reviewed by Marco den Ouden
Money and investing are just
a part of what makes for a rich life. But there are values that transcend money,
essential elements without which all of the money in the world would still leave
one a pauper. Such values as love, family, truth, justice, honour, and liberty.
So in this article I depart from my usual subjects to recommend a celebration of
life, a tour de force that has enthralled audiences around the world because it
celebrates these values. I’m speaking of the hit musical, Les Misérables.
The proof of the pudding is
in the eating. When Les Misérables first hit the London stage in 1985 it was met
with poor reviews from the critics and standing ovations from the audiences.
Even in Vancouver a few years ago, the production was panned by theatre critics
in the Vancouver Sun and the Georgia Straight as boring, clumsy and banal. One
compared it to watching “gerbils on a treadmill”. The critics, unfortunately,
are often out of touch with the people.
These reviewers are sadly ignorant of the reasons for the production’s great
appeal, the reason why everyday folks reviewing it at Epinions.com give it an
average five star rating with comments like that of the man whose wife “dragged”
him to see it, who went expecting to “hate it” and who came away calling the
music “fantastic”, the staging “brilliant” and “grateful that my wife knows
what’s best for me”. Another was persuaded by a friend to see it and
“couldn’t believe that he “was going to pay almost $80 to see
grown men and women jumping across the stage in song, when I could see the
latest blockbuster at the movie theater for $8!” He came away “dumbfounded”
saying “I enjoyed this show more than any movie or play I have ever seen”.
Many of the reviewers
at Epinions are young people who saw the production on school outings. This
younger generation which is easily bored was very much thrilled by what they had
And the reason is the story
and the characters, the magic of the Hugoesque world where values matter, where
people are purposeful, where even struggle and tragedy end in hope and a
celebration of the human spirit.
Norman Denny, in his introduction to his excellent translation of Victor Hugo’s
novel, notes that the French term is not easily translatable into English.
“Hugo’s ‘misérables’ are not merely the poor and the wretched, they are the
outcasts, the underdogs, the rejected of society and the rebels against
society.” The students at the barricades, for example, are idealistic middle
class students, visionaries with a fateful vision. They are passionate men for
whom ideals are worth fighting for. Some latter day commentators have compared
them to the students at Tiananmen Square who one can imagine singing one of the
most stirring songs in the musical:
Do you hear the people sing?
Singing the song of angry
It is the music of a people
Who will not be slaves
Hugo was a romanticist. He was concerned with portraying human values and
creating larger than life characters embodying these values. The dramatic high
points in Hugo’s novels always involve conflict between values and portentous
Les Misérables, the primary conflict is between Jean Valjean, an ex-convict who
is trying hard to lead a good life based on compassion for his fellow man, and
Inspector Javert, a rigid police inspector for whom law and authority are the
essence of good. Because Valjean changes his name to avoid the stigma of his
past, he has violated his parole. He has broken the law. To Javert, the fact
that Valjean has become an honest and very successful businessman, indeed, even
become the Mayor of his town, is just not good enough.
The values these men hold lead each to crisis points where crucial choices must
be made. Javert tells the Mayor (who he does not recognize as the ex-convict)
that they have arrested Jean Valjean. Three former fellow convicts and indeed,
Javert himself, are convinced he is the man they knew from years ago even though
the man denies it. The Mayor faces a choice. Does he let an innocent man rot in
jail in his place or does he reveal who he is to save the man, destroying all he
has achieved in his new identity?
Valjean later is put in a situation
where he has the power to kill Javert but lets him go. This creates a crisis for
Javert when he later has the power to arrest Valjean. Does he show mercy to the
man who spared him and so betray his lifelong dedication to upholding the law?
How can he live with himself if he shows mercy, yet how can he live with himself
if he doesn’t?
That is the substance of high drama.
That is the source of Hugo’s appeal. And these dramatic moments are not
lost in the translation of the novel to the musical stage. Great moral conflicts
abound. Should Eponine help Marius, the man she loves, to find Cossette, the
woman he loves, thus dooming her own chance for happiness or should she betray
him? Should Marius fight with his friends on the barricades for the ideals they
believe in or should he abandon them and try to find Cossette?
Such profound conflicts make for
stirring songs. One of my favorites is Red and Black where Marius and Enjolras,
the rebel leader, dramatize the conflict between fighting for one’s ideals of
justice and freedom and following the longings of one’s heart. “Red – the blood
of angry men” versus “Red – the colour of desire”.
Not only is the story grand and the
music inspiring, the staging is brilliant. The musical uses a revolving stage
that makes for a fast paced spectacular production. They allow effects that are
usually only seen in movies. In the powerful closing scene to the first
act, the entire cast is marching in the background while Valjean and Cossette
are at a small bench in the foreground. As the cast marches, the set
rotates so that Valjean and Cossette move across the stage. The marching cast
does a lockstep that keeps them marching in place. The effect is astounding. It
is the same as if a camera were panning across the foreground figures while
remaining aimed at the background figures. But while this is visually stunning,
what moves the audience is the song, "One Day More" as each character sings of
the conflicts facing them. A veritable tour de force!
As for that reviewer whose name I
won’t deign to mention who likens it to gerbils in a treadmill - Some gerbils!
A review of the Broadway production
by neo-romanticist novelist Kay Nolte Smith (Reason Magazine, February 1988)
puts it much better than I can. Smith, a keen Hugophile, is not unaware of the
musical’s limitations, after all, the book is over a thousand pages and the
musical just three hours, yet she concludes:
“People love this musical; they
weep, cheer, seem to experience a catharsis. The emotions in Les Misérables are
of a kind contemporary theater and fiction refuse to touch (sometimes even to
acknowledge) except with such ten foot poles as irony, mockery, angst, even
amusement. Unapologetically and openly, Les Misérables celebrates idealism,
freedom, love of one’s children, dedication to the good. On the brooding
scenery, in the often murky light, everyone on stage is ablaze, whether with the
agony of choice, the ecstasy of hope, or the pain of loss. For the audience, the
experience is as exhilarating as unusual; how splendid, one feels, that things
matter so much!”
The fact that this production, which
brings tears to the eyes of the audience and people to their feet in standing
ovations, only brings yawns to some of the intellectual snobs of the reviewing
classes, says more about the souls of those critics than it does about the worth
of Les Misérables.
The show visits Canada starting
with stops in Vancouver and Saskatoon. Be sure to arrive early enough to
read the synopsis in the playbill as it makes the story easier to follow. And
bring Kleenex. The show is unabashedly emotional and a three hanky special.
The show is
a triumphant spectacle rarely seen in the theatre. It is a celebration of the
human spirit. Although my wife and I have seen the show three times
already, we can hardly wait to see it again. It really is that good.