Les Misérables

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Les Misérables
Painting by Alex Katsenelson

This is a continuation of my journey into musicals (previous musicals).

In 1997 I went to London with two friends who at the time were dating for a week. I was having a tumultuous relationship with a girlfriend at the time and we were taking a break from each other (we broke up a few months later). It was just the three of us. 

This was my first trip to Europe. Till this day I am amazed by the Continent’s deep history. On one afternoon we went to Westminster Abby and saw the tombs of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, and her rival, Queen Elizabeth I. The same evening, we went to see Donizetti’s opera Maria Stuarda, which depicts the lives of Mary Stuart and Queen Elizabeth. Only in Europe. 

The next evening, I wanted to see a musical and my friends wanted to spend some romantic time alone (I don’t blame them), so I went to see Les Misérables (affectionately known as Les Mis) by myself. I knew nothing about the musical. I had no expectations. It was a random musical that I could get tickets to that evening. At the time I did not even know that Les Mis was based on Victor Hugo’s novel by the same name. (In Russian it is known as The Rejected)

I remember walking out of the theater onto a wet London street completely high on the music. It was raining. I didn’t care. This was a different high than the one from Phantom of the Opera. Les Mis is a rare marriage of an incredible story with great, complex characters and wonderful music. I was inspired. I was only 24, still in search of myself (I was a late bloomer). In Jean Valjean I found a role model – not perfect, yet a principled, honest, caring person who was in pursuit of always doing the right thing. 

So I wanted to be like Jean Valjean. Les Mis is inspiringly optimistic. It also provides a hope that people can change for the better if you show that you believe in them. There is a scene in the musical that has really stuck with me till this day. Valjean is released from prison. A bishop feeds him and takes him in for a night. Valjean assaults the bishop and steals his silverware. The next day he is caught and brought by the police to the bishop. Valjean claims that the bishop gave him the silverware. The bishop confirms to the policeman that the silverware was indeed a gift and scolds Valjean for forgetting to take the silver candle holders. After the police leave, the bishop tells Valjean, “You must use this precious silver. To become an honest man.”

Here is this scene from the 1998 movie starring Liam Neeson, Geoffrey Rush, and Uma Thurman:

Here is this scene in the musical:

This act of kindness shakes Valjean to his core and dramatically changes the trajectory of his life.

If you did not see the musical or the movie or read the book I don’t want to give away any more of the story and ruin it for you. As I am reflecting on this now, my reaction that night in London was to the power of Victor Hugo’s story, but the music was an amplifier of emotions. 1997 was literally a half-life ago, and I hope I have come a bit closer to being like Jean Valjean over the years. 

I introduced my then-6-year-old daughter Mia Sarah to Les Mis in a very odd way – we watched James Corden’s Crosswalk the Musical. It is funny and lighthearted. After the Crosswalk the Musical version, we watched the Les Mis 10th Anniversary Concert. I had to explain the story line to her. Her favorite song is “One Day More“.

P.S. My gentle suggestion is, don’t watch the 2012 Les Mis movie, or at least don’t start your Les Mis journey with it. It has a great cast, but the singing is horrible. Unfortunately, I put it in the category of worst movies ever made, right next to Dune (1984 vintage). Some may say I am too harsh. Maybe, but it took sixty years for Hollywood to remake West Side Story, and I won’t live long enough to see the remake.

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