Last week, my Facebook feed was particularly frequented by a couple of different theatre-related things. One was photographs from a local (to my very-much-not-NYC hometown) community theatre production of Les Misérables. The other was people linking to the blog of bad theatre PR photos. Both of them featured a lot of people in the breed of “historical” costume that is typical of high school and community theatre, where “costume design” can mean “go to Salvation Army and find some things for yourself that matches some vague notion you have of whenever the show is set.”
Now, I’m a great lover of amateur theatre and community theatre. I differentiate between the two. I consider “amateur” to be anything not professional, the choice to spend the time one has left to spare outside of the necessaries of making a living being put toward a labor of love — the word itself literally comes from “love,” after all. What could be more noble than that? “Community theatre,” on the other hand, is specifically that classic Waiting for Guffman stereotype of overblown petty dramas, egos in no way equaled by talent, painful fifteen-minute scene changes, the same decade-old wooden flats being recycled for the scenery every year, and — the Anchorman of the stage. It also happens to be where I got my start in theatre, something I wouldn’t trade for the world, and something I believe to be of vital importance to society. Warts and all, it’s a wonderful thing.
Nevertheless, looking at the pictures, with the clothes frozen into static images and stripped of the spirit that brings that Goodwill garb to life, can inspire some second-hand embarrassment. A wonderful performance can mostly sell most stories, no matter how little the design contributes or how much the design detracts. But still, it’s a shame when the physical production becomes an element that must be overcome, that does little to assist the audience’s suspension of disbelief, or is even a source of distraction. It’s almost worse when the design earnestly tries and fails, like the painful sensation of watching a person in denial.
It was then that the idea popped into my head that I would rather see Les Mis in contemporary street clothes than with a blithely clueless, skill-less approximation of some person’s idea of “historical.” No changes to any of the words or music — just losing the trappings of some sepia-toned vision of “The Past.” Because Les Miserables is a story that doesn’t want to be contemporary. Its tragedy is that it is contemporary.
On my OkCupid profile, my “most private thing that I’m willing to admit” is “Les Misérables — the novel, the musical, the platonic ideal — has had an enormous impact on my life. Enormous.” It’s not an exaggeration. And if I’m going to give myself any credit for being personally honest at all, I can’t refrain from singing my old song of how Les Mis changed my life.
The Cliffnotes version can be found in my undergraduate college application essay. Yes, I got into college writing about Les Mis. It’s over ten years old now, some of it cringe-inducingly so, but I find value in looking back. (I also find value in reducing the amount of effort I have to expend.)
When I was in seventh grade, I finally hit upon a secure career option. In the past, the exciting and extremely unstable professions of writer, composer, or actor had called to me. But no more. My mind was made up. I was going to be a Taoist monk. Life seemed so clear. Inspiration had come to me from a battered copy of The Tao of Pooh, which lay innocently on the dusty bookshelf in Room 6. In that plain little book, I discovered all of the answers. There was far too much stress and artificial complication in the world. All I had to do to find satisfaction was maintain my easygoing attitude and keep everything in perspective. It was amazing how enlightened I felt. Then, a dead fictional revolutionary waltzed in and upset everything.
My introduction to Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables was the PBS showing of the Tenth Anniversary Concert of the musical by Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg, and Herbert Kretzmer. It intrigued me and led me to seek out more information about the musical. Before long, I was completely captivated. The music was lush and expressive. The story was sweeping and romantic. After wearing out my tape of the Original Broadway Cast Recording and seeing the show on Broadway, I was burning to know the source of it all: The Book. As luck would have it, I found The Book one day at a church rummage sale. As my attention span would have it, two days later The Book found itself shoved under my bed.
Eventually, I read the entire book and discovered an amazing thing. Les Misérables is the story of two old French men, one with an identity problem and one with bushy sideburns, who both end up dead. I, however, did not give a penguin’s pancreas about the two old French men. My heart was captured by a ragtag bunch of young French men who all end up dead. Calling themselves the Society of the Friends of the ABC, they take part in the failed 1832 Paris uprising against King Louis Philippe. To me, despite the small number of pages devoted to these students, they are the most moving part of Les Misérables. Each of them has his own distinctive personality. Each could be the college student next door. And each gives his life defending what he believes to be right.
The leader of the Friends of the ABC is a charismatic, stern, idealistic young man by the name of Enjolras. I was deeply affected by his love for his country and ideals. I wanted to follow him, fictional and dead though he was. That presented me with a great dilemma. How does one maintain one’s inner peace while tearing up paving stones, building barricades, and being executed by the National Guard? The decision between the wandering monk and the priest of the revolution was a difficult one, indeed.
