Friday, April 24, 2009

My unashamed love affair with Victor Hugo: Les Misérables in London

"Is there not in every human soul, and was there not in the soul of Jean Valjean, an essential spark, an element of the divine; indestructible in this world and immortal in the next, which goodness can preserve, nourish and fan into glorious flame, and which evil can never quite extinguish?" - Victor Hugo

This, one of the single most splendid events in my life, requires some preface.

It goes back to when I was a 14-year-old freshman at Overbrook High School. My English class was assigned a book report, and we could choose any book we’d like from our school library. I cannot imagine what led me to choose the thick, dense (but still abridged) Les Misérables by Victor Hugo—possibly the same masochistic impulse that led me to become an English major…

I had little experience in real literature then, and especially less in French literature. While my classmates read more familiar classics and novels less than 200 double-spaced pages, I kept my nose glued to my 700-page—abridged—tome. I fell completely in love with the book. My heart went out to each and every character, especially the ones who grow from children to adults over the course of the 20 or so years in which the book takes place: Cosette, Marius, and the Thénardier children. I also emphasized with every adult, especially because they were so pathetically human in their wretchedness.

In any case, I wolfed the book down, wrote a heartwrenching report of it, and put it away.

Fast-forward to last year. While browsing the library for the first time as a Rider University student, I found the old title sticking to the dusty, neglected books crowding the shelf of the French literature section. Again, something possessed me to pry it out of its deep rest. This time I felt compelled to absorb the full genius of Victor Hugo: I decided to read the full, unabridged 1300-page version.


It took me literally all year; I had to renew it over and over and put it away a few times for class readings and some awkward freshman social events. Still, I managed to finish it, overwhelmed but triumphant, during finals week in May 2008.

Earlier that spring, my friend Julie alerted me to the existence of not just a play, but a musical adaptation of this masterpiece. I was utterly impudent with her, insisting that there was no possible way this expansive, prolific, intellectual epic could be transformed into a 2-3 hour lyrical skirmish that would delight the masses. It’s too deep, wide-ranging, and all-encompassing. While it’s true the writers could cut Hugo’s historical and architectural tirades (by this time I was convinced I knew the sewer system of Paris better than the cleverest local street urchin), there were too many profound characters, too many riveting and suspenseful climaxes to work at all on stage, especially to an audience unfamiliar with the story.

Julie answered my defiant and fiercely loyal rambling by producing an old tape from her shelf and popping it into her VCR. It was “Les Misérables: 10th Anniversary Concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall.” I sat down to watch, still skeptical.

After the first 10 minutes, I was shocked to realize: the impossible had been done!

Of course, what I originally predicted was still, in a way, true: the musical’s writers, Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, take liberties to cut out some characters and change others completely. They altered the timeline of the story to shorten the wooing period between Marius and Cosette into one day (not to mention the time preceding their love, when Marius knew Cosette and thought her a plain-looking girl). Still, I was mostly thrilled, with only one or two complaints of disloyalty (for example, the Marius of the original London cast—Michael Ball—is portly and middle-aged, when Marius is supposed to be the picture of a fervent, slender youth; and Gavroche’s large part in the book is condensed to a short revelation, a heart-breaking death and a few comedic lines in a song).

I became more excited when I heard we were going to see Les Mis in London with the BHP freshmen and accompanying faculty. When the day finally came, I believe must’ve been trembling as we rounded the corner and saw the incandescent lights of Queen’s Theatre, advertising the longest-running musical in London theatre history. I’m absolutely sure I was trembling when I departed the place, at least.

When we took our seats, I asked Julie if she had tissues just in case I couldn’t control my emotions. She affirmed, well-prepared for a complete sob fest. It’s a good thing she did, too, because I completely lost my head on at least four occasions.

I could write every tiny detail happily, as they stick in my memory well, but for the sake of you, reader, I’ll limit myself to the set and the four heartbreaking moments in the play.

The set is huge, and this spectacle, for better or for worse, is unavoidable in this kind of a West End blockbuster production; after all, the first act’s set alone must encompass four different settings or cities. A rotating circular floor board moves people and props from the foreground to the dark and hazy background. The second act reveals a sprawling, realistic, similarly rotating barricade; and these are just the floor pieces! Other constructions include the garden of Valjean’s house where Marius courts Cosette, the two-tiered slums of Paris, the bridge over the River Seine, the ABC café where the student rebels meet, the sewers where Valjean carries Marius, and the infamous inn Thénardier keeps.

