Blog - Do You Hear the People Sing?
October 31, 2019
I had an idea that I was going to share with you all. It was groundbreaking. Stunningly innovative. Game changing. Apres moi, le deluge.
Then I saw Les Miserables at the Dr. Phillips Center last week and decided to write 3400 words of hot take on that 34 year old musical instead.
Background, or "An Insultingly Brief Summary"
Les Miserables is a musical adapted from Victor Hugo's 1862 novel of the same name. The musical premiered in French in 1980 and then adapted into English in London in 1985. It premiered on Broadway in 1987 and has been pretty much going strong since.
The story is about Jean Valjean, a French convict released from 20 years in prison in 1815 and his journey to redemption.
Warning: if you don't know the plot, most of this post isn't going to make much sense but for a crazily simplified summary of a 1400 page book here's what enotes.com says:
"In Les Misérables, Jean Valjean spends nineteen years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread. After release, he's plagued by a suspicious police inspector, Javert. Valjean and his adopted daughter Cosette face much hardship, but finally find peace at the end of the novel."
The story starts in 1815 and ends after the failed Revolution of 1832. (Not the French Revolution, which started in 1789.)
Frames, or "What You Bring With You"
You bring, for lack of a better word, a "frame" that you view any work through. Your frame is both the expectation due to medium and the preconceptions you have for the story.
Different mediums (books, films, musicals, whatever) have their own shorthand and conventions that are sort of taken for granted, and need expected, by the audience. The most obvious example is characters bursting into song in a musical. Are the songs diagetic? Non-diagetic? Is it just purely representational or are they literally singing in the street? For a musical the answer is pretty much: "Eh. Who cares, it's a musical, this is what happens."
These shorthands don't necessarily cross mediums well so something that is accepted practice in one can feel off in another.
In a novel, long stretches of internal first-person monologue is something you can expect, but oh my God a 2 hour movie of voiceover describing everything the character is thinking, seeing and feeling would be bad.
In theater, there's a certain amount of unrealism that the audience will accept without batting an eyelash. When a table rolls in from off stage or candles rise up from the floor we understand it as a scene change, not that a table literally wandered in or candles literally came up from the floor. The logistics of a stage show prevent the filmic establishing shot that we as movie-goers understand is a signal that we've changed locations. In the theater it's fine, but if you watch a movie that has no establishing shots (looking at you 2012 Les Miserables) it's kind of disorienting as you seemingly teleport from scene to scene. (Logically of course you know that you didn't actually teleport. It's not literally confusing but it violates sort of unspoken contract established by 100 years of film convention, and so it's weird.)
Applying the "wrong" frame can give you a distorted reading. A "distorted reading" is not necessarily a bad or invalid one, but its something to be aware of as it is really easy to slip into a sort of bad faith criticism. "That table wasn't there before! CONTINUITY ERROR! Wouldn't Valjean's singing at the barricade wake everyone up? PLOT HOLE!!"
The preconception part of the viewing frame is not always conscious, and it can be really hard to experience something even sort of popular and just taking in the performance as a whole integrated work unencumbered by your own baggage. With social media, soundtracks, advertising, word of mouth there isn't really a way to get a "pure" experience, especially of something like wildly popular musical that's been kicking around for 35 years. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but as someone who likes to think hard about the art I consume, I try to keep it in mind.
For Les Miserables my baggage came in the form of having read the book long before I had any intersection with the musical. Then over the course of this year, in preparation for last week's show at DPC, I watched the 25th Anniversary Les Mis in Concert, which was just about all of the songs but none of the staging or connective tissue. Then I watched the 6 part PBS movie starring Dominic West and David Oyelowo. (Jimmy McNulty as Jean Valjean? "It's all in the game, baby"*) Finally, I watched the 2012 Les Miserables directed by Tom Hooper and listened to the Complete Symphonic Recording, which is the entire libretto with all the interludes, a few times.