It would be misleading to say that I found the answer by myself. It took exposure to a number of different people, only one of whom was fictional, to help me see all sides of the situation. In my quest for sources to satisfy my Les Misérables obsession, I stumbled upon Le Café, an online forum at the official Les Misérables website. There I “met” people from all over the world, individuals with different attitudes toward life, religious views, and political opinions. It was an eye-opening experience for a reserved bookworm like me. Reading the posts of the more politically-active “Mizzies” made me aware of issues I did not even know existed. I discovered that finding inner peace without working for outer peace would be impossible for me. In an ironic sort of way, it was by being a thorough introvert- reading impossibly long books, spending long hours on the internet- that I was pushed out into the world.
To this day, I value commitment to making the world a better place. It may be something big or something small, but I know that I could not be content any other way. In every time, in every place, people have died for what they believed was right. Les Misérables made me love those people and made their sacrifice personal to me. One of those people was there to greet me at the end of my journey. Combeferre, one of the Friends of the ABC, served as Enjolras’ right-hand man, more philosopher than warrior. He smiled gently and told me not to dismiss the possibility being a wandering monk just because I wanted to change the world. After all, the key to life is balance. Pondering that, I asked him if he felt that building barricades was a meditative experience.
Then my mother asked me why I was talking to myself. But that is the subject of another essay.
The change that my watching the Tenth Anniversary Concert wrought in my life is pretty impossible to exaggerate. Not only for starting the journey described in my college essay, but for what happened to my brain when I saw Lea Salonga on television not “playing Asian.”
I grew up as an adopted Korean kid in a white family in a predominantly white town ( i.e., 97.66% white, according to the 2000 census) , going to a predominantly white school through fifth grade (out of approximately 500 kids in grades two through five, at the most diverse point, I was one of six non-white kids). And it doesn’t take a Ph.D. in media studies to know that representation is an issue in mainstream entertainment and culture, particularly prior to the turn of the century. However, I also wanted to be a Broadway actor. In fact, I had devised a practical plan for myself, completely sincere and free of cynicsm or bitterness: I would find a production of The King & I, join the chorus of the King’s children, age up into Tuptim, go back into the chorus as one of the King’s wives, and finish my career as Lady Thiang.
So even if nothing else had come from it, seeing Lea Salonga playing Eponine in that televised concert would have still changed my life. It first raised for me the questions of who tells stories and who has stories told about them and how. It led me to question limits. Even though I had given up performing onstage by the time I reached twenty, those effects stayed with me.
But, as described above, that wasn’t all that had come from it. There was, after all… The Internet.
Now, at that point in time, “the internet” meant connecting to AOL via a 14.4k modem that my mom was skeptical about us having at all and fighting with my mom about my being online versus her talking on the phone. (The latter of which was still an issue until just a couple years ago — the family did switch to satellite, but there’s no DSL or cable services available where I lived. But the sad state of the U.S.A.’s informational infrastructure is another essay entirely.) Also, everyone on the internet was a serial killer. Hilariously, some years down the line, my mother ended up as an information specialist and I think that “you can google anything” is one of her mantras for success. But it was a wild and dark place back then, even among us Respectable Folks who weren’t computer nerds or hackers or any other stereotype of early internet users. Rare was the person who used their real name. You didn’t tell anyone what city you lived in. For years, I wouldn’t be able to talk about any of my friends offline because “And then daisy93 and lilfrenchmaiden went off on a tangent about the naming system, until mllecourfeyrac brought up how it’s done in Europe because I think they live in Europe” is just awkward.
It was my first ever fandom. I’d been a fan of The Wizard of Oz series prior to that, but it was hard to be a member of fandom when you’re ten and the only ways of participating in fandom were through snail-mailed newsletters and the occasional conference held half-way across the county. In fact, when I first entered the Les Mis fandom, there was still a snail-mailed newsletter… but it would cease publication mere months after I had discovered it. This new medium of the internet allowed us all to swarm and hold direct conversations from wherever we were. We could discuss the book, debate the relative merits of the different recordings, review performances that we’d seen and gush over our favorite performers, share historical research, play Les Mis-related text-based roleplaying games of our own creation (“What would happen if they were all vampires?”), write stories and not just enjoy but give feedback on each others’ writing. And then, whenever we felt like it, we could talk about other things. What we had done that day. How we were feeling. Our youthful hopes and dreams. (Out of the group, I was probably the second youngest, with my guessing that the median age was the border of late-teens and early-twenties.) It was the social life that I, living in relative geographical isolation and not connecting with any of my peers at school, otherwise would not have had.
It was in the ideas and written creations of Les Mis fandom members that I first experienced the idea of romantic relationships as something other than an obligatory, predetermined pathway leading to an opposite-sex spouse in heterosexual, child-producing marriage — which I credit partially with both increasing my empathy with other humans who were different from me in that particular way and making it less of a shock to the system when it turned out they were maybe not so different from me after all.
