Notes on Les Miserables, La Boheme and Love

les-mis urchinThe fabulously entertaining stage adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables is sold to consumers as “the world’s most popular musical,” an honorific that seems accurate upon first consideration, since Alain Boblil and Claude-Michel Schonberg’s retelling of the novel has been produced in every part of the world (including China) and enjoyed by millions of appreciative viewers.

We’ve seen it several times, and every night in the theater with “Les Miz” has been a moving and cathartic experience, an occasion for tears and smiles, horror and beauty. And gorgeousness, harmonic gorgeousness. The simple and memorable tunes in this show have been with us for decades now, and they’ll likely stay for many more. They’re timeless in their melodic sweep, much like the theatrical compositions of Andrew Lloyd Weber, and much like that legendary master of soaring melody from which ALW — and anyone else with any sense — borrows generously, Mr. Giacomo Puccini.

Despite the clever marketing slogan, Les Miz isn’t the world’s most popular musical. It’s the world’s most popular opera.LaBoheme NYC

Every word of dialogue, every scenic interaction, is sung. Les Miserables isn’t a play with music — such as legendary Broadway musicals like South Pacific, Guys and Dolls, The Music Man, Fiddler on the Roof, or The Producers. It’s an opera, sung throughout. The lead role of Jean Valjean, the petty thief who finds salvation in selfless love, requires a singer of operatic talents. (Randal Keith, the actor playing Valjean in the national touring company, presently in residence in Hollywood, is one of the finest singers we’ve heard on any stage, and he handles the notoriously demanding role as though he were humming in the shower, never showing us how difficult the singing is, only how much he feels.) And the story, which never fails to make sensitive people weep, is operatic in its grandeur and idealism.

If the producers called Les Miserables what it truly is, they would sell a fraction of the number of tickets. Most people are scared of opera, of its pretensions and conventions, of its larger-than-life emotions and larger-than-pop-radio singing. But the thousands of patrons sniffling in the audience at Les Miz, we reckon, would cry the same appreciative tears at Puccini’s La Boheme, which, coincidentally, is prPuccini's loversesently in repertory at the LA Opera, with the glamour couple of Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiou as the young lovers.

La Boheme and Les Miserables are essentially about the same thing: the transformative power of love and forgiveness. They both express this idea with ravishing beauty. They both shimmer. Puccini’s tale is much simpler, since unlike Victor Hugo, he wasn’t dealing with French history. But the aesthetic of both operas is resolutely old-fashioned. They’re both entirely devoid of irony.

How refreshing it is to watch, on back-to-back evenings, two works of musical genius that make no apology for believing in love. How inspiring it is to experience two works of art that celebrate the power of human kindness and the possibility of finding salvation in caring for others. We live in a culture that mocks such antiquated ideas, that winks knowingly at the “sappy” and “sentimental” notions of decency and generosity of spirit. The works of art we produce are disposable, cynical, angry. They seldom aspire to the epic sweep and grandeur of Dickens, Hugo, Thackeray — or opera. When one is privileged to watch Boheme and Miserables on successive nights, the faint possibility that we jaded and knowing modernists may produce art of lasting beauty and power cheers the soul.

Both operas remind us that god really does exist — in the love we make and the love we give.

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