Gary Raymond finds in Les Misérables a musical packed with some of the greatest songs ever written, but a show lacking any interest in the depths of the source material.
I often wonder what the ancient Greeks would have made of Les Misérables. The megalith of musical theatre possesses many of the fundamentals established by the competitive playwright-philosopher-poets of 5th Century BC Athens, and yet it seems to have little or no interest in the compulsion of those “theatre makers”. Boublil and Schönberg’s musical understands the power of the traditional 5-Act narrative structure, it has sincere respect for the allure of the declaimed address, and it is of course a supreme caster of lyrical spells. But I do wonder if an ancient Greek, sent to us by some time machine, shown Les Misérables as an example of how theatre went in two and half thousand years from an excavated hillside in Greece to conquer the world, that they might just ask, but why?
Theatre was always supposed to have a point to it. By which I mean a point much wider than vapid entertainment. It was supposed to grasp the individual sitting expectantly in the darkness (or the warm embrace of the Athenian evening) and introduce them to ideas about life and society. Victor Hugo’s novel does this. It uses the depressing stories of Jean Valjean, Javert, Fantine et al, to explore the France that Napolean left behind after Waterloo. Hugo’s Les Misérables is an epic social autopsy, ravenously political as well as gut-wrenchingly sad, that he himself described as “a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilisation, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine with human fatality.” The musical couldn’t be less interested in the bigger picture or any questions of the divine. In fact, it moves so breathlessly fast, spinning the gateposts of Hugo’s plot points as it goes, there is barely a moment to lean back in your chair and ask, What exactly is all this about? The truth is, it’s about the songs.
There is no escaping the fact that the musical numbers of Les Misérables is a condensed masterclass in hitting an audience where it hurts. The fragile characterisations are bolstered by them to such an extent that the characters almost… almost… feel as if they have more than one dimension. “I Dreamed A Dream”, “Who Am I?”, “Bring Him Home”, “Empty Chairs At Empty Tables”… these are great songs. Great songs. They stand alone as masterpieces, but together knit a powerful emotional tableaux. And, my god, that arpeggio that weaves its way through the story is a remarkable thing, a four-note incantation that has a circadian and celestial power. They loop circles above the audience like a shower of shooting stars, it begins to dictate the heart-rate, it levitates the listener. It’s magical, witchcraft. The music of Les Misérables clearly puts Claude-Michel Schönberg at the top table of the twentieth century’s composers and songwriters. To perform them must be a dream for those talented enough to do so.
And the lyrical work of Alain Boublil and Herbert Kretzmer are also top drawer stuff. But away from the set piece tunes and crowd-stoppers, the musical never comes to terms with the enormity of what Hugo achieved with his novel. The undefinable power of music has replaced character development, backstory, even the simple emotional tags of characters finding their way through the storyteller’s universe. We recognise tragedy, but we are not expected to feel it, not really, not on a humane level. What we will feel is the immense pressure of the music to push us into that corner. Character motivation is wobbly to say the least. Javert needs a therapist. Jean Valjean, in the end, does not need to be quite so the martyr. He actually endangers and upsets those he proclaims to protect because in truth, the only thing he is dedicated to is the idea of self-sacrifice. He is a martyr to martyrdom, and not much more. We are not allowed to ever entertain the suggestion that the future of France is one of pallid ineffectualness, as embodied in the utterly unlikeable lovebirds of Cossette and Marius who skip around a violent uprising like it’s a school project.
And indeed here lies a larger problem perhaps with Les Misérables in this day and age. In this year of Our Lord two thousand and nineteen, the whole set-up feels decidedly out-of-date as well as out-of-touch. There is little joy in seeing a room full of privileged young white men cheer and jeer and plot revolution, or seeing the lower classes portrayed as pestilent zombified monsters who grab out at the noble-folk from the shadows. Hugo was describing the state of the nation. The musical could not possibly profess to be doing any such thing.
The pace, also, is less rip-roaring, and feels more like going through the motions. “Les Mis” is a cultural phenomenon – you know the iconography, the story, the songs – so there seems little point in hanging about. The production now is a rite of passage for musical theatre graduates, and the whole show is delivered with the kind of factory-line coldness you might expect. It’s not so easy sitting for three hours and watching so many people over-acting their way around the stage while looking so bloody pleased with themselves. There are several moments when the barricade is brought out in the second half that a freeze frame of the cast would bring to mind the famous Johnson-Cameron-Osborne Bullingdon photo. When the foppy revolutionaries are artfully picked off by sniper fire toward the end, it’s kind of satisfying to watch. (Don’t judge me, blame the current political climate).
It seems strange to say as well, that a musical adaptation of a 650,000 word novel (one of the longest ever written), is too long. But an editor’s knife to some of the repetitious elements in the final third of the stage show could give some space to the underdeveloped threads in the first half. But of course, all of this is largely immaterial, because people love Les Mis. It has made some people extremely rich, and millions more exuberantly happy. That is not to be sniffed at. And I’m not sniffing at it. I suppose I’m just saying the ancient Greeks may have found it a bit flimsy.
Les Misérables is on at the Millennium Centre in Cardiff until January 4th.