Last year on Christmas Day, I took a Christmas wander and found the Rue Daguerre (though not my original destination!).
Today, in the time-honored tradition of American Jewry, I am going to the movies. But this year it’s not just a movie to pass the time.
Hit it, Colm.
That’s right–it’s LES MISERABLES day.
I will freely admit that this movie could be simply awful. The movie version of Nine was pretty awful. But I’m optimistic, and anyway, as a Les Misérables fan of about twenty years standing, there was no way I was not going to see this movie. And blog about what it all means to me.
I’ve been listening to Les Mis for so long that it feels like a part of me. We started listening to the original cast recording in the car before I knew who any of the singers were, before I could decipher the (slightly indecipherable) plot, before I spoke French. The original cast recording is so rich in vocal texture and character that I remember trying to figure out what these people whose voices were so descriptive could possibly look like. (I did the same thing with Phantom of the Opera–“What color hair does Christine have?”)
By the time I was in third grade, I knew every word to that recording–whether or not I had any idea what it meant. That was the year I started going to private school, and the year I met and befriended Jackie Costas, who could not sing, but who also adored and had memorized Les Mis. (Apologies in advance to Jackie, if she ever comes across this–I haven’t seen her in fifteen years, so I think I’m safe.)
The trouble with being two eight-year-old girls obsessed with Les Mis is that you can never decide who gets to be Eponine when you sing “A Little Fall of Rain” for your third-grade music class. Also, when you’re eight, you have neither low notes nor high notes, which makes singing any of the female roles in this show an impossibility. Well, except Young Cosette, and NO little girl wants to be made to sing “Castle on a Cloud.” (Which is not to say I never did, voluntarily, because nobody ever had to ask me twice to sing something, even then.)
We also thought we were being VERY naughty when we sang “What have I done? Sweet Jesus, what have I done?” I have a feeling we had no idea what “Lovely Ladies” was all about…or most of “Master of the House.”
I finally got to see the show in fourth grade, which also happened to be the 10th-anniversary season when all kinds of people who are now famous were in the show, like Sutton Foster, Alice Ripley and Kerry Butler. I had a t-shirt for years to prove it. (Incidentally, a week later I also saw Annie with Nell Carter as Miss Hannigan. Quelle chance!) I saw it again a few years later with a friend’s family, from way in the back of the orchestra section. It was still phenomenal.
In high school, my friends and I used to hang out in Mr. Phillips’ classroom to listen to great music, play Hearts, and watch the 10th-anniversary concert DVD of Les Mis, which Mr. Phillips’ two-year-old son was totally into. I hadn’t thought about Les Mis in ages–I was in the throes of total Sondheim obsession–and I realized anew just how fabulous it was. It was a way to bond with new people at school, and maybe even impress them a little because I knew all of the words (except the ones that it’s taken me until this year to figure out…).
Actually, Les Mis love connects me to people all over the world, if the finale of the 10th-anniversary concert is any indication. À la volonté du peuple, et à la santé du progrès, das ist die Symphonie von Menschen die nicht länge Sklaven sind!
(What’s funny about this, I now realize, is that this song is too low for most guys who sing Valjean, because Valjean never sings this song in the show. It’s definitely too low for Colm Wilkinson. Also, clearly Irishmen are the best Valjeans ever, and the Japanese guy just looks perplexed, and how about the little smirk on the Australian Valjean’s face when he gets to sing “The blood of the martyrs will water the meadows of France!”?)
I’ve gone through phases with just about every female role in the show, except Madame Thénardier, before finally realizing that anything but Cosette is a pretty big stretch. I have thoughts about the way she should be played–and nobody ever plays her like that. I grew up listening to Judy Kuhn on the original Broadway cast recording, and she is so smart and such a good musician, and her voice is so warm and mature, that she’s the only Cosette who doesn’t come across as a total ding-dong. Of course, it’s a miniscule role, and a bad Cosette doesn’t kill the the show the way a bad Eponine would, or even a bad Fantine (which we saw in the tour in Phoenix this year…yikes). I read far enough in the novel to know that Cosette was quite well-educated, and thoughtful, and by no means a typical French teenager by virtue of almost total seclusion with Valjean and the nuns of the Petit Picpus. She actually has a much more subdued reaction to the whole thing than Marius does, plus she doesn’t have anyone to confide in, while Marius has poor Eponine, who loves him so much that she’s willing to listen to his outpourings of dopiness. (Though in the book, he’s a really smart guy too…guess there just wasn’t room for that in an already 3-hour musical.)
