Last weekend, I was lucky enough to see Les Misérables on Broadway in New York City. This was my third experience with the show; I had seen a traveling production in high school and, of course, the movie version. Even so, the musical, as always, had the following effect, as described by Larry in Veggie Tales: “I laughed. I cried. It moved me, Bob.”
(Of course, if you’re familiar with the show or at least read the name of it, you know there’s not too many laughs to be had, but there are a few. On that note, if you’re not familiar with the show, the rest of this post may not be very enjoyable for you. Here is brief summary, and beyond that, I recommend that you watch the movie and/or listen to a soundtrack posthaste.)
As I thought about how much I love Les Mis and the myriad of effects it’s had on me, I thought it would only be fitting to write a tribute to this wonderful musical. Also, conveniently, I couldn’t think of anything else to write about this week. So, without further ado…
...An Ode to Les Mis
Oh, Les Mis. The first time I saw it as a high school student, I didn’t know much about it except that it would probably be mostly depressing and that it would be almost entirely sung. I wasn’t sure how I felt about either of these things. I’m usually more of a feel-good musical girl, and I like my witty dialogue. Still, I knew that Les Mis couldn’t be so famous for nothing, so I gave it a shot.
I wasn’t disappointed.True, I did have a little trouble following the story because they kept singing all the plot points instead of saying them. And true, I felt a little embarrassed because I didn’t know for sure if this particular French revolution they were talking about had actually happened. (It did, although I would go on to forget that every time I saw the show, which is even more embarrassing.) But I was overwhelmed, in a good way, by the powerful music and drama. The sets were amazing, the singers some of the most talented I had ever heard. But best of all, there was a female character who felt the pangs of unrequited love. I don’t think there’s a teenage girl alive who can’t relate to Eponine and her classic song “On My Own” at some point in her life. It’s our anthem, man.
For you Les Mis fans who are bashing your heads into a wall and yelling, “WHAT A SHALLOW NOOB. SHE MISSED THE MAIN POINT OF THE WHOLE THING,” never fear. I did come to fully appreciate the other, more central, aspects of the show. Instantly intrigued, I checked out the soundtrack from the library and proceeded to listen to it approximately 1,000 times. I also researched more about Les Mis like the true nerd that I was and am (although apparently the history behind it never really stuck). That, plus conversations with fellow Les Mis fans, made me realize how powerfully the Gospel is portrayed in Les Mis, in a way that puts today’s Christian movies to total shame. You cannot find a better illustration of the contrast between those who live by grace and those who live by the law than Jean Valjean and Javert.
Jean Valjean, an ex-prisoner, receives grace from a bishop he steals from in desperation, and he embraces it, becoming a person who truly lives for others and who lives out one of the best lines of the show, “To love another person is to see the face of God.” Javert, who has lived a life pursuing Jean Valjean for his past crimes in the name of justice and the law, receives grace from Valjean and can’t accept it, killing himself in despair. This man who does not believe in redemption or that people can change does not know how to live if he doesn’t live up to the law. He doesn’t want to have to accept grace or give it, and he is undone. As a good legalist, I think that I would make a great Javert, and I’m so grateful that this story reminds me about my need to accept grace. I found this theme especially well-portrayed in the movie version, which left me tearful and thankful to God for his love and mercy toward us.
So I went into this latest show knowing and expecting to be touched by this portrayal of the Gospel. Although that reminder was there again, for various reasons it wasn’t as strong this time. Instead, what stood out to me most from this last production was the fact that all of the people in the show are forced to struggle and come to terms with hard times, suffering, loss...you know, the miserables! Young people are forced to grow up, sometimes too quickly. Dying people beg those nearby to stay with them until the end so they won’t have to be alone. The poor and former prisoners are victims of crushing injustice. And I felt so sad for all of them. I felt so sad that we live in a fallen world that is sometimes cruel and definitely isn’t fair.
While my life will never be as hard as those of the characters in Les Mis, lately I’ve been forced to reckon with the fact that some of the hard things in my life will always be there. It’s a lot easier when you’re in high school or college to think that sometime, in the future, you will overcome everything you’re struggling with. But then the future becomes the present, and the struggle is still there. I know I certainly didn’t think that depression would or could be a lifelong battle for me. And while I’m in a much better place and have grown a lot, I’ve come to accept the fact that it will probably always be a fight. That burden may never be fully lifted this side of heaven. Also, as I get older, I see people in my life who I love and have relied on get older, too. Some of them have died, like both of my grandfathers in the last two years, and I worry about losing others someday. Or, I fear that by some horrible tragedy, I’ll lose people like my husband Dave too soon. On a wider scope, I feel for people who are victims of abuse and prejudice and racism and crushing poverty, people who may have lost hope.
This last weekend, I thought of all of those things as I watched the show. And I cried in the car on the way home as I told Dave all of this. But as he told me, life is full of so much goodness, too. And most importantly, what I need to remember is that even in the painful parts of this fallen, sinful world, God is there, and he not only mourns with us but redeems all of it for his glory and our good.
So, Les Mis has shown me something different each time I’ve seen it, from dealing with a broken heart to the Gospel to the problem of pain. I think that’s a sign of a great work of art. But, if you disagree and are still unconvinced of Les Mis’s greatness, all I can say to you is that anything that has lead to the creation of this and this is an absolute masterpiece, and if that still doesn’t convince you, then nothing will.
Thank you, Les Mis. I guess the next step in our relationship should be for me to read the book, but I’m just not sure I can read anything that has 90 pages of description of the Paris sewer system in it. That will probably have to wait until the other side of heaven, too.