Yes, if there’s anything that can turn me into an over-excited fangirl, it’s this musical. (Not that I’ve ever turned into a rabid fangirl, like the kind that haunts my dreams at night.) I’ve seen it three times: on London’s West End, in a reputable Houston theater company called TUTS (Theater Under the Stars), and yesterday through Broadway Across America. This post is a critique of the performance I saw yesterday, not a critique of the musical itself. Here’s how this is going to work. First, are general critiques, then we explore parallel melodies, and finally we close the whole thing with some of my favorite songs. By the way, I like almost all the music in Les Misérables with the exception of one song which I’d prefer not to name. So, any link you click will contain a song I lip-synched to yesterday. (I am unashamed! 😉 ) One more thing: the links contain the songs from the musical’s tenth anniversary performance, which I believe to be the very best performance.
Les Misérables is an older musical, twenty-five years old to be exact. Thus, it’s been through some musical changes over the years. Songs may be cut, lyrics may be sliced or added, and even the arrangement may be altered. On this last point, I had a little issue. I did not mind if the key of the music has to be changed to fit the performer because there’s nothing to be done about that. What I did mind was that the overall tempo of some of the songs were sped up, giving the song a hurried feeling. This musical is one to be savored. It’s longer and pacing is even and steady. Please do not try to rush it. Secondly, the singers pronounced their A’s oddly. When they sang, they pronounced their A’s in the lowercase sound (as in apple), instead of making the “ah” sound with it. Words like advance, France, and banner sounded, as much as I hate to say it, southern. When singing more formal music, it’s best to pronounce your vowels like you have an English accent. At least, that’s what I was taught.
Alright, now that I have that taken care of, we move on to parallel melodies. This is where the spoilers come in. If you’ve read this far and you haven’t seen the musical, stop reading now! This is your last warning.
The genius of Les Misérables is that most of the songs have a companion song with the same melody, with added measures of additional music to suit the situation, or a slightly different arrangement. Careful listeners can recognize the two, and juxtapose them. How do these two songs relate? How does it reinforce each situation? Let’s begin with the very first song of the prologue, known as the “Work Song” with the one that introduces us to the students, “Look Down”. The “Work Song” not only introduces us to overall themes of oppression, bondage, and inevitable liberation, but it contains an important phrase. “Look down” in the case of the first song is sung by the prisoners urging each other to stay low, work, and not provoke the guards that watch them. “Keep your eyes to the ground, so you don’t engage the guards.” In the second case, the poor of Paris are urging the more affluent and capable members of society to take pity and come to their aid. “Cast your gaze upon the wretched. Take pity on us, please, and help us.” Notice that both songs are sung from a position of deprivation and subordination looking toward higher figures, but one song averts its gaze, while the other one fixes itself.
Next, are Fantine’s swan song, “Come to Me” and Eponine’s passionate “On My Own”. Both songs contain tones of resignation, but to a different degree. Fantine is actually dying, but Eponine sings “On My Own” before she dies at the barricade. Both women are giving up the ghost. Fantine’s dream has been shattered, but her daughter, Cosette, is safe, and she can die in peace. Eponine is recognizing that she really has nothing to live for anymore, so she tells us before she dies, which occurs soon after. Fantine’s equivalent to “On My Own” is “I Dreamed a Dream”.
Two more to go. Next, “Valjean’s Soliloquy” and “Javert’s Suicide”. This one is particularly poignant. Here we have our two main characters side by side. Both of them are at a crossroads, the major conflict of their lives. How will each react? (That’s a rhetorical question given the painfully obvious titles…) So, here’s a thoughtful question: Why does Javert kill himself? Javert is Victor Hugo’s personification of the Law. Law and Mercy go together quite well, but the Law itself has no concept of Mercy. Here’s the mantra: “Keep in line, and I won’t have to come after you.” Jean Valjean broke the law by stealing bread, so the Law follows him relentlessly. When Valjean spares Javert’s life, he literally cannot wrap his head around the idea. He cannot live with himself, so he ends his life. Thus, Mercy “slays” the Law.
Finally, we have “Who Am I?” and my most favorite song, “One Day More!”. The songs are foils for the songs I previously mentioned for Fantine and Eponine. In the first, Valjean faces his first moral conflict. Should he confess his true identity or let the poor sap mistaken for him go to jail? He resolves to do the former. That’s what these two songs are about, resolution. That being said, it’s very fitting that Valjean is the first to sing in this one. All the conflicts of Les Misérables center around his conflict. In “One Day More!”, you hear all the conflicts of the story at once, each of them resolving itself in song. That is why this particular song is my favorite. The actual resolution, of course, will happen later. Oooh, it gives me shivers!
(Hey! You made it through my lengthy analysis on parallel melodies! Congratulations! Reward yourself with a short video that has absolutely nothing to do with what I’m talking about. You have my thanks, reader, for getting this far. If you want to quit now, I really don’t mind. If not, read on.)
I think my brain is out of nerd-juice. Not really. I’m just going to stop before this becomes a dissertation. You can expect this section to be more personal, as I’m just going to talk about certain songs and how well I believe they were sung. Um, it’s not like any young children read my blog, but I have to leave this disclaimer to ensure a clear conscience. This musical is PG-13, and I may be getting into that content as well. One of the songs I look forward to most whenever I see Les Misérables is “Master of the House” performed by Thénardier and Madame Thénardier. In essence, this song is a party song. Eat, drink, pass out, and be merry! The Thénardiers are comic characters in the musical, but aren’t in the book. I definitely like them better in the musical. They’re just as villainous in the musical as they are in the book, but they just happen to have a sense of humor in the former. Yesterday’s company performed it alright, but I would’ve loved to see the whole ensemble on stage for this one. It would’ve been a bigger party then (and look at how much fun the 10th Anniversary version is having in the background!). Though, I’m kind of slapping myself for yesterday, because it never occurred to me that a baguette could be used as a phallic symbol…
“Empty Chairs and Empty Tables” is, without a doubt, the best song Marius sings because all the others involve mushy-gushy love duets with Cosette. Yesterday’s Marius sang it beautifully, and there was lovely symbolism with candles, representing each life on the barricade. At the end, Marius blew his out, and my heart began to bleed for him! It’s unfortunate that Michael Ball set the bar too high for Marius, as he’ll always be Marius to me. “Stars” is Javert’s theme song, and it’s probably second to “One Day More!” in my book. I’m not going to explain the song, save to say that it’s an explanation of his worldview. I end with “ABC Cafe/Red and Black” and “Do You Hear the People Sing?” Grantaire, the most sensual student, makes the entire song. Yesterday’s Grantaire did well, and it must have been a fun role to play. Still, I kind of wanted him to go farther with his stage antics. As for the second one, it’s probably the most recognizable song of Les Misérables, and if it gets my heart pumping, it’s all good. Yesterday’s did get my heart pumping, as did the West End’s. TUTS’, not so much. Let’s just say that I don’t think they picked the right voices for the song…
You’ve officially made it to the end of this post. If you’ve actually read all the way up to this point, I commend you. Not many people can stand my nerdiness for too long. So, all there’s left to do is say a very hardy “thank you” and sign off.
Until next time,