It wasn’t until recently that I realized a few things about this show. First of all, that my adoration of Colm Wilkinson could most accurately be described as a “voice crush”–although truth be told, the man can rock those puffy sleeves–and second of all, that a good performance of this show can move me to tears. Crying over movies, books and musicals is a fairly new thing for me anyway, but I’d heard “Bring Him Home” millions of times before it occurred to me to find it moving. I had sung “A Little Fall of Rain” in music class and in the shower for years, and yet it wasn’t until two years ago when I watched the 10th anniversary concert on Youtube and cried copious tears, thanks to Lea Salonga and Michael Ball (see above). That was around the time that I went to see the 25th-anniversary concert at the movie theater in Evanston and cried for a different reason: Nick Jonas as Marius. But Colm Wilkinson still rocks:
(Also, speaking of crying, I was driving to Christmas Eve services at Trinity last night, and I happened to turn on WFMT, the classical station, and they were playing Amahl and the Night Visitors. I tried to sing along with the beginning of the Mother’s aria, “All That Gold,” but had to stop because I was afraid that my mascara would run. Who am I? And no, the answer is not 2460111111111-nah!)
It’s not perfect, Les Mis. In fact, when we went to see the current US tour in Phoenix, I thought it was distinctly flawed. The plot jumps ten years at once without explaining anything–how DID Jean Valjean go from being an escaped convict to being the mayor of this town and the owner of a business of repute? How did Valjean and Cosette make it back into Paris without getting caught by Javert? Who are all of these random revolutionaries and what precisely are they fighting for, if not a night at the opera?
It’s worth a centime, my dear…
But it’s a story that is universally understood–a man spends twenty years in prison on a trumped-up charge, then spends the rest of his life making good. Anyone can find something in it to relate to (how many people had “To love another person is to see the face of God” on their senior yearbook pages? Be honest, now!). In fact, the other night I went to a holiday party at Cristina’s apartment and spent most of it discussing Les Mis with her friends, most of whom I had never met before. We had a great time–we might have had little else in common, but by God, we had Les Mis, and that was more than enough. Celebrities love it–witness Jason Segel and Neil Patrick Harris singing “Confrontation.”
It’s as easy to make fun of as it is long and epic (as they say, “Thank heavens we’ve got Les Mis / because without it whom and what would we spoof?”). But we kid because we love. Gerard Alessandrini, who conceived of and wrote Forbidden Broadway in all of its incarnations, always said that he never saw a show he didn’t love, which is why he wrote such marvelous parodies.
I will be the first to admit that it’s too long, and some of the words are unintelligible. The music is nothing if not repetitive and poor Eponine doesn’t even get her own tune–“On My Own” is just Fantine’s death scene with new words in the English version, though she had the lovely “L’un vers l’autre” on the original French concept album.
(ETA: It occurs to me that the same can be said of Javert’s suicide, which is exactly the same music as “What Have I Done?” in a lower key. Though that makes a little more sense because of the connection between the two men. Eponine and Fantine, though? No connection at all.)
Anyway. What I’m trying to say is, despite its flaws, nothing hits me where I live quite like Les Mis. Nothing makes me smile on the treadmill like hearing the opening arpeggios of “One Day More” on my iPod shuffle, or finding somebody who knows the Eponine harmony from the finale so that we can have a mini-Les Mis party in the middle of downtown Chicago on the way to the opera. Going to see the 25th-anniversary concert with a good friend, laughing our butts off over the Jonas brother and chipmunk Cosette, only to weep during the finale. Being in Paris and getting off the train at Rue du Bac–“Students, workers, everyone! There’s a river on the run!” Seeing Michael Maguire in A Little Night Music on DVD and having a little moment because OMG ENJOLRAS.
And now that I’ve got that off my chest, let’s make fun of it some more! QUICK AND CHEAP IS UNDERNEATH THE PIEEEEEEER.
P.S. Despite the possibility of the movie being dreadful, I will not be putting mascara on today. It will probably just wind up all over my face.
P.P.S. I originally entitled this entry “It is time for us all to decide who we are”…then realized that that was the title of the blog post I wrote the day I found the Rue du Bac. Ha!