Scary stories from a lovely place
Recently I acquired a copy of the 10th Anniversary Celebration concert of the musical Les Miserables written by Boubil and Schonberg. At the time of this show Les Miserables had been playing consecutive seasons in London for 10 years. That was in 1996. I wish I lived in a city that could justify showing a musical for that long.
I can’t complain though. I’ve seen Les Mis 9 times – 3 in Sydney, 3 in London and 3 amateur productions in southern Sydney. My dad has seen it many, many more. As I was growing up dad hosted a number of Les Mis nights – some with full costume and musicians in a hall, others with an excellent pianist in our lounge room. Somehow dad cajoled people not only to come but to get up and join him in singing. As a young teenager when I was converted to Les Mis my school friends joined the ensemble. I even briefly considered doing a joint honours year in English and History and writing my thesis on Les Miserables. My English faculty advisor crushed my dream by informing me I would need to have studied French language to adaquetely write on a French novel.
Poor Stephen and Silas have now been drawn into my hysteria. In January Stephen and I were to spend a night in London. My one request? To see Les Mis. Alas, the weather snowed and it wasn’t to be. On the drive to Gatwick airport and late into the night in our hotel room I recited most of the songs and story of Les Mis for the audience of my tired husband and unborn son. Stephen politely took it all in, no doubt wishing he had married someone who could actually sing. Silas is more of a captive audience. Though rarely needed, ‘Castle on a Cloud’ is his lullaby song. In extreme situations he’ll fall asleep in my arms with a smile on his face thinking about the “room that’s full of toys” and “the lady all in white”. He doesn’t yet understand just how sad that song is. The other day Stephen suggested we name one of our daughters Cosette. He must be coming around.
And why wouldn’t he? Les Mis has it all. Sure it’s certainly miserable, but it is also wonderful. It’s a cavalcade of conflicting characters and an expression of the whole spectrum of human emotion. It’s about the facets of love – the passion of Marius and Cosette’s love at first sight is heartbreakingly contrasted with the desolation of Eponine’s unrequited feelings for the same man – “if he asked I’d be his”. It’s about fatherhood as Valjean’s devotion to his adopted Cosette is seen in stark opposition to the neglect of Thenardier for Eponine. Her death on the barricades is no doubt a direct consequence of the scorn of her parents. It’s about the repetitive daily struggle of those living in poverty. Valjean’s imprisonment for stealing bread and Fantine’s decline into prostituion are mirrored in the refrain near the end – “nothing changes, nothing ever will.” I could go on. There’s friendship and desperation and hypocrisy and the cheapness of life and parental anxiety.
Ultimately though it’s about grace. For Valjean it is mercy that changes the course of his life. The bishop whom he robbed demands Valjean be released and gifts him, not only the candlesticks he stole but the rest of his silverware too. The innocent Fantine begs the stoic Javert – “is there no mercy?” – as she desperately longs for safety for her daughter – “if I go to jail she’ll die”. But the man can’t give what he can’t accept. Valjean seeks to spare Javert’s life on the barricades and teach him what mercy is. But he refuses and calls Valjean “once a thief, forever a fiend.” It’s this obstinancy that leads to his lonely suicide. And it’s Valjean’s determination to accept, give and enact grace in the lives of those around him that leads him to pray at his death, “forgive me all my trespasses and take me to your glory”. I hope I can do the same.And I hope that I can say the same of Silas that Valjean says of Cosette – that he’s the best of my life.