* Seriously, watch The Wire.
So I walked into the theater primarily as someone who knew the book story decently well (I'm counting the PBS miniseries here as it hewed closely to the novel), and had some very recent familiarity with the stage show's music. The closest thing I'd seen to a staged version was the 2012 movie, which full disclosure, I didn't think was very good.
The Theater Experience, or "The Theater Experience"
Being at such a mega popular show was an interesting experience for someone like me who has basically seen no musical theater. It was apparent that most of the audience there knew the show really well. There were cheers, anticipatory chuckles, and at least one mid song applause break. The last thing was a little weird to me and kind of broke the immersion, but with such a familiar and venerable show it makes sense.
I thought the individual performances were great. Valjean (Nick Cartell) and Eponine (Paige Smallwood) were the fan favorites; both singers were excellent and those two characters have some of the most dramatic and powerful songs in the show.
The sets and staging have been re-tooled from the original run of the show, but as I have no idea what the original looked like I had no strong opinions. I was a little surprised that there were no title projections that showed the year and location, as the show has some time and geography jumps. I, and probably everyone in the crowd, knew the story well enough to not particularly care, but the hypothetical person with no idea about the story and had not read the program might have been a little confused.
I very much liked the scene after the climactic barricade fight where Javert somberly walks past a cart containing the dead Enjolras and then crosses himself in quick prayer over Gavroche's body. It was a good humanizing moment for an antagonist who is single minded, but hardly evil.
Also, the entire ending scene where an old Valjean dies (spoiler for a 150 year old story, I guess?) was very powerful. Like, I-had-goosebumps-powerful. I think it captures the catharsis and poignance of the end of the novel. The cruel world continues, the most evil characters of the story get no comeuppance, and a sick old man, exhausted from a life of struggle and sorrow yields to death, content with the love of his adopted daughter and a forgiving God:
The night was starless and extremely dark. No doubt, in the gloom, some immense angel stood erect with wings outspread, awaiting that soul.
As a general critique it seemed to me that the music, pretty much front to back, was too fast. It was subtle, maybe only 5bpm (beats per minute) or so faster than the original recordings, but it was enough to make some of the more powerful emotional moments in the songs not quite have time to land before the next line came.
For me it was most noticeable during "Who Am I," Valjean's solo where he, currently incognito as Monsieur Madeleine, decides to turn himself in to save an innocent man that Inspector Javert believes is him. Valjean begins by thinking that if he let's the man go to jail, he'll be free and clear for the rest of his life but ultimately realizes he must reveal his true identity and surrender. The accelerated pace kind of diminished the emotional crescendo that continues throughout the song and reduced the impact of the lyrics.
"How can I ever face my fellow men? / How can I ever face myself again? / My soul belongs to God I know / I made that bargain long ago / He gave me hope when hope was gone / He gave me strength to journey on / Who am I? Who am I? I'm Jean Valjean!"
There were also a few times when the on stage crowds milling about grumbling were loud enough to cover up some of the lead's lines. It didn't step on anything major, but it was something I noticed.
Other than that, any issues or critiques I'd have are basically all inherited from the source material. (Meaning the stage adaptation.)
The Source Material
When I started thinking about the play with more of a novelistic or even cinematic frame, purely looking at plot, character, themes etc ... well, it's kind of a mess. Don't misunderstand, it is absolutely great as a musical and I really really like it but as Lindsay Ellis has said: "You can like a thing while still examining it's cultural impact and exploring its flaws."
