The premier of Les Misérables had some in the office planning their Christmas Day around a trip to the movie theater. We've all been to a performance before — some on Broadway, some at a community theater, some in homemade karaoke while alone in our living rooms. The story has been around since 1862 when Victor Hugo wrote the novel. The musical, launched from France during the '80s, premiered on Broadway in 1987 and toured the United States. This isn’t even the plot’s first incarnation on the big screen. Odds are that most of the moviegoers who fill packed theaters today alongside members of The Advocate staff will have already seen the story unfold. By another way of looking at it, we come to this with baggage.
My first Les Misérables experience was in junior high, when friends pressured me to audition for show choir. Nervously I waited to sing for the director, unsure that I really belonged, until I was enthralled by "I Dreamed a Dream" being sung ahead of me in line and the anxiety disappeared. The best alto in the eighth grade sang the deepening words that finally transform Fantine's hope to despair: "But the tigers come at night, with their voices soft as thunder, as they tear your hope apart, as they turn your dream to shame."
Not knowing I was gay, I immediately conflated my admiration for the song with a yearlong crush on the blond girl who performed it so beautifully. I had no idea the words Fantine sings are actually about losing her job and falling into prostitution to pay the rent for her only child's board.
This wouldn't be the last time the course of my young love life was shaped by a showtune. The next came in high school and on this occasion I did the singing. My sophomore-year girlfriend had broken up with me, and she was in the auditorium as I walked on stage, singing the part of the hero — Jean Valjean.
Fantine lies dying in a hospital bed, and I approach from stage left, arms outstretched, promising to watch over her child. I finish her sentences.
Fantine: "My Cosette—"
Valjean: "Shall live in my protection."
Fantine: "Take her now—"
Valjean: "Your child will want for nothing."
Fantine: "Good M'sieur, you come from God in Heaven—"
Valjean: "And none will ever harm Cosette, as long as I am living."
From that moment on, my girlfriend and I were reunited and together for four years. It's quite a feat, because she's a lesbian.
Les Misérables can do that to you. In the epic version released today, when it's time for "I Dreamed a Dream" and Anne Hathaway looks into the camera, the lens of which director Tom Hooper has positioned so close that it would be rude to look away from her despair, you will be moved — at least, if you have a warm, beating heart. And when Hugh Jackman swears to keep her child safe, you will forget he's just acting.
But unfortunately what you might not forget are all those times you've heard these songs before. The relentless, gay critic inside you might want to lash out. This version is too Hollywood, he'll say, and it lacks a theatrical quality that really lets a note belt. Russell Crowe as Javert is out of his league vocally, whether in a duet with his nemesis or solo admiring the “Stars.” And although some of that assessment might be disappointing, don't let it ruin this Les Misérables.
That's my advice. The temptation to judge something we've had such a long history with (or sorted romance) is difficult to overcome. But if you spend all your time comparing and dissecting, then you might just miss a new opportunity to fall in love.
Each time any of us sees one of these greatest shows of all time, it is at a different marker on our life's path. And how I know a show to be truly lasting is whether it can deliver a reinvigorated message each time.
As I sang those lyrics in high school, I couldn't have imagined one day becoming a dad with two foster children. My daughters are not my own by blood, and yet I feel a promise like the one Valjean made. I relate differently now to his part, it should go without saying.
A new song for this movie called "Suddenly" is written by the show's original composers, Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil, and it describes the moment that Valjean realizes he has unexpectedly changed. He is now a father.
"How was I to know at last,
That happiness can come so fast?
Trusting me the way you do,
I’m so afraid of failing you."
The skeptics had one burning question when I returned to the office after seeing Les Misérables. It's more of a taunt than a question: "So, did you cry?" an editor asked dryly.
The more telling question is, when did you cry? When you cry depends entirely on what you have lived. Are you Eponine? Have you loved him from afar, helplessly longing for a man who never returns your feelings?
Are you Valjean? Are your secrets following you, threatening to ruin an otherwise virtuous life? Are you Marius? Guilty that you haven’t suffered like your friends?
Marius, played by the winsome Eddie Redmayne, has one of the most memorable anthems of my life. I've heard it sung in choir, and in theaters, but I really understood the words as they were reclaimed for an AIDS memorial.
Marius stands among the rubble of a bar where he had met with fellow revolutionaries and feels guilty for having survived the slaughter they all faced down with courage.
"Oh my friends, my friends forgive me," he begs, "that I live and you are gone, there's a grief that can't be spoken. There's a pain goes on and on."
Les Misérables is more than anything a story of self-sacrifice for the ones we love — or even for a country or principles we hold dear. And no, Patti LuPone isn't in this version. Clips of her performance as Fantine still burn up YouTube. And no, Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Master of the House” isn’t delivered with Helena Bonham Carter in a raucous, over-the-top, zeal you’d expect from the stage. This is something entirely new.