voraciously, unchangingly, adore it. And I always will. Here’s why:
1. Jean Valjean’s redemption. Our protagonist isn’t an antihero, struggling to change his ways–he changes them in the first song. A convict, imprisoned nineteen years for stealing a loaf of bread to save a starving child (it’s not too hard to see where my public defender leanings came from) steals some silver from a bishop. When said convict is returned to the priest by some smirking policeman, fully convinced the holy man is going to give him Hell, the bishop instead offers him Heaven–handing over not only the silver Valjean had stolen, but the prize candlesticks he’d left behind. When I first saw the show at 12, this was such a shock to me. The bishop, with one action, did what nineteen years of hard labor could not do–touched Jean Valjean’s soul. One of my favorite stories from my work in the juvenile justice system is that of Sister Janet Harris, a nun in the LA area who works with incarcerated youths. Her office is never locked yet nobody ever steals from her. Once, a boy confessed to her and she refused to give him up because he’d trusted her. When the judge threatened to throw Sister Janet into contempt of court, the boy came forward. Both Les Miz’s bishop and Sister Janet know the same truth: that love is the most powerful force in the world, capable of changing things where law and order have failed. The bishop’s actions are a prologue to the series of other revolutionary acts of love which drive the show.
2. While we’re on the subject, 19 years for a loaf of bread? It’s a bit harsh. In this show, the convict is the good guy and the policeman is the bad one. This wild role reversal impressed me as a kid and still does now. Les Miz is one of the only mainstream dramas I can think of (you’re all going to point another one out, I can tell) that speaks so humanely about the trials of incarceration and the struggles ex-cons have with re-entry to society. As a parolee, Valjean can’t get work or lodging. His incarceration is literally a brand on his skin–a weight that will hold him back all his days. Although we don’t brand people anymore, formerly incarcerated persons are still treated just as poorly today. And it’s a huge problem we need to talk about. I doubt I would have understood it so clearly had I not seen Valjean go through it when I was in middle school.
3. The Thenardiers. Can we talk about the Thenardiers? We’ve got Valjean as Odysseus, the morally complex traveler just trying to get some peace, Javert as Ajax, a man so rigid he would rather die than allow his worldview to change, and then we’ve got these two, post-modern Rosencrantz and Guildensterns straight out of Samuel Beckett. Their philosophy is dog-eat-dog: take what you can to survive, because nothing else matters. Unencumbered by weighty notions of good and evil, they provide not just comic relief (although they are damned funny–Madame Thenardier’s part in “Master of the House” still makes me giggle Every. Single. Time) but another worldview for the audience to mull over. Yes, they’re greedy and morally bankrupt, but at the end of the play, they’re still alive while a lot of the good idealistic characters are dead. They simultaneously poke fun at the absurdity of war and support the necessity of it. Because we can’t all believe in nothing or nothing would ever change. This most recent time though, I was struck by how incredibly necessary they are to the story. The two leads can get a bit larger than life–but the Thenardiers underscore that Les Miz is a deeply human story, one we can all empathize with. And did I mention they are hilarious?
4. The barricade. This nearly three hour show devotes about 40 minutes to the barricade, but it’s the beating heart of the musical. I don’t care if you’ve built the anamatronic monstrosity they use on Broadway or if you’ve got two folding chairs stacked on a wheelbarrow, the barricade gets me. These young, beautiful boys are so confident that once the people of Paris hear about their cause, they will leap up and join them. They start out at the barricade wildly optimistic that they will win–that France’s government will start treating her people justly and the inequality that reigns will give way to a utopian land for all. As the night falls, they realize that nobody is coming. They’ve made a stand, and it hasn’t changed anything. They are all alone. But these boys of the barricades, who do not live to see the daybreak, they do not retreat. They do not beg forgiveness and go home. Instead, they mount one last surge, their leader crying “Let others rise to take our place, until the earth is free!” I can’t tell you how often I think about that phrase. As a young idealist working for social justice, I often feel like I’m on that barricade. I’m told my stupid utopian ideas (like prisoner’s rights, LGBT equality, and reproductive freedom) are never going to come to pass and that I ought to just give up. When I’m older, I am told, I will understand why society cannot function in that way. I want to give up, so often. I want to stop fighting uphill losing battles. But I think of the barricade, and the brave men who sacrificed everything there. As Anne Lamott said, “We all know we’re going to die; what’s important is the kind of men and women we are in the face of this.” And I want to die knowing I gave it everything I had, even if I was foolish.
5. That last song. Oh my Lord. I cannot even with the last song. You might, upon getting this far, remark “Laura, everything you’ve pointed out so far are really reasons to love the Victor Hugo novel, not the musical!” I would argue that millions of people worldwide have seen the musical while only a fraction of that number have made their way through the 1K+ novel, so for most of the planet this is the only Les Miz they’ll know, but you do have a point. However, this song is pure musical. Valjean, on his deathbed, tells his adopted daughter his life story, finally free of the lies he’s carried all his life. Then Fantine, his daughter’s mother, and Eponine, a girl who died for love (and definitely saved her love’s life), show up and take Valjean into Heaven. They sing the line “to love another person is to see the face of God”, and for one moment, the echoes of that line hang in the air and there is perfect, mystical silence. I am obsessed with this moment. The chorus comes in half a second later, but for that tiny moment–all is quiet. And you can reflect on how of all the lines sung at you unrelentingly for the better part of three hours, this is the one you’ll take with you. This is the one that’s true. Because despite the war and bloodshed and poverty of this show, the force that drives the plot, that transforms these characters’ lives, and touches things that nothing else can reach, is Love. Not always romantic love, but brotherly love, family love, love of fellow man, love of country and justice…this play is absolutely dripping with love. And in this post-9/11 dystopic anti-hero world, I think that’s absolutely wonderful.
So go ahead, mock me. Call me simple and uneducated. Tell me Sondheim is ten thousand times more complex and Rodgers and Hammerstein ten thousand times more important. You’re probably right. But for me, this musical is it. It’s astounding, when I reflect on my life, how much of it was absolutely shaped by my lifelong love of this show. Les Miz has taught me so much. And no matter how uncool it becomes, I will always love it–every single note.
What’s your favorite musical? Hugh Jackman–the reincarnation of Ethel Merman? When will they let Lea Michele play Fanny Brice for real, not just on “Glee”? Let me know what you think, and tune in next thursday for my reviews on the top three books on writing.