(I also do realize saying "If you take away the emotion and power of the music from this musical, then it's a mess" is just as absurd as saying "If you take away the cinematography, script, and great acting that movies just not that good")
I think most of the weirdness of the show when viewed through a non-musical-theater frame comes from the necessary adaptational changes in adapting a 1400 page doorstop of a book into a 3 hour musical. Most of these changes were wise as they massively simplify the story and get us to the same beats in a broad sense, but on a finer scale they introduce some "problems." I don't think these problems are a big deal for the stage show, but when viewed through a different frame after the fact they kind of stick out . Why is Javert after Valjean? Because he broke his parole I guess? How would anyone know in the early 1800s? It's very different in the book, where Valjean, not yet fully committed to his own redemption, robs a child. Working this in to the stage show probably wouldn't be impossible but would take up a large chunk of time for a story that has a lot more places to get too. And ultimately, it doesn't really matter; Javert is convinced that human nature is static and that "once a criminal, always a criminal" so whether he's chasing Valjean for not reporting his whereabouts or for a subsequent crime doesn't materially change anything in the story.
The "Confrontation" scene, one of my favorite in the show, has some geography and timing weirdness that comes from necessarily cutting a huge chunk out of the book. Valjean and Javert argue, sing, fight, sing, and then Valjean runs away. This works, provided you don't think about it too hard. How did the book do it? How did the book avoid making this a sort of boss fight final confrontation between the two characters? It didn't. Valjean surrenders to Javert and escapes from prison later. Trimming that out was a wise move, even if it injects some geographical and plot wonkiness.
The Eponine-Marius-Thenardier-Valjean-Javert interaction after the time jump is extremely complicated in the book and the show very wisely pairs it down at the expense of putting in kind of a weird "Hey Eponine find this random girl for me" thing. (I'm not even going to try to summarize how it plays out in the novel. RTFM.)
There are entire characters and subplots cut from the stage show but you'd have to nitpick to see the adverse effect of cutting Marius's royalist grandfather from the story. ("But where did Valjean take Marius after rescuing him from the barricade?! Huh? Huh? PLOT HOLE")
The plot arcs of the show are...loose. There are four main plots: Valjean-Javert, Marius-Cosette, the barricade fight, and Eponine-Marius. (I guess you've got three if you count Eponine part of the Marius-Cosette subplot. I don't as Eponine and Cosette basically never interact. Even during their love triangle song, Eponine is off the to the side.)
These four main plots kind of have nothing to do with each other. Marius and Valjean are only connected through Marius's chance meeting of Cosette, and the two men don't interact at all until almost the end of the play. The students at the barricade have really nothing at all to do with Valjean's story except that he wanders to the barricade looking for Marius; he's not morally connected to their revolution at all and isn't particularly interested in even fighting with them. (More on this later). Valjean is sympathetic to their suffering and their lives, but in the text he's basically indifferent to their cause.
From a cast perspective, the musical positions itself as grand sweeping epic but the only person who is treated with any real depth is Valjean. (A case could be argued for Javert, too I guess.) The first third of the story is dedicated to his redemption and struggle but after he rescues Cosette he becomes a passive (or absent) character until nearly the end of the barricade fight.
And Valjean is really the only character to have an arc where he grows and changes over the course of the play. He's the only character to have an antagonist and/or character foil (Javert). Cosette is so thinly fleshed out that she's hardly there. Eponine and Fantine are treated with more attention and have some very powerful moments, but their starting points and ending points are largely the same. Ditto with Marius. Valjean is kind of the only character with any agency, too. Misfortunes happen to everyone, but not particularly as the results of their choices. And Javert's ultimate reckoning happens specifically because he can't choose to alter his actions or perspective.
The students fighting the revolution are mostly interchangeable. Enjolras is the leader because he's talking the most; Grantaire is drunk; Combeferre and Corfeyrac are... there. The last two have a few lines but are largely interchangeable with Enjolras. (I had to look up their names)
We never even see who the barricaders are fighting. We know the students are fighting the Man, but we don't see the man at work particularly. People's lives suck, sure, but the concept of a government or societal failure is super amorphous. And they end up dying for nothing. The people don't rise; the revolution fails. So..... Fight the power? Don't fight the power? Comradeship? I mean, I guess? The only authority figure we meet in the play is Javert and his sole interest is the law and his skewed view of justice, not oppression or personal enrichment, or holding onto power.
