If you haven’t already seen it, Saturday Night Live’s sketch last week with Jean Valjean as a singing lobster is utterly bizarre. And it gets stranger as it goes along.
Malinda Kathleen Reese’s “Google Translate Sings” project returns to Les Misérables with “On My Own,” run through several layers of Google Translate from one language to another to another and finally back to English. As she says, it’s a good thing they had Hebert Kretzmer to translate it the first time around!
It’s another great entry in a series full of funny takes on musicals, pop songs and Disney classics. As for Les Mis, she previously tackled “One Day More” — or rather “Extra Day.”
I recently dug out my recordings of Chess and listened to them extensively. With Judy Kuhn playing Florence on the Broadway version, I found myself comparing the roles of Florence and Cosette.
Florence in Chess is a much more complex character than the Cosette we see in the musical of Les Misérables. While it’s true that Florence is defined mainly through her relationships with men — her missing father, Freddie, and Anatoly — her role involves making choices, and dealing with consequences, and her frustrations at what she’s given up to support Freddie, or to be with Anatoly, and whether what she’s gained is worth it.
She’s got three solos, a duet with the other woman, and is an active part in many of the ensemble numbers. (The show doesn’t pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test though, since the only conversation Florence has with another woman is about Anatoly. Which reminds me, I really need to listen to Fun Home.)
Cosette on stage is just someone to be taken care of. First by Valjean as a surrogate father, then by Marius. She doesn’t get to do anything on her own. Her only real solo is “Castle on a Cloud,” sung when she’s a child. Then she has duets with both of the men in her life, and background spots in the ensemble numbers. It’s a very paternalistic view.
I think that’s what makes Éponine so appealing: She has agency, taking an active role in the story. (That, and anyone from their teenage years onward can relate to having a crush on someone who doesn’t return it.) Plus a lot of what she does somewhat altruistic, sacrificing her happiness for someone else’s. She knows she’s going to get in trouble for stopping the robbery at the Rue Plumet, but she does it anyway. She knows that helping Marius find Cosette is going to destroy any chance she has with him, but again, she does it anyway. She runs off to the barricade to be with him in their last moments, and literally takes a bullet for him.
It’s a little different in the book.
We get clues here and there that Cosette longs for something more. I wouldn’t go so far as “adventure in the great wide somewhere,” but she takes as active a role as she can given her position in society. She’s a respectable young woman, and has to act within those rules. She and Marius actually have an extended secret courtship over the course of months in the form of secret glances and signs. She doesn’t just fall for the first guy she walks into. She chooses and encourages him. But she can’t go looking for him, couldn’t go visit him even if she knew where he lived, because her position won’t allow it.
The only time we get a hint of this in the musical is in her segment of “In My Life,” where she confronts Valjean about his secrets, complaining that he still sees her as a child, and he shuts her down, proving it. (It was refreshing to see Claire Danes succeed in the Neeson/Rush movie, even if doing so wiped out the main story of last 150 pages of the book.)
Éponine, however, isn’t as constrained. As an outlaw, Éponine can go where she wants, when she wants. She doesn’t have to fear losing respectability, because she doesn’t have it. She’s able to stare down an entire gang of thieves by telling them she’s seen worse than them. And yet at the same time, there are still limits. She can’t bring herself to tell Marius how she feels until her dying breath. When she finally breaks down, tormented by the sight of Marius and Cosette together, and starts pulling strings to separate them (and get Marius killed!), she does it in secret: she hides in the shadows, drops notes on people, and disguises herself as a boy.
Victor Hugo, for all his egalitarianism, was still a product of his time, and still had specific roles in mind for men and women. It’s odd to watch him argue extensively for society to treat women better, then stop short of (and actively discourage) giving them a full say in it.
Today marks the 30th anniversary of the Les Misérables musical opening in London. I first saw the show a few years later, after it had moved to Broadway and started touring, maybe 1991 or 1992. I remember a family friend trying to describe the plot beforehand, and going into excruciating detail worthy of a Wikipedia summary.
Over the next few years I managed to catch the tour as it returned to Orange County, Los Angeles, and San Diego. I tracked down as many cast albums as I could back in the days when you had to go to physical record stores looking for imports. After hearing the original French version I became fascinated with how the show sounded in different languages, even those I couldn’t understand myself, and ran a fan site during college. (I learned a lot about computer character encodings, most of which has been rendered obsolete by Unicode.)
In high school I also read the novel. I remember it taking a couple of months to get through, and it gave me a new appreciation of the story and everything that didn’t make it to the stage. Somehow I never got around to watching any of the film adaptations until years later, after the 2012 movie of the musical rekindled my interest and inspired me to re-read the novel. This time it took me most of a year (with breaks for other books in between), and I wrote a running commentary. That in turn inspired me to check into the other adaptations that have been made over the years.
It’s strange to look back on an anniversary, though. When I first saw the show, it had only been around for about six or seven years in that form. Now it’s been thirty. Les Mis is as old now as The Sound of Music was when I first saw it. Time marches on, but Victor Hugo’s epic about life and injustice remains timeless.
A local theater company put together a cabaret-style parody of Les Misérables, built around the idea that you were visiting Thénardier’s inn for drinks. “Witness the heartwarming tale of human compassion, told by a complete a—hole.” It’s the kind of event where the doors open early and the actors are already in character, milling about and interacting with the audience, feeling out who’ll be a good choice to pull into a participation bit during the show. I really wasn’t sure what to expect, but it turned out to be a lot of fun.
M. Thénardier served as narrator, telling the story but putting his own spin on it. They built off of the musical, playing some parts mostly straight — Valjean, in particular, was *always* earnest — while others went completely over the top. Many characters would switch back and forth between serious and comedic, sometimes within a single song. Javert, for instance, would sometimes be deadly serious, and at other times show an entirely different reason for his obsession with Jean Valjean. Somehow they actually managed to make “A Little Fall of Rain” funny…and touching. The actors were clearly enjoying themselves as well, which is key for interactive shows like this.
Creating Arts Studios in Santa Monica is pretty close to the freeway, on the edge of a business park. There’s no parking lot to speak of, but there was plenty of street parking on the residential side of the street and no signs indicating any prohibition on parking there. They’ve got a similar project in the works, Chicabarent, mashing up Chicago, Cabaret and Rent and set in a speakeasy, which should be fun based on this show. Thénardier’s Inn ran for three weekends in November 2014, and has been extended for a second run in January-February 2015.