If you are a person, or you know people, you are probably aware that Les Miserables, the movie adaptation of the smash musical version of the classic Victor Hugo novel about love, grace, redemption, and revolution, is now out in theaters. If the months of emotion-filled trailers didn’t tip you off, then the Twitter/Facebook feeds full of instant reviews certainly did.
Les Miserables is a bombastic, over-the-top, epic Musical with a capital M, and yet there is undeniably something about it that engenders rabid fanaticism. Actually, it is those very qualities that make it so beloved. Even as I am aware that it is manipulating my emotions, it is doing it so unapolegetically that I cannot help but love it even more it for making me Feel Things in ways that little else can. I mean, how can I listen to “On My Own” and not totally identify with Eponine’s certainty that “the world is full of happiness that I have never known”? And how can I hear Enjolras sing “It is the music of a people who will not be slaves again” and NOT feel ready to lay down everything for the cause of freedom? (It doesn’t hurt when Aaron Tveit is singing those words…) It’s a phenomenon most internalized when first encountered as a teenager. The tragedy of unrequited love, the thrill and mystery of first love, the unfairness of life, and the stirrings of revolution, and a cause higher than the self are all there, each heightened to near-ridiculous degrees by the dramatic background of the French Revolution and the grandiose score.
The English language version of Les Miserables debuted at the Barbican in London in May 1985. That means the first generation of kids who grew up on the musical are just now entering adulthood, so it makes sense that it is now experiencing a Moment and spreading its wings into increasingly unexpected corners of pop culture.
In a 2006 interview with the cast of How I Met Your Mother on The Talk, Neil Patrick Harris and Jason Segel break into a spontaneous rendition of “The Confrontation,” with NPH taking the Javert role and Jason Segel singing Jean Valjean.
It’s a perfect example of how this musical stirs our most basic and most deeply-felt emotions. It leads grown men, celebrities even, to earnestly trade lines like “You know nothing of my life/ My duty’s to the law/ All I did was steal some bread/ You have no rights/ You know nothing of the world/ Come with me 24601/ You would rather see me dead.” That’s the thing about musicals–they’re rarely subtle, but sometimes we need some unsubtlety to remind us of what we already know, deep down in our hearts. They reflect things we are already thinking, or help us think through how we might react in a given situation, with the benefit of being able to say something more simply and directly, by being in song.
Seriously, go see this movie if you can possibly find three hours together. You will Feel Things, this I promise. Be prepared to hate Anne Hathaway even more for being so frustratingly perfect as Fantine, and to fall in love with Eddie Redmayne (Marius) and/or Aaron Tveit (Enjolras) or really any of those revolutionary boys. Even better, you will also experience a beautiful picture of grace and redemption, with not-infrequent references to the God whose perfect love they reflect.