Monday, February 27, 2006

Les Miserables – A Transcendent Experience: The Novel, The Musical, The Whole Enchilada

In the name of full disclosure, I must admit up front that I am as big a fan of Les Miserables as I am of the Boston Red Sox. This may seem to be an odd juxtaposition of passions, but if you think about it, it is more like a redundancy! I was smitten by the musical version Les Miserables when I heard the first few bars of “Look Down.” The technology of CD’s was brand new when Les Miz first appeared in English translation on the stage at the Palace Theater in London under the production mastery of Cameron Mackintosh. I recall visiting the home of a friend in Silver Spring, Maryland and being invited to listen to the new device she called a “CD Player.” I strapped on the headset and was transported to another dimension of listening. I am not sure if it was the clarity of the sound that grabbed me or the brilliance of the music, but my family practically had to drag me out of the house when it was time for us to leave and go home. It was the Original London Cast Album of Les Miserables that ushered me into the realm of CD’s. I knew I had to see the show, and over the intervening years, I have had opportunities to see it on numerous occasions – in Boston, New York, London and LA.

Now, 20 years later, the play is still drawing large crowds in London, and the U.S. National touring company is playing to sold-out houses as it wends its way throughout America. It recently stopped in Boston for a brief visit, and I was among the sold-out crowd last Thursday evening at Boston’s Opera House. I was there with about a dozen of my friends. It was an evening to remember. The role of Jean Valjean was played majestically and powerfully by Randal Keith, who had played the role on Broadway in the final Broadway cast. His performance last Thursday evening was beyond flawless; it was transcendent!

There are a myriad of reasons why I am so taken with the phenomenon of Les Miserables. In the first place, Victor Hugo’s novel, which forms the foundation for this very faithful stage adaptation of the story, is a powerful story told at multiple levels of meaning. It is a love story of many dimensions; it is a story about the hunger for freedom and liberation; and it is a morality tale about the eternal struggle between Good and Evil – and Law and Grace. In my opinion, it is the most explicit presentation of the essence of the Gospel message to be found outside of the pages of Scripture. Many people are surprised when I make this assertion, but the evidence is clearly there in Hugo’s text and in the songs that have been written for the play. Here are a few quotations that constitute only the tip of the Les Miz spiritual iceberg -

In the Prologue, the Bishop sends Jean Valjean on his way with these words:

“And remember this, my brother
See in this some higher plan
You must use this precious silver
To become an honest man.
By the witness of the martyrs
By the Passion and the Blood
God has raised you out of darkness
I have bought your soul for God!”

* * *

Jean Valjean questioning his new identity in the song “Who Am I”:

“My soul belong 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.”

* * *
Valjean, in “One Day More”:

“One day more!
Another day, another destiny.
This never-ending road to Calvary. . .“
. . . Tomorrow we’ll be far away
Tomorrow is the judgment day.
Tomorrow we’ll discover
What our God in heaven has in store
One more dawn! One more day! One day more!

* * *

Valjean’ s elegiac “Bring Him Home” is nothing more or less than a plaintive plea for God to allow him to die in place of Marius in the upcoming battle at the barricade.

* * *

Finally, the deeply moving climax in which the spirits of Fantine and Eponine usher Valjean into eternity:

Valjean:

“On this page I write my last confession. . .
Forgive me all my trespasses
And take me to your glory
Take my hand
And lead me to salvation
Take my love
For love is everlasting
And remember
The truth that once was spoken
To love another person
Is to see the face of God.”