One astonishing thing about this play is, just as Frederick Douglass hid some details of his cruel treatment as a slave that his readers would have a hard time believing, Les Mis, in all its painful power, doesn’t convey even a fraction of the characters’ suffering in the original story—especially of Little Cosette (played by Adrianna Bertola) and Fantine (played by Joanna Ampil). This brings me to my primary breakdown moment. I got choked up over Cosette’s simple, innocent, and extraordinarily childlike wishes for the mother and safe haven she never knew. In the next scene, Fantine, who fell ill from being out in the cold as a prostitute with only one ragged dress to cover her, suffered a horrible, fear-stricken death in the book, which was conveniently left out by the musical’s writers. In the play, her illness alone leaves her dead, after she gets haunted by hallucinations of Cosette and lucidly begs Valjean (played by Drew Sarich) to care for her orphan daughter. My only complaint is that Fantine’s voice seemed more fitting for Eponine’s typically rough, reedy part, as opposed to Fantine’s deep one.

That was the only time I cried in the first act, which is largely comprised of rising action, plotting out the climax and falling action of the second act. In the second act, I initially cried over Eponine’s earnest song, “On My Own.” Eponine (Cassandra Compton) had a chilling, harsh, and bitter voice; yet when she spoke with Marius (Gary Watson), she adopted a much more tender tone. I was moved especially by the fact that I was seeing Hugo’s genius come to life, knowing the full scope of Eponine’s character (in the book she tries to impress Marius by showing him she can read, write and look after herself in the city of Paris—quite an accomplishment for a working class female in the 1830s—but only Cosette’s blooming beauty can turn his head).

The scene at night in the barricade, in which Valjean prays to God to save Marius from death, didn’t make me cry; however, I feel compelled to remark on it, as Julie told me that Sarich performed the song better than any other version she’s heard of it. As it was only the second time I’d ever heard it sung, I wouldn’t be able to confirm this superlative, but I do remember it being phenomenal.

I must also mention two more expert actors: Edward Baruwa playing Enjolras and Hans Peter Janssens playing Javert. I was at first thrown off by Baruwa, just as I was when I saw the portly Michael Ball playing Marius—after all, Hugo’s Enjolras was not a black dude with a shaven head. Luckily, Baruwa immediately won me over with his beautiful stage presence and powerful, stirring voice. Janssens is perfect for his part in looks, and his voice and facial expressions were as striking as his rigid ideologies about the law.

I broke down most blatantly over the sudden, noble and fearless self-sacrifice Gavroche (Jonathan Chabala) made for the sake of the barricade. He murmurs his song tenuously, competing with the sounds of muskets firing at him, and pilfers dead soldiers for ammo. The song, which ends in “so you better run for cover when the pup grows up!,” is cut off by a striking, lethal shot. The drama of this was (surprisingly) not overdone, though the gunshot was startling; in cruel and perfect irony, Gavroche dies before he could get out the last word. In that moment, I heard the rest of the audience catch their breath; after all, the adorable, brave, mischievous orphan is everyone’s favorite.

Finally, I wept throughout the entire final scene, after Marius realizes Valjean is his savior and goes with Cosette (by this point grown up, of course, and played by Claire-Marie Hall) to Valjean’s deathbed. They make it just in time to say goodbye and for Cosette to learn the whole sad, socially unacceptable truth of her origin. Meanwhile, those two other careworn martyrs, Fantine and Eponine, glide onstage in angelic form to light Valjean’s way into death—and presumably, heaven. (If I make the musical sound corny and super-Christian here, I apologize; it’s really not too preachy or overwhelmingly religious) The musical comes full circle as Valjean achieves redemption for his past crimes.

I must add one more thing about the comedic element of the musical: the Thenardiers, played by Chris Vincent and Melanie La Barrie, were fantastic performers. Their voices and accents were apt, of course. More importantly, the scene at the inn was excellently choreographed, with lots of entertaining banter in gestures and body language (women slapping men’s faces for slapping their behinds) while the master and madame confess the hilarious details of their swindling, poverty-driven lifestyles.

Because of my undying devotion for Victor Hugo and his epic masterpiece of social commentary, political ferocity, and historical fiction, I also fell in love with Les Misérables the musical. I found it to be a gripping, mostly loyal adaptation of this miracle work of literature.

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