What genre is the musical Les Miserables? It’s always reminded me of something, but it was only when I watched the DVD that I realised what that was.
The novel it’s based on is a great example of social realism, a heavy tome written by an old man who, thirty years before, had himself dodged the bullets during the June Rebellion. Victor Hugo painstakingly reconstructs the period, expands on the context. When our hero makes his escape through the Paris sewers towards the end, Hugo is sure to include an eleventy-billion page discussion of the layout and construction of those sewers. Les Miserables is a great novel, but the title does make it sound a lot more fun than it actually is.
You could not mistake the musical for social realism, of course. You could easily mistake it, in fact, for bombastic nonsense. Built into the fabric of the musical version, there’s a mismatch of the medium and the source (whether you count the source as the book or the events that inspired it), and also between where the play’s set and how it’s staged. This leads to some issues when we try to categorise it, or find something else even a bit like it.
Les Miserables is not like other musicals. You can, of course, sing catchy songs about misery, personal heartbreak and social injustice. You can even do it in musical theatre. West Side Story is an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet that’s about teen gangs murdering each other, Chicago’s about a women’s prison full of murderers, Cabaret’s about the rise of the Nazis. I’m no expert, but I’m always surprised how darn dark the genre is.
Even something as apparently cheerful as The Music Man has a story where, in its own terms, the bad guy wins. A travelling salesman persuades a small Midwestern town to put on a wholesome marching band show. But Harold Hill, the salesman, is not wholesome. He scares the townsfolk into giving him their money to solve a problem he’s created. He gets the girl, but only after mistaking her for a fallen woman, like all the others he’s bagged over the years. (‘I smile / I grin / When the gal with a touch of sin walks in / I hope / and I pray / for a Hester to win just one more A’). It’s an astonishingly sly, cynical narrative in which a wolf devours an entire flock of lambs and gets the lambs to pay for the meal. I love The Music Man.
What musicals tend to do is create a bubble, and then follow a small group of people. This is surely, function dictating form – you want to keep the cast and number of sets as small and stagey as possible. Musicals like Cabaret and The Phantom of the Opera take that so literally that they’re are set within theatres. The historical setting is backdrop, or catalyst, and the end result tends to be oddly unanchored in time. They’re not typically ‘timeless’, they’re set in an imagined period in the hinterland between when they’re set and when they’re first staged. The Music Man could almost take place at any point in the first half of the twentieth century. Cabaret exists at some checkpoint on the border between the mid 1930s and the early 1970s.
Les Miserables is different: it encourages us to extrapolate and expand out. It’s not merely spectacular, its unique selling point is that it crowds the stage, that it’s absurdly lavish and opulent, that the huge and overpopulated set also moves and transforms. The movie, of course, only scales this up, so that it’s Hollywood movie stars doing it all, with great panning shots and crowd scenes.
Thematically, Les Miserables is trying to make universal archetypes out of really rather specific characters. It takes one of many popular uprisings Paris saw in the nineteenth century, a sequence of events that lasted a few days and which barely registers in the history books. Jean Valjean is a man with superhuman strength who spent nineteen years in prison for crimes he did commit, has a religious conversion and opens a Rosary bead factory. That is not a generally applicable stock musical type like ‘small town boy’, ‘lovesick teen’ or even ‘wannabe singer’. The story asks us to identify with, say, Fantine – Crib sheet: Anne Hathaway’s character – and her specific circumstances, and at first that’s relatively easy: she’s a single mother who earns slightly less than she needs to support her young daughter. But she zooms from there to the worst case scenario within a few verses, and has prostituted herself (in a coffin!), sold her teeth and died of TB before the end of the first act.
The structure of Les Miserables goes like this: someone sings about how awful their life is, no, really it’s even worse than it was until recently, seriously it’s no fun at all, wish it was different. At this point, the character might actually drop dead – all but four of them do before the end. Then reset, change cast member and repeat. It’s basically round after round of ‘can anything get any worse … oh, yes, turns out it can’, set in a world so wretched it makes a Dickensian workhouse look like a Culture Orbital.
