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Jean Valjean, Superstar

Les Misérables

a musical by Alain Boublil, by Claude-Michel Schönberg, based on the novel by Victor Hugo, music by Claude-Michel Schönberg, lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer, original French text by Alain Boublil, by Jean-Marc Natel, additional material by James Fenton, direct
at the Broadway Theatre, New York City

The Broadway Theatre, where Les Misérables opened on March 12 amid great fanfare and with a record-breaking $11 million in advance ticket sales, is situated on the Fifty-third Street corner of The Great White Way. Much of the area to its south, Times Square and the Broadway hub, is soon to be demolished by authority of the Times Square Redevelopment Corporation. This destruction, like Baron Haussmann’s revision of Paris in the mid-nineteenth century, is intended to make way for clean façades and pleasant prospects. Gone will be, among other things, the row of edifices on Forty-second Street, between Broadway and Eighth Avenue, that already look like so many rococo, Victorian, and Moderne gravestones. That leaves their population of teen-age hustlers, whores, crackheads, beggars, vagrants, and outpatients. By removing the buildings and replacing them with featureless slabs, the city imagines that the life now present in the area will simply disappear, into history or, if that is not possible, into some other jurisdiction.

The prospect of such sanitizing change inspires nostalgia. The denizens of the Times Square subculture can even now be envisioned as ghosts, and so a romantic tableau of shivering prostitutes, feral children, and destitute cripples can inspire tearful sentiment. Les Misérables presents such a tableau to the great satisfaction of its audience. It also presents an ex-convict hero, a villainous detective, a failed revolutionary uprising, and a great deal of stage machinery.

The musical version of Victor Hugo’s novel was first produced in Paris, in 1980, on a relatively modest scale. By the time of its English-language première, in London in 1985, it had swelled into an epic. It flourished in London in spite of mixed reviews, and then proceeded to sell out its eight-week US tryout in Washington, DC. The hugely successful New York opening merely confirmed its triumph; the show came equipped with a full line of merchandise that included shirts, hats, and wristwatches emblazoned with its logo of gnarled type and its totemic emblem of a tattered Parisian waif.

In spite of its Gallic origins, the show fits into a recent tradition of West End musicals, exported to Broadway over the last decade and a half, that are ambitious, gaudy, and scored to current-sounding pop music. The team of lyricist Tim Rice and composer Andrew Lloyd Webber has been responsible for many of these: Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Evita. Lloyd Webber’s Cats, sprung in improbable fashion from T.S. Eliot’s light verse, is now in its fifth year, and his Starlight Express, a light-show and roller-derby extravaganza, has just opened. All of these creations are considered to belong to the genre of rock opera. This label is rather loose: many of these shows are scarcely operatic, neither do they rock. Les Misérables may not, in fact, rock the house, but it is an opera, at least in that it is through-sung, with not a line of spoken dialogue; that one can determine the relative virtue of any male character by the height of the singer’s vocal register; and that every significant character is assigned a musical motif that follows him or her like a dog.

There is much to be said for an operatic adaptation of Hugo’s great novel. After all, Rigoletto is based on his play Le Roi s’amuse, and Hugo’s sensibility is generally congenial to the scale, symbolism, and color of opera. Les Misérables, with its ponderous dualities, its reversals of fortune, and its numerous melodramatic set pieces, would appear to be the perfect vehicle. The story, that of a just man forced into crime by circumstance, pursued by an obsessive policeman whose idea of duty oversteps the bounds of morality, immediately suggests theatrical translation and musical underscoring, and there are more than enough subplots of romance, suspense, noble failure, and ironic triumph to fill out five acts. The main story spawns so many lesser stories, from the mean but comical tale of the ghoulish innkeeper Thénardier to the bathetic saga of the urchin Gavroche, even supplying them with appropriate songs in the text (which are ignored, at least in the English version of the musical), that adaptors can pick and choose at their leisure.

If no effort has previously been made to adapt the novel, it must be because librettists were overwhelmed by the sheer mass of the book, which amounts to at least twelve hundred pages in any edition. The page count is deceptive, however. All one need do is peel away the layers, beginning with the Olympian digressions: the full account of the Battle of Waterloo, the almanac for the year 1817, the attempt to penetrate the mysteries of cloistered convents. Then there are the equally exhaustive speeches: on the nature of piety, on the nature of tyranny, on all the political variations of the time of its setting. After that there are the side roads into the lineage and early history of all the major figures; though these are often of importance to character development or even plot, much can be conveyed by image or suggestion. After all this skinning one is left with a more manageable affair, a mere three or four hundred pages.

Even so there remains a formidable amount of story to be dealt with. This must have been less of a problem in France, where every schoolchild is familiar with the basic outline. Here the librettists were faced with the task of cramming the meat of nine hundred pages into the first act, so that the second could be left free for the less complex but more dramatically fulfilling denouement. In the Broadway production each of the first act’s four scenes is announced by the unfurling of a scrim, on which the time and place are projected, movie-title fashion. Therefore the audience knows it is in Toulon, in 1815, when the scrim rises to reveal a set which, with its smoky haze, its decaying masonry, its piles of rubble, and its shuttered windows leaking yellow light, bears a startling resemblance to the airshaft of a Lower East Side tenement (the present reviewer’s, to be exact).

