Sometime between December 1986 and December 1990 Dean and I saw “Les Misérables” at one of the big theaters in Washington DC. I’d like to think it was 1986 or 1987 — before it was even on Broadway, but I don’t think we were that forward thinking. I only remember where I was working at the time because I remember talking to one of the mothers of the students I taught about seeing the musical and she said she was not interested in seeing it because she’d seen a lot of violence in her life.
Anyway, I loved the musical. I cried buckets of tears at the end and hummed the music for weeks afterward. I purchased the record album and played it constantly. I must have played it even after having my first child because Clare became such a fan of the music that she wanted to see the musical when it was in town. She and I went to see it, probably at the National Theater where she got to sit on a kidney-shaped cushion so she could see over the people in front of her and when we left the theater the young actor who played Gavroche was being whisked away by his mother directly in front of us. Clare loved the musical, of course, and the album was played in the house for many years.
I’ve since seen most of the movie versions of the book (although have never completely read the book) and own a VHS of the “10th Anniversary Concert” that includes many of the various casts on stage singing their songs.
When I heard about the movie version I was excited until I heard Anne Hathaway was in it. I do not like Anne Hathaway (sorry Anne — nothing personal — your acting annoys me). However I have heard that even Anne is pretty good in it and she dies in the first part of the story anyway. Clare and I decided that we would see the film after all.
Until today all of the reviews of the film version I heard or read have been very positive, with only a few negative bits and pieces. In fact, I’d never heard anyone admit they didn’t like “Les Mis”.
Today while I was scrolling through my Facebook news feed I saw a link to a New Yorker article with which a Facebook friend said he agreed 100%. I clicked on the link and read the article that begins:
“I want to render a public service. I want to suggest that even if you were deeply moved by “Les Mis,” you can still save your soul. I don’t think you are damned forever. Salvation awaits. I realize that we are not supposed to argue about taste. De gustibus non est disputandum, as some Latin fellow said. But, in fact, critics do nothing but argue about taste. And I realize that emotion is even harder and riskier to argue about. But, as we have new experiences, emotions change. Therefore, in the interest of public health, I will try to bring cures to the troubled. But first, a few words about the movie version of ‘Les Misérables.'”
The article goes on to say that the music is “juvenile stuff”, emotions are “elemental” and “engineered”, the comedy repetitive. His bottom line is:
“It’s terrible; it’s dreadful. Overbearing, pretentious, madly repetitive. I was doubly embarrassed because all around me, in a very large theatre, people were sitting rapt, awed, absolutely silent, only to burst into applause after some of the numbers, and I couldn’t help wondering what in the world had happened to the taste of my countrymen—the Americans (Americans!) who created and loved almost all the greatest musicals ever made.”
He then mentions what he considers better music and musicals (“Carousel”, “West Side Story”, “A Star is Born”, “Top Hat”, “Singin’ in the Rain”) and challenges people who love “Les Mis” to watch those for comparison.
While I agree that maybe the music is not as good as other music and the story does evoke tears purposefully, I don’t think it is just that. For me it is the memory of seeing it many years ago — going to the theater and seeing an accessible “opera”, getting caught up in the (melo)drama, crying, sharing it with my daughter. For me it is the sentiment, pure and simple.
The article and discussion of the article and “Les Mis” on my friend’s Facebook page reminded me of an article and ensuing discussion I read about a local business having to move because of increasing rent. Some of the folks commenting were all about the sentiment and some were all about “get over it, the store is a chaotic mess and not of this era”. Some admitted to crying when they heard the news and others couldn’t see the value. While I agree that the store was often untidy, I also don’t want it to go. Going into the store was like a step back in time. A real variety store not unlike the Ben Franklin where I got my first job in 1973.
In each case it is a matter, I think, of the non-sentimental folks just not “getting” the sentimental folks. Sentiment is not something that can be easily shared. You can describe reasons for the emotions, but unless someone shares the emotions and memories they are just not going to get it. This is not saying they don’t have a right to their opinion, but a gentle opinion is much preferred to a harsh one.
The folks commenting, one in particular on the matter of the local business was very harsh and, in my opinion, downright mean at times. On the other hand, the folks commenting (and original poster) on the New Yorker link on Facebook were much more understanding of the sentiment involved. The article was harsh and seemed to demean those who liked the musical, but the humor with which it was written softened that for me.