Yet, somehow, they ramp up the aggrometer to the point where it kind of overwhelms your emotional barricades and you find yourself identifying with Fantine because, hell yeah, you spent an hour on the phone to Comcast this morning, so you know hardship, too. No bread? It’s true, they were out of poppy seed bagels this morning at Panera. Yeah, I’m drowning in the churning waters of modern life, too, because I really need to clear out my email inbox. The system’s broken, man, we should be out on the streets. Les Miserables is really rather stirring, does make you switch off the old thinky whatchermacallit and just sweep you away.
If you’re in the right frame of mind.
If you think about it for even a second, it’s ridiculous. When you watch it critically, there is much meat for a cynical person. The plotting relies entirely on coincidence. Javert’s ‘pursuit’ of Valjean involves bumping into him at random every eight years. The whole thing is a crass product of one of the most indulgent artistic sectors of the loadsamoney decade. The makers could achieve broadly the same effect, only with slightly more nuance, if they just tear gassed their audience.
Watching it, it’s not hard to work out when Les Miserables was written, and it’s a perfect test subject for a critique of the eighties mindset. American Psycho, a novel exploring that very topic, is soaked in references to the musical. At one point, a character literally stomps on a homeless man to get past him to buy a $200 limited edition T-shirt bearing the image of the homeless. American Psycho draws attention to the fact that the audience is complicit in the disconnect between what the story’s about and the form it takes. This is never more obvious than when you remember how much it’s cost you to watch the show. Every song is about life being about scraping together the coins you need to eat that day. The price of one ticket would feed a family for several weeks. And normally, y’know, that’s not a problem because you go to the West End or Broadway to watch escapist fantasy nonsense about things with no connection to the real world, like talking cats, Spider-Man or Mormons. Les Miserables is actually about poverty, that’s the theme.
It’s tempting to see this as the height of hypocrisy. Anne Hathaway’s Oscar acceptance speech saw a woman who is paid millions to be in movies, wearing a Prada dress declaring that poverty is bad.
But the thing is … that’s basically what the musical is like, from start to finish. It is an inescapable fact. Anne Hathaway, by all accounts one of the smarter actresses out there, clearly gets it.
But ‘it’ here is a huge disconnect between what we’re seeing and what we’re told.
Watching Les Miserables, the thing that strikes me is that it shares a characteristic of science fiction and fantasy: while all art demands a suspension of disbelief and acceptance of conventions and necessities of the form, SF tends to raise the price of buying in. The relationship between ‘science fiction’ and ‘reality’ is a surprisingly complex boundary. Most science fiction seeks to make a point about the real world by, essentially, a process of heightening and exaggerating. Frank Herbert was inspired to write Dune, a story set tens of thousands of years in the future on a giant desert planet that’s one of innumerable worlds of a theocratic galactic empire, because he was concerned about beach erosion. It’s not the only science fiction that, at heart, goes ‘yeah, imagine a planet where it’s all like that, all the time’.
Despite the presence of Wolverine, Catwoman and Jor-El, not even the movie version of Les Miserables is science fiction. But it’s clearly not attempting something literal, either. It’s not made by idiots, they understand exactly what they’re doing. And, at some level, yes, it gets relatively rich people to empathise with the poor, and blimey, there isn’t exactly much art even trying to do that, let alone that’s packed them in for thirty years.
Les Miserables has always reminded me of something, though, and it was only when I was watching the DVD that I worked out what:
Les Miserables is in the same genre as TV commercials for pet adoption charities.
It’s actively odd, in fact, that there aren’t songs in Les Miserables called Am I Going to Die Today? or We’ve Been Caged Together Too Long. You can hear the chorus chanting For Hundreds of Others Rescue Came Too Late or She Could Be Saved For A Few Coins A Day.
Stirring music, naked emotion, and above all they’re calculated and precisely formulated to get you to throw your money at them.
(As a final note, I think it’s only right that I note that I’m not making light of animal cruelty or equating Hugh Jackman playing a man with a sad face with the thousands of real dying kittens out there. I have a rescue dog, adopted from the Philadelphia SPCA, and if you feel moved to, please donate a little to them, here.)