The credit is only partial because: Rent. Even a stodgy traditionalist like me wasn’t immune to being a musical theatre t(w)een of the ’90s. And a stodgy traditionalist I certainly was. I was raised on musical theatre, but it was the musical theatre that comes from my grandmother recording me cassette tapes from her phonograph records (sometimes the relative lengths of the tapes and records were poor matches, resulting in strange repeats and cut-offs — for years, I didn’t know how Cats ended), my mother’s Andrew Lloyd Webber: The Premiere Collection CD, and local productions, which, between school and community productions and national tours going through the big roadhouse, were actually pretty abundant, but which also took place in what marketing firms consider to be the most average city in the U.S.A.. As far as I was concerned, nothing existed before the early 1970s (or before the mid-1980s if it was Andrew Lloyd Webber). It was classics or nothing.
But Les Mis changed that. For all of the charges that might be laid upon it for being an overblown 1980s mega-musical, it was something I had never seen or heard the likes of before. It introduced me to a new form of theatre, a new way of telling stories. And it led me to exploring what else had been happening since Rodgers and Hammerstein. (Turns out that the answer was Sondheim. And other stuff. But, you know, mainly Sondheim.)
As the show spurred the forward development of my taste and knowledge of musical theatre, so, too, did my own passing years see the evolution of my relationship with the story. Looking back at my college essay, I remember how enamored I was of those young revolutionaries — young, because that’s how they were described, but still, old to me. I would often go back to re-read specific sections that I had bookmarked, the pages of their story. They were so much more interesting to me than the multitudinous other threads of which that Romantic tapestry was comprised. In fact, the reason that I had put down the book the first time I tried to read it is because it started talking just about some old guy. Not even Jean Valjean! Eventually, it became clear that this old guy was the Bishop of Digne, but as far as I was concerned, I had no reason to be interested in this dude at all, let alone for [a hundred] pages of nobody else recognizable. Of course, I eventually did find the Bishop to be sufficiently interesting to read the book, but there was still absolutely no rival for the students in the battle for my affections.
Coming back to the story years later, however, I found that changes began happening. Marius Pontmercy, who had seemed like such a bougie, mopey, jerk of a wet noodle compared to his revolutionary friends became more sympathetic in his pig-headed determination of his own identity, his rebellion far more domestic and losing many battles but perhaps winning the war. Suddenly, seeing a talented actor performing “I Dreamed A Dream” could gut me and “Come to Me (Fantine’s Death)” bring me to tears. Javert slowly morphed from a badass symbolic plot device to a much more subtle individual, a human who had a sense of humor and performed mundane tasks, who had to face the very human terror of building himself from the foundation up and finding that the ground itself had shifted.
And Jean Valjean, the protagonist whom I had always tolerated for the sake of being able to follow him through early nineteenth century French history, was now not merely a victim of the system who had transformed into a saint, but rather a man with danger lurking inside of him who was struggling everyday to be the father than he wanted to be for his adopted daughter.
It bears worth to report that I haven’t abandoned those student revolutionaries. They’re still my favorite characters. (Specifically, geeky medical student Combeferre, calm and rational but compassionate, claims the top spot in my affections.) In my case, I haven’t grown older to find their story of idealism and battling the system to be foolish or naive; rather, my past understanding of it and how I related to it was younger and less informed, though no less valid as a tool for finding my truth. My own growth, however, has allowed me to grow in my understanding of the story as a whole and for all of its component parts. I’ve yet to finish re-reading the book, but I have no desire to skip any parts concerning what used to be less exciting characters to me. What a gift, to have a story that I can grow up with! That reveals itself more and more to me as I go through life.
And as I continue on through life, what of those friends of my glowingly sepia-toned youth of online dissipation? When the mainstream moved to Facebook (and I, eventually, followed), I found some of them there. It’s been going on about sixteen years now since I first met them. Now, I know their real names and where they live and even what they look like. Somehow, though, in my mind, we’re still names of our own choosing, putting forth our ideas and enthusiasm in good faith.
The last time that I saw the show, in a stop of the most recent national tour, I looked at the program and found that the man who had played Marius the very first time I had seen it was now cast as Jean Valjean. Unfortunately for poetic closure, the man was out that night so I didn’t actually see him perform. (I was not unfortunate for the audience, though, as his understudy was exquisite.) But even if it wasn’t quite perfect, sometimes the symbolism is there almost too ripe for the picking.
So given all of that, as one might suspect that the recent movie would mean a lot to me.
In a way, yes. In a way, no.
Certainly, it was an item of interest to me, and I was both very excited and skeptical. How wonderful to see something I loved so much being given the grandness that Hollywood resources could provide! To allow so many more people to be able to experience it! And I would eat my hat if online fandom didn’t explode after it was released. But how many things could go wrong with such a project — and unlike a stage production, a movie is a one-shot deal, frozen in whatever final form it landed in upon its release.
