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The Perfectly Imperfect Musical

January 12, 2013

I love Les Misérables—in a serious, owning-seven-different-recordings(-including-the-French-one) kind of way—but I freely admit that it is not a good musical. Objectively speaking, the music may be catchy, but it’s also quite repetitive. You can call them motifs, if you like, but prepared to be embarrassed when you look that word up in a music dictionary. Additionally, there’s the cardinal rule of composing for musical theatre: any given song should either reveal something about the character or further the action. So characters sing (or dance) at the height of emotion, when word or action alone are no longer able to express either what they are feeling or what they are doing. And that is why the pilfering of recitative from opera lessens the impact of the proper songs in Les Miserables. If people go around singing, “Pass the salt,” all the time, why should we think it’s special when they structure their songs with verses and a chorus?

Not only does the music leave something to be desired, but if you haven’t gotten around to reading Victor Hugo’s 1,500-page tome, the musical contains enormous plot holes, preposterous coincidences, and characters so thinly drawn they may as well be stick figures. Or, you know, straw men. If you’ve read the novel, it’s easy to not even realize this, since your memory stops those gaps the creative team didn’t bother to tighten, but confused and bored people everywhere will point them out to you. All this fuss over a stolen loaf of bread? Valjean & Javert’s seeming chance meetings at several location across France? Marius and Cosette’s love at first sight? And who is Marius anyway? And why don’t we get to see anything about Valjean and Cosette’s relationship? Does the revolutionary in charge even have a name? Is this the French Revolution? Shouldn’t there be a guillotine? (Spoiler Alert: It’s not and no.)


And yet, I love it. Because, despite its many faults, the truth of the through-line shines brightly and, like all good stories, it gets the audience to empathize with all the right characters in all the right ways. In the end, Les Misérables is a story about a man redeemed despite himself, who then goes on to redeem the world in the name of Christ. With music!

And what’s not to love about that?

I have listened to the 10th Anniversary Concert so many times that I flinch during the verse of “Castle On a Cloud” where the balloon pops — regardless of what version I’m actually listening to.

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