After this, events whirl past at astonishing speed, covering the better part of two decades before intermission. Jean Valjean is shown being released from prison, encountering virtue in the form of an ecclesiastic, reverting to crime, vowing to change his life. Then he appears unaccountably prosperous, solaces a dying prostitute, is recognized by the policeman Javert. There follows a lightning trial scene after which he appears once again ill-dressed. He spirits a little girl away from a tavern, and then the scene shifts to 1832 Paris, which is to say, roughly page 800.

Amazingly, there are few interpolations in this version of the story. There are a number of ellipses, many of them telescoping cause and effect and turning the novel’s painstakingly detailed developments into so many faits accomplis. It is virtually impossible to figure out, for example, how Valjean managed to achieve such wealth in the blink between Scenes 1 and 2. Of course the possibility remains that this is accounted for somewhere in the recitative, which, in the mouth of one character or another, follows the action like a trot in small print. Every time an aria comes along, however, the story drops dead. The show stoppers here are quite literally so, since they seldom do anything but plead for Top 40 air play. The themes of the novel are turned into anthems of pop psychology: Characters are constantly suffering existential crises and dreaming impossible dreams.

Velocity is maintained by the clever deployment of staging mechanisms. Two concentric revolving stages whisk characters along through time and space, often deliberately aping the panning motion of a camera. The piles of rubble which decorate the left and right extremes of the stage during the first few scenes turn out to be the most versatile and imposing figures aboard. When the story arrives in Paris, they are wheeled out, and prove to be composed of furniture and oddments of lumber affixed to some kind of core. They are quickly populated by rabble and thus impersonate the slums. A bit later, when revolution breaks out, they are turned horizontally and butted together, and presto: barricades.

The revolution is the centerpiece of both the play and the novel. In the musical it is fought by militant students, a remarkably clean-cut and well-fed cadre, whose cause is a nebulously righteous one, involving both existential determination (“It is time for us to decide who we are/ Do we fight for a night at the opera now?”) and acquiescent self-pity (“One day more/ Another day/ Another destiny/ The never-ending road to calvary”). They decide on their emblematic colors in a number suggestive of “Do Re Mi” (“Red, the blood of angry men/ Black, the dark of ages past”). These very spruce agitators appear in direct contrast to the masses, who stand glumly on the fringes. The populace appears to be entirely composed of women in caps; like most of the women in the play their faces are grimy, a stylistic decision apparently meant to banish glamour from the proceedings.

The climax of the revolt occurs in slow motion, as the defenders of the barricade run in place, and then they all die like Black Bart after a gun duel at high noon. Sooner or later everybody else dies, including Jean Valjean, but all concerned get the opportunity to return as ghosts, looking neither to the left nor to the right, some of the revenants scoring more than one visitation. Marius and Cosette, who embody the young-love subplot, are the only survivors. They not only emerge intact, but in another of the play’s mysterious economic miracles, they also turn out to be rich, despite humble origins. At the close they join with the great assemblage of the dead in a choral finale engineered to suggest “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

What is to be made of all this? The audience has just taken in a spectacle three and a quarter hours in length, spanning seventeen years and a wide swath of French terrain. It has some forty dramatis personae not counting rabble, and twenty-six individual songs besides a prologue and a finale, not counting the recitatives that link them all. There are numerous stories here: success, failure, redemption, torment, requited love, unrequited love, martydom, idealism, the urban condition, the eternal struggle.

It is difficult to make out all these stories from the action; the pace is so frenzied and the direction so telegraphic that much of the drama must be supplied by sets and choreography while the task of narrative continuity is left to the libretto. The libretto is thus overburdened, either plunging headlong through reams of exposition in the recitative or complacently reiterating the obvious in the arias. The actors might be very talented but it is impossible to tell; as singers many of them are extraordinary but theirs is such a motley assortment of Broadway, Top 40, and semiclassical styles they virtually cancel each other out.

The music is appalling. Had the composer contented himself with merely borrowing, the score might have had a chance, since the only memorable tunes are those that blatantly display their sources, which are the obvious ones: Bizet, Weill, Lionel Bart. The rest of the songs are simply riffs, orchestrated to convey the appropriate mood and impossible to recall once the last chord dies out. The operatic motifs, on the other hand, are memory aids: they are jingles, numbingly repeated. In fact, the score seems to owe its inspiration largely to television advertising sound tracks of the last two decades. It is less a dramatic composition than a stimulus-response mechanism.