On the other hand, this was just yet one more drop in a large bucket of work that rain down from Victor Hugo’s great fecund cloud of a novel. This was no defining event for something that meant to much to me.
The latter was not enough to keep me from raging after seeing the movie. And the latter was enough to keep me raging after seeing the movie.
For all of my doubts from simply knowledge of the casting, with some of the choices simply not seeming suitable, I’d held moderately good expectations for it. And I’m not the type who enjoys not-enjoying things. I wanted to like it! I don’t go to see many movies because of the time commitment it entails — if I don’t enjoy the movie, I don’t get much out of the movie-going experience, and I feel as though my time as been wasted. And that was the Les Misérables movie’s greatest crime, in my book: I didn’t enjoy myself. In fact, while watching this show that I loved with all my heart and which had turned me into a sobbing mess on multiple occasions… I was bored. It failed the watch test — there were a few times that I couldn’t resist checking my watch, to see how much time had passed, how much time was left, how much of my time had been wasted, that irrational act to try to hurry the minutes onward.
And what a shame. The screenplay was exquisite. It adapted the musical to movie form wonderfully. (Well, except for “One Day More.” Granted, I’m no movie director, but I have no clue how a number whose very foundation is the theatrical premise that people in multiple places/time in the story’s reality can be presented in the same place/time in the audience’s reality.) It clarified the story and fleshed it out with several well-chosen details from the original source.
But while some casting was excellent (Aaron Tveit as Enjolras, Samantha Barks as Eponine, Eddie Redmayne as Marius) and some was brilliant (Colm Wilkinson as the Bishop, Sasha Baran Cohen as Thénardier), some was so terribly off-the-mark that I was distracted by feeling second-hand embarrassment for the performers. I adore Hugh Jackman and think that he is extremely talented as both a movie actor and a musical theatre performer — but he was not vocally suited to the role at all. All of Russell Crowe’s acting skills seemed to disappear into what came across as his self-consciousness of the fact that he was singing. (Javert’s, uh, star song “Stars” is one of those theatrical numbers that can bring down the house, opera style. In the movie, for all of the sweeping skyline shots, it just seemed to small.) When the scene at the ABC Cafe began, you went “Oh, so here’s where they put the actual musical theatre actors.” People may lay the charge that traditionalists can’t handle a different take on their precious singing roles, but sometimes the technique just isn’t there or the instrument is just wrong. “But acting!” isn’t an excuse unless we’re talking a role in which singing is purposefully unimportant (e.g., Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, Arthur in Camelot) because if the music doesn’t matter? Then it shouldn’t be a musical.
And while the production design was lush and beautiful and of a dirty detail and grand scale that is generally only possible in the movie industry, we so rarely got to see it. The cinematography was abysmal, which is explained far more thoroughly than I can ever manage RIGHT HERE BY FILM CRIT HULK. Tom Hooper seemed to believe neither that people act with anything other than their face nor that — in this, of all stories! — the person’s context or environment is important. And for the few times when we did reach grand visual scale, the audio rarely matched up — I’m not sure if any blame might be placed on the individual theater’s sound system, but when I saw it, at least, the sound mixing was horrendous. When the convicts are dragging the huge ship in that grand, sweeping opening shot? The sound was so… small. They had made a big deal about how the movie used live singing and how “real” it was, but “real” isn’t worth anything if it doesn’t help tell the story. “Real,” in the sense of verisimilitude, doesn’t necessarily reveal truth in storytelling.
The worst part of the movie, though, was that it wasn’t all terrible. There were some parts that were good. There were even a few moments that we great. But that only meant that I would get drawn into the experience… only to be violently jarred out again and become bored. Had it all been bad, I would simply have been uninterested. But the violent back and forth was so, so frustrating as a viewer.
In the end, however, what perhaps matters most is that the fire was fanned within me again. While there was no point when the flame had ever actually died, there were occasions that caused it to burst forth in greater intensity. When I joined an online text-based roleplaying game as Enjolras, years after I had last done any such gaming with my original crew — and in that game, I made more new friends, more of my now closest friends. When the twentieth anniversary concert aired, the event that is the show still going strong. When the new national tour kicked off and came to cities near me. Only with the movie, I now had both mainstream culture and internet fandom with me. I had tumblr. The entity of “tumblr” as a wild and mercurial spirit, that is. I still don’t have a tumblr account because I’m a grumpy old person who tumblrs all wrong.
But coming at it from whatever direction — it doesn’t matter if you’ve read the book or seen the musical or seen the movie or what your particular combination is. Back when I was young, it was the source of so much connection for me, and it is so wonderful that it is again now. Also, thanks to the movie, karaoke places now actually have “One Day More” available, and hell if I know a better final number for this very day than that one.
So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine, with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age—the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night—are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.
P.S. If you have a couple spare hours, the entire Tenth Anniversary Concert is up on youtube.