by Michael Bowen
Moral values. Insistence upon the rule of law. Good is rewarded, evil is punished, perseverance triumphs. Up-by-the-bootstraps success, self-discipline, fidelity to bedrock beliefs. A vision of Christian salvation at the end. Clearly, Les Mis & eacute;rables is a musical for red-state conservatives.
The triumph of the poor and disenfranchised against a repressive government that favors the wealthy. Single mothers, unconventional families, student rebels. A vision of genuinely compassionate leaders who care most for the welfare of their citizens. (And besides, Victor Hugo was French.) Clearly, Les Mis & eacute;rables is most beloved in the blue states.
With its catchy tunes, lavish spectacle and triumph of the underdog, Les Miz lasted 16 years on Broadway (under Reagan, Clinton and two Bushes) because it's a musical that appeals to all Americans whether they're red, purple or blue.
Is Les Miz a phenomenon primarily for reasons moral (Valjean the underdog), political (that revolution) or musical (it's a sung-through pop opera)? Tonya Dixon, who ought to know -- she's in the national tour as Fantine, the single mother whose daughter Cosette is adopted by our hero, Jean Valjean -- points to another reason altogether, an emotional reason: "It's a story about love and forgiveness, about enduring and having strength through some horrible situations," she says. "But it's always about love. It's because of [Valjean's] love for his sister and her son" even before the story opens, "because he loves Fantine so much, because of his love for Cosette." Dixon even mentions Enjolras, the leader of the student revolutionaries: "He loved his country so much that he gave his life for it."
Les Miz, in other words, has a whole lotta love, on levels both personal and patriotic. And theatergoers will be feelin' the love because of the show's emotional score. "My favorite musically," says Dixon, "is 'At the End of the Day'" -- a lament sung early in the show by the poor workers in Valjean's factory. Over the phone from the tour's current stop in Vancouver, B.C., she breaks into song, repeating the entire first stanza:
At the end of the day you're another day older.
And that's all you can say for the life of the poor.
It's a struggle. It's a war.
And there's nothing that anyone's giving.
One more day standing about
What is it for?
One day less to be living!
This anthem of the impoverished has a kind of jaunty and upbeat melody even as it focuses on poverty, injustice, sexual harassment and cruelty. Not a lot of love in evidence there.
But Dixon remarks that "I've been with the show for a year and a half now, and I still get moved by that song. Everything's driving -- you feel like something is going to happen, and I love the feel of that." Aren't the grotty topics mismatched with the uplifting tune? "Yes, the music is a little upbeat," she says, "but the lyrics give you a drive -- it's another force that pushes the actor forward. If [the melody] was too gloomy, it'd be all 'Woe is me.'"
In the action of Les Miz, the characters face plenty of woeful if not insuperable obstacles. For starters, Jean Valjean spends 19 years on a chain gang for stealing a loaf of bread. (That's worse than any three-strikes law.) He escapes, only to steal again. He gets yet another chance when his kindly victim pardons him with Christian generosity. Against the odds, he rises (under an assumed name) to become a small-town mayor and factory owner. One of his workers, the unmarried Fantine, has a daughter. Fantine is sexually harassed and ostracized by the other workers. Valjean comes to her aid, but in the process is recognized yet again by Inspector Javert, who for years has pursued Valjean relentlessly. Valjean rescues Fantine's daughter Cosette from the abusive and greedy Thenardiers, then adopts her. In Paris, father and daughter get involved in the student rebellion against the oligarchy of the French government. The Thenardiers' daughter Eponine loves one of the student revolutionaries, Marius -- but he, in turn, loves Cosette. Javert ruthlessly pursues Valjean; the young lovers are separated; the Thenardiers scrape out profits any malicious way they can. And that's only what happens in the first act.
Les Miz is famous for its epic scale: a 34-foot turntable, two barricades that weigh 3 tons each, hundreds of costumes, 18 musicians, twice that many actors. Not only is it an eight-truck operation, there had been added logistical hassles in Las Vegas the week before, with extra rehearsals and no time to schedule an interview. What was going on?
"We had a very big week," says Dixon. "Claude-Michel was in town" -- Claude-Michel Schonberg is, with Alain Boublil, one of the co-creators of the musical Les Mis & eacute;rables -- "and the whole production team was there. It was great to work with Claude-Michel -- he put the drive back in the show. He said that, back in '79 when he started to write the show in Paris, that everything was in there for a reason and a purpose. And he also said -- this is important to remember -- that even though it's all sung-through, it's not all pretty. It's not necessarily pretty, just because it's sung. Like the bag lady -- she's screaming." And over the phone, Dixon imitates a screeching harridan. It didn't sound pretty.
But how does Schonberg's advice affect her own role?
"When Fantine gets desperate," says Dixon, "when she has to become a prostitute, she has to drink all the time" just to put the degradations she has to endure out of her mind, "and she's probably smoking opium, and she's getting pretty sick by the end there -- anything to keep going for the sake of her child. So even though she may sound pretty, it's getting pretty ugly in the physicalization onstage."
Dejection and idealism, pessimism and hope -- Valjean and Fantine triumph in the end, but only by plucking it out of some hellish experiences along the way. And not without both ending up dead.
Fantine's early solo, "I Dreamed a Dream," places happiness in the long-ago past or the far-off future. The present -- selling her trinkets, her hair, herself -- is only full of misery. "Fantine is very idealistic," says Dixon. "As she's telling her story, she knows that things have not turned out the way she'd hoped. But then who hasn't felt that way? But she's really focused more on her future. She's very optimistic."
In drawing hope out of disappointment, Dixon draws on personal experiences: "I definitely know what it's like to be at the end of your rope, not knowing where the rent money is coming from, having no choices," she says. "Sometimes I've thought, 'I really hate this job, but I have no choice.'" Just like Fantine.
The rebellion fails in Les Miz, but the fight goes on; there's hope for the downtrodden few. In other words, it's a show that presents how many of us prefer to regard the narrative arc of our lives: The good fight has (temporarily) been lost, but the struggle continues. The bad guys will get what they deserve. We scratch out an existence among the downtrodden few -- and even if most people just don't understand our plight, eventually we'll win. It's morning in America.
And in France. And -- let's hope -- in Iraq.
Les Miz speaks to the values and aspirations of us all, whether we live in a red state or a blue one or a nation halfway around the world.
Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade
Is there a world you long to see?
Do you hear the people sing?
Say, do you hear the distant drums?
It is the future that they bring
When tomorrow comes ...
In our own ways, each of us is disappointed, even miserable. In our own ways, and whatever our political leanings, we live on hope. Les Mis & eacute;rables is a musical for all of us.
Publication date: 11/11/04