It has been twenty years since I first saw the musical, Les Miserables on stage. I saw this epic story, based on Victor Hugo’s enormous tome, three times– once off-Broadway in my home state, and twice on Broadway. The Broadway viewings happened on high school theatre trips.
After seeing, and becoming enthralled with the play, I purchased a copy of the book, which still sits gathering dust on my bookshelf, all these years later. The soundtrack to the musical, on the other hand, I purchased (on cassette tapes– remember those?) listened to obsessively, and committed nearly every word to memory.
The adjective “thrilled” does not begin to describe how I felt upon catching my first glimpses of the Les Mis movie trailers this past autumn.
My skin buzzed with ecstasy upon hearing just a few notes of “Castle on a Cloud.” I was transported back in time to when I experienced the magic of Les Mis for the first time. My body, mind, and spirit are twenty years older now than they were in high school, so this excitement is not a sensation I experience often.
I wondered how the movie would strike me at this point in my life.
In high school, I think most of us connected most with the love triangle between Cosette, Marius, and Eponine. Or we may have been inspired by the young patriots standing up for the revolution in which they so passionately believed. After all, we were young, we wanted to be in love and have a dynamic cause.
I remember my English teacher talk about his favorite part of the play– when Jean Valjean singing “Bring Him Home,” about the young revolutionary Marius. My teacher became visibly emotional. He said as a father, it made him think of his son, and that he could feel something visceral in that song. His story triggered a series of eye rolls from me. Didn’t he know that this was a love story, that the most vital song was when Marius and Cosette declare their affections in “A Heart Full of Love?”
On NPR the other day I heard a story about personal change. In this piece, someone spoke about how even if you think you are who you really are, you will still change throughout your entire life. I was only half listening to this story on my commute home from work, but I thought about how I have changed in the past two decades.
Les Mis is a story about change, redemption, and the power of love. One of the final lines of the show is, “And remember the truth that once was spoken, to love another person is to see the face of God!”
The most obvious change for me over the past 20 years is that I have become a mother. My children continue to teach and change me daily. At my best, I see the world through the lens of a mom, and simultaneously through the eyes of my children. As a teenager, I did not possess the capacity to see the world through many other lenses besides my own.
When my husband and I got to go on a movie-date to see Les Mis the other night, I watched the evolution of Jean Valjean, from angry convict to adoring father and virtuous man, with rapt attention. I experienced the trauma and degradation of Fantine, as she was unjustly fired from her miserable factory job, wasted away on the streets, and died apart from her small daughter, in a whole new light. I was far less interested in the chemistry between Fantine, Marius, and Eponine, and far more interested in how Jean Valjean processed his grief and sacrifice at “giving away” his precious daughter to marriage and a new life.
Like most moms, my greatest fear is being separated from my children through death or disaster. I have random moments of acute anxiety, imagining all of the dangers of the world, and I have to talk myself down from these moments of despair so I don’t live in fear.
Knowing how precious they are to me, and not being able to imagine being without them is a filter on my lens through which I view the world, and everything that I encounter everyday. This is not a view I could have possibly had of the world at seventeen or eighteen years of age.
Another moment of the movie surprised me in how much it moved me. It was when Valjean stole the silver from the priest and, instead of turning him over to the cops, the priest gives him additional silver, with his blessing, and tells him to become a better man. While I am not religious in nature, the mercy and benevolence portrayed by the priest-character made me reflect on many people who have championed me over the years.
It is to be noted that I rarely, if ever, give entertaining media more than a second thought. I was not one of those people analyzing Lost in my spare time, rather I was simply watching it, and enjoying the scenery. I like to be entertained without thinking too hard. I do enough analysis and hard-thinking at work. So, putting this much thought into my reaction to Les Mis the movie, is fairly unusual.
All in all, it was an interesting experience on a number of levels: First, the movie was vivid and energizing and I was totally transported by it. Second, I was keenly reminded of how exciting it was to see this spectacle for the first time as a teenager. Third, I got to experience it in a totally new way that was rare and surprising. And finally, I got to reflect on how I have changed and grown over the years.
In the end, I still see Les Miserables as a love story, just in a different way.