I was 21 and spending a semester studying in London. I had fallen in love with the city; adoring its velvet-seated pubs, green parks under grey skies, cobblestoned mews and late night fish and chips tucked snugly into paper cones. The city was a playground for a student with more time than responsibilities, and even our professors encouraged us to explore with abandon- other than writing an occasional paper, I don’t remember much time studying.
One afternoon my flat mate and I wandered over to the West End and found ourselves queuing up with dusty backpackers at the half-price ticket booth. For the small price of £22, second row seats for Les Misérables were ours for the matinée show.
I had never seen Les Mis before- didn’t know the story. But that afternoon I was swept away to the slums of 19th century Paris. When the cast took their final bows, I was standing and cheering wildly as tears ran down my face.
That began my love affair with Les Misérables. I bought the double CD set and played the soundtrack on repeat until the unfortunate combination of after-party munchies, a toaster oven and a misplaced disk ended its reign. I dragged visiting friends to the West End, and then in later years, dragged friends I was visiting to Broadway.
And then, Les Mis drifted away, settling quietly into the memories of years past.
Until this week.
Les Misérables is playing on my doorstep– a revival by producer extraordinaire Cameron Mackintosh at Her Majesty’s Theater here in Melbourne. My eight-year, so often pirouetting and singing before an invisible audience, expressed an interest and tickets were purchased.
In the days prior to the performance, I would burst into song. Making dinner and ignoring my children’s concern over my menu choice: “Look down, look down, don’t look them in the eye…”
When they voiced discontent over a chosen family activity: “Do you hear the people sing? Singing the song of angry men…”
I felt 21 again, ready for a chance afternoon purchase to awaken my emotions. I still remember hearing that stirring music for the first time, the lyrics that invited me to join a crusade, one that would tragically end with the loss of young life. I remember feeling so moved by the impassioned cause for the downtrodden, and the tremulous joy of young love surviving loss.
Twenty years after I was first smitten with Les Misérables, I was ready to fall in love all over again.
And I did. The Melbourne production is fantastic. Simon Gleeson is my new favorite Jean Valjean and Hayden Tee as Javert is a magnificent force upon the stage. Certain production aspects were tweaked- my favorite being the use of screens to convey movement so that we, in the audience, struggle though the sewers of Paris alongside Jean Valjean.
During the performance I snuck glances at my daughter’s face, her wide-open eyes, her fixed concentration on the stage before us. She sat so still, as if breathing would cause her to miss something. She was transfixed and I, as her mother, was thrilled by her enthrallment.
But as I watched Les Misérables so many years after that first matinée, I realized I was watching it differently. Not because of Cameron Mackintosh’s production changes, but because I had changed.
Les Misérables still entrances me, its music still inspires me, but what touches me has altered. Where I had first been thrilled by the students’ passionate idealism and devastated by the tragic loss of young life, I am now drawn to the more complex emotions at play. Jean Valjean’s quest for redemption as he turns his back on the embittered criminal he has become. Javert’s desperate realization that the moral code by which he has lived his life is flawed.
Even more so, my heart aches for the parents. For Fantine, who struggles to provide for her daughter, ultimately dying as visions of her child play before her. For Valjean’s love for Cosette- agreeing to raise the little girl as his own. For Valjean again as he prays for Marius to survive the barricade, as if it was his own son approaching death.
My life has changed in two decades. I am no longer the twenty-something student, ignorant of my own immortality and believing death to be a romantic tragedy of fate. I am no longer free to watch the loss of a parent-child relationship without imagining the unimaginable. My heart is wiser and more experienced, and yet still open to be moved, but by a different narrative.
Some people claim Les Mis is melodramatic, an overwrought rollercoaster of emotion plagued with incessant singing, and they’re allowed their opinion. For every person who loves a good musical, you will find another who abhors the idea.
As for me, the love affair has been reignited, but it is a more mature relationship this time around. I am still moved by the impassioned tale of Les Misérables, but where my 21-year old self hadn’t plumbed the depths of human emotion, my forty-something self has a greater appreciation as to what love and loss truly mean.
I suppose that is one aspect of the arts- to provide a backdrop against which we measure our own lives, identifying where in this journey we call life we currently stand.