For me the two characters that were the most compelling are Valjean and Javert by a huge margin. I have a hard time investing in love stories that are thin, and holy crap is Marius and Cosette's thin. Which would be less weird if the love story was not obviously framed as main plot thread.
Eponine and Fantine have some great and affecting moments, but they are both fairly static characters. Fantine's presence in the show is brief and with Eponine the focus on her and her amazing songs only serves to make Cosette, who is basically a MacGuffin first for Valjean and then for Marius, look even thinner by comparison. Emotional power? Check. Plot relevance in a traditional sense? Nope.
I'd say the tone of the play is pretty consistent with one giant, glaring exception: the Thenardiers.
I hate the Thenardiers. Like, presumably you're not supposed to like them, per se, but they are obviously winking, fourth wall breaking, crowd favorites. Part of my baggage going in as a a book reader was that I saw them as vile awful horrible pieces of shit, not the yuck yuck goofy comic relief. Because of this I was a little bewildered by the crowd's joyous reaction to them. That said, me not having that reaction is not the fault of the stage show; the crowd reacted appropriately for how the Thenardiers are presented.
Even in-universe, though, I still think the buffoonery and silliness of "Master of the House" and "Beggars at the Feast" is a little incongruous with some of their other actions. The Thenardiers of the "Waltz of Treachery" and "The Attack on Rue Plumet" feel closer to the more sinister novel versions.
I understand that the play is really heavy and dour so some moments of levity might be needed, but I think the show tips too far in the other direction for those two songs, which bookend the Thenardiers' presence. The Glutton for Human Misery me would probably cut Master of the House altogether as the "Waltz of Treachery" tells you everything you need to know about them without the slapstick but I understand there would likely be a riot in the theater if anyone did that to the show. So I guess I'll compromise and say I think they should significantly cut "Master of the House" down; it's ten minutes long and has like 387,291 verses. (Numbers are approximate)
To me the show's messiness is in starkest relief with regards to the theming. The most obvious and in my mind most powerful and affecting theme is Valjean and redemption. This theme is almost completely confined to Valjean's story. It doesn't tie into the fight at the barricade, or to Eponine, Cosette, or Marius's plots. (There is a case to be made for a kind of redemption and reconciliation connection in Marius's interaction with his grandfather in a plot that was cut from the show.)
All of the other characters either survive the play or die basically the same as they've always been. The near exception to this is Javert, who choses death over accepting the idea of redemption when presented with Valjean's repeated acts of self-sacrificing goodness. Technically he ends the play the same as he started, but his end is thematically connected to the idea of redemption and a direct result of it in a way that none of the other characters share.
I guess you could stretch and say "human misery under a harsh system" is another theme of the show, but I'm not sure what the show is saying about it. The revolutionaries at the barricades use very abstract terms like "freedom," "salvation," and "the people will rise" but there isn't a strong characterization of what they are rising against or how that system is causing the misery that's all around. Also their revolution fails and they all die.
I guess in a really sort of depressing interpretation that thread could be held up as an unhappy contrast to the Valjean's. Valjean's happyish (bittersweet really) ending comes from the personal love and forgiveness that let him endure despite the human misery around him; he isn't interested or compelled to have grand revolutions and overthrow systems of oppression. Valjean is a quietest who lives a hard life and dies pretty much as happy as would be possible under the circumstances. He gets the peace he has always wanted. The students take up arms and rebel and die knowing they failed and didn't achieve the freedom they were aiming at.
So... "stay home" I guess is the point? Yeah, that's probably it.
If you're still reading this monstrosity, I commend your attention span and worry about your priorities. I'm going to cut this off because this has escalated quickly (slowly?). I probably have about 3 more pages of thoughts and that's a little... sad?
I would share the world changing idea I mentioned at the start, but sometime in the last 50 odd paragraphs I've completely forgotten it.
C'est la vie.