What the audience carries away from this show is emotion. It does not need to be any particular emotion, just a great welling up of something. Frank Rich wrote in The New York Times: “This show isn’t about individuals, or even the ensemble, so much as about how actors and music and staging meld with each other and with the soul of its source.” Time‘s William A. Henry III insisted that “Far more than an entertainment, it is a thrilling emotional experience.” Thus it would seem to be simultaneously a coagulant and a purgative. Customers feel good not only about themselves, but about the world. After having themselves a good cry, they can make out the rosy stirring of dawn.

In many ways this is faithful to the cumulative experience of Hugo’s novel. In the book, many good people die while some evildoers live on and prosper. The chosen survivors taste but a bittersweet triumph, and yet they are at peace. The revolution has failed, but there is a promise of renewal. Many of the book’s constituent parts are the worst kind of nineteenth-century sentimental dross, but such is the steamroller of genius that it drives all this past one’s guard and against one’s better judgment. After a few hundred pages the reader simply surrenders to the forces of repetition, obsessive detail, and heartstring manipulation. It begins to seem natural that Valjean’s conviction would have been for the theft of a loaf of bread, that he should subsequently have made a great deal of money from clever inventions, that Marius would turn out to be a baron, that the happy couple should be removed at the end from the struggle of the masses.

Hugo makes no attempt to conceal his artifice. The famous remark of the Goncourt brothers: “Hugo has built his book, situation and characters alike, on the appearance of reality, not on reality itself,” is both true and irrelevant. Hugo himself provides an answer in his text:

There is a level of poverty at which we are afflicted with a kind of indifference which causes all things to seem unreal: those closest to us become no more than shadows, scarcely distinguishable against the dark background of our daily life, and easily lost to view.1

While Hugo was writing here of literal poverty, the statement holds true for the viewpoint of his narrator: the only antidote to the poverty of daily life lies in the grandiose, the vision from on high. This attitude he expressed through the formulas of a nonspecific Christian piety coupled with a nonspecific political liberalism. The result is heroic fantasy.

Much has been made of the “revolutionary” aspect of the play. Henry of Time avers: “Its politics always matter more than its love stories.” Director Trevor Nunn was moved by the book’s idealism: “The book challenges its readers. It asks, what are you prepared to do to bring about change? And the stance of the musical is exactly the same.” Just what these politics are or what form this change might take is no more easily determined from the novel than from the stage version. Hugo in fact constructed a generic revolution. It sounds vaguely familiar. Many people seem to think it is the July Revolution of 1830; a picture caption in The Daily News identified it as “the French Revolution.”

The actual event was the uprising of June 5 and 6, 1832, which was ostensibly provoked by the death of the popular Bonapartist general Lamarque, and figured as but one of numerous localized upheavals that arose during the period of general discontent between the July Revolution and the insurrection of 1848. It was entirely confined to Les Halles, and it resulted in 150 deaths. Most of the rioters appear to have been craftsmen who were also involved in wage disputes at the time.2 Because so many of the issues involved were already obscure by 1862, when Hugo’s novel was published, the uprising could stand in for the spirit of revolt without the novel seeming to take any particular position beyond a generalized populism or giving offense to any particular faction.

There is, to be sure, a political context to Hugo’s novel, centering on the former Bonapartist author’s contempt for Napoleon III (“le petit Napoléon“), and much debate takes place among the hotheaded students about Bonapartism and Republicanism, matters that in 1862 meant considerably less to the future Communards than they did to the bourgeoisie. The barricades (“It was a pile of garbage, and it was Sinai”) which figure in the pre-Haussmann Paris of the novel were to go up again nine years after its publication in spite of the ramming through of the great boulevards, and Hugo was blamed for this by reactionaries who attacked him in Brussels. But he was troubled by the violence of the Commune; it failed to fit with his vision of popular uplift.

The musical seems likewise loftily removed from any matters of the present day, despite its moral pretensions. The gush of pure feeling apparently experienced by the audience is dependent on nostalgia, an oceanic nostalgia for a past beyond our grandfathers, when life was simple and therefore heroic. At that time the issues of good and evil were straight-forward, and moral choices, while often demanding, were uncomplicated. Times were hard, but luckily, in spite of reversals, the spirit of change prevailed, resulting in progress. Hugo himself says as much:

The book which the reader now holds in his hands, from one end to the other, as a whole and in its details, whatever gaps, exceptions, or weaknesses it may contain, treats of the advance from evil to good, from injustice to justice, from falsity to truth, from darkness to daylight, from blind appetite to conscience, from decay to life, from bestiality to duty, from Hell to Heaven, from limbo to God.

We have presumably now reached that omega, or so the play would allow us to believe. At its conclusion the cast marches slowly from the murky depths of the stage to the roseate glow of the proscenium’s front, singing: “They will walk again in freedom in the garden of the Lord/ They will walk behind the plowshares/ They will put away the sword.” Thus do the shades of the Parisian slum mob stretch a hand across the centuries to the Haussmanns lurking nearby in present-day Manhattan.

  1. 1

    All Hugo citations are from the Penguin Classics edition of Les Misérables, translated by Norman Denny (1980).

  2. 2

    Ideology and Popular Protest by George Rudé (Pantheon, 1980).

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