* * *

Hugo’s novel is available in the original French for those of you who are Francophones, and in several excellent English translations. I have read and enjoyed the translation by Norman MacAfee, now available in a paperback edition that features a picture of Cosette as seen on the posters for the musical. As you read the novel, I suggest that you read it with fresh eyes, looking for the spiritual clues that jump from almost every page. Here are some of the themes to watch for:

Law vs. Grace personified in Javert vs. Valjean

Vengeance vs. Forgiveness

Oppression vs. God’s Gift of Freedom

God’s people standing up for the helpless: the poor, the abandoned, the orphaned, and the widowed

Individual salvation leading to offering love and hope to others (The Bishop to Valjean; Valjean to Fantine, Cosette and Marius)

Good overcoming evil

Individuals transformed into new identities through God’s love

Hope vs. Despair

* * *

The team that assembled to translate Hugo’s masterpiece into a theatrical legend is a remarkable and gifted group. Cameron Mackintosh, Trevor Nunn and John Caird, Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, Herbert Kretzmer all added their touch of genius to create this extraordinary work of art. In my opinion, the coalescence of music, text, staging, lighting, character development, movement, spiritual depth of the story, emotion, ensemble acting and singing, orchestration and pacing make this opera/play the highest expression of the art form of musical theater produced in my lifetime. This is a strong statement, but I make it having seen close to 150 different professional level productions of plays and musicals in my theater-going career.

While nothing quite replicates the experience of being in the theatre watching, listening and feeling the performers craft a unique version of the story each night, I have relived the experience over and over by listening to both the London and Broadway Cast albums, as well as watching the video/DVD of the 10th anniversary performance. I believe that all of these items can be found on Amazon.com.

Several years ago, in London, I had the rare privilege of meeting at the same time Cameron Mackintosh, Alan Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg at the opening of their musical, Martin Guerre. (Alas, not a very worthy successor to Les Miz and Miss Saigon!) I had a chance to thank them in person for the joy that they had helped to bring to thousands of theatergoers around the world. I repeat those words of thanks, now, publicly.

* * *

The National Tour moves on to the following cities:

Philadelphia, PA (03/01-19/06) Forrest Theatre
Waterbury, CT (03/21-26/06) Palace Theatre
Detroit, MI (03/28-04/16/06) Fisher Theatre
Cleveland, OH (04/18-23/06) Allen Theatre, Playhouse Square Center
Cincinnati, OH (04/25-30/06) Aronoff Center
Denver, CO (05/02-07/06) Buell Theatre, Denver Cen. for the Performing Arts
Tucson, AZ (05/09-14/06) Music Hall
Tempe, AZ (05/16-21/06) Gammage Auditorium
Seattle, WA (05/24-06/04/06) Fifth Avenue Theatre
Los Angeles, CA (06/07-18/06) Pantages Theatre
Dallas, TX (06/21-07/02/06) Music Hall at Fair Park
Memphis, TN( 07/04-09/06) Orpheum Theatre
Indianapolis, IN (07/11-16/06) Murat Theatre
St. Louis, MO (07/18-23/06) Fox Theatre

If you have not yet seen it, do so! If you have already seen it, see it again and bring along some friends and family. And by all means, read the book.

It simply does not get an better!

Thanks for indulging my long rant!

Al

4 comments:

mphatheway said...

Al -

Good post! FYI - Les Miz has long been known as Hugo's "Gospel to the Poor"

Mark said...

Here's my 2 cents...

As someone who is not a theatre-goer, I can say that us "regular" people would LOVE Les Mis as well!

I do not have the knowledge/experience of Al when it comes to Theatre and Music (and who does?), but I was moved when I saw the play at Al's suggestion years ago.

I bought the DVD and have watched it many times.

The gospel message is also very moving in the story, as Al pointed out.

Valjean did nothing to merit the grace he received, and that grace changed him, and he in turn spent the rest of his life a changed man who in turn helped others who did not deserve his grace.

My favorite song is "Confrontation" when Javert and Valjean sing in counterpoint, and it is so obvious how Javert tragically misses the point of grace. He sings:

"Men like me can never change
Men like you can never change"


He obviously did not know the grace of God that changes people.

Thanks for the synopsis Al!

Carlos said...

Ditto! Les Miserables is one of the few novels I think a person should read 3+ times in their lifetime. We've also seen several productions of the show, including a great one in Toronto several years ago.

I'm partial to the Norman Denny translation myself (http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0140444300/nylifesci-20/103-9824635-9663851).

To read it in the original French must be a joy!

scott david chase said...

i wonder how many of the several FILM versions of the book you have seen, and what your opinion, compared to the stage production, is of each of them.