Friday, December 21, 2012

Les Misérables

Note:  Did not realize it had been so long since I last posted.  Too much facebook and too many hours recorded on the DVR and it's so much quicker to tweet.  They've made changes to blogger and I'm trying to sort it out.  This topic has been floating in my head for a while now.

My husband Nick and I first saw the theater production of Les Miserables in San Francisco about two decades ago.  I immediately went out and bought the book and about a year later I finally finished wading my way through it.  I think that's the beginning of my being behind in everything....hmm.  I may have skipped the two appendices.  I know one had to do with nuns, I've totally forgotten what the other was.  I'm considering turning it up and rereading parts.  

We both loved the theater version.   We both cried through it.  Being people who share, a few years later we took our adolescent Girl Scouts to see it.  We both cried through it, enough for all of us, which was good because we were the only ones who cried, so the troop average wasn't too bad.

Recently, we went to see it again.  Yes, we both cried through it.  This production wasn't quite as good as either of us remembered.  While I'm not one to fuss over sets, I found the barricade sad!  I think it's a sign of the financial times that they didn't use the rotating stage.  That barricade is a critical part of the second half.

Eagerly but anxiously waiting for the movie version to come out in four days, I've been driving in the car listening to the Broadway cast CD.   I admit, I have to be careful, the words "Tell Cosette I'll see her when I wake" still reduces me to tears.

Partial spoiler alert:  Here's what has prompted me to write - Javert's solo near the end.  OK, if you've seen it, you know the subject matter.  Again, better presented (wonderful swirling stage light effects) in the first production than in the recent one.   His actions are the results of having his beliefs shaken to the core.

The book is long and dense.  Those who write summaries of the play say it's about Jean Valjean a "criminal who breaks parole" and Inspector Javert who keeps trying to catch him and the "prostitute" Fantine (pronounced Fohn-teen) who has a daughter Cosette.  The later part is set amidst the student rebellions in Europe in the 1830s, which I actually learned of back in college.  There are a lot of subplots which come together.  If you blink in the first number, you miss that Valjean was sentenced to 5 years in prison and had 14 more years added on due to escape attempts.  Javert is there when he is paroled.  Condition of the parole is that Valjean always carry his papers and show them.

Here's the subtlety, the nuance.    Due to the incident in the second musical number, Valjean starts down a road of redemption.  Let's say that's what it is because the years in prison hardened him and made him cynical.  But really, he started as a good man.  He stole the bread for his sister and her children.  One wants to cast Javert in the role of villain. But really, he's doing his job, playing by the rules which he respects.   When I hear that final Javert solo, I keep thinking:  they are both good, honorable men.  One had bad, bad breaks and the other never learned my favorite trait, flexibility.  

My biggest rant comes around the Thenardiers in the play.  I have the same complaint about Fagin in Oliver!
Yes, I read that too, probably a couple of times.  I devoured Dickens back in high school and college.  Hey, he gave us a heroine named Esther in Bleak House.  Imagine my joy on discovering her - up 'till then I just had the biblical Queen who saved her people.  But, as is my personality, I digress. 

I completely understand why writers of musicals have to add comic relief to such heavy stories.  But isn't it fascinating that in both instances, they did it using the most reprehensible characters in the novel and made them into charming miscreants and giving them show stopping numbers?   In Les Miz, in Master of the House, one does get a sense of how dreadful the Thenardiers are, if you pay attention to the acting as well as the singing.  Again, it's done comedicly.  Here's something from the novel - they had five children, Eponine, another daughter, existing while Cosette was living with them, Gavroche (the random street urchin in the play) and two little boys whom they abandoned.  Not so charming by today's standards. Both treatments have never set well with my core values.

Yup, I have to revisit the novel.  Meanwhile, I do plan to see the movie soon.  The barricade in the trailer looks awesome!

© 2012 Esther A. Heller