I tried it again.
Again I failed.
Try as I may, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to sit through a full performance of “Les Miserables.”
It’s hard to confess to the world that you’re not sophisticated enough to enjoy – or at least tolerate – one of the most sophisticated works of art ever lauded by the sophisticated world of sophisticates. But I’ve tried. And I’ve failed.
Victor Hugo’s novel “Les Miserables” (French for “the miserables”) was written in France in 1862, while America fought the Civil War (English for “le civil war”). See? I’m educated. I know stuff.
At 1,200 pages (1,500 pages in French, a language 20 percent more verbose than English), it is one of the longest novels ever penned. It was first performed as a musical in Paris in 1980 and became a musical film in 2012.
That’s where I came in. And where I left.
And so I am here today to confess to you: I just don’t get it.
I have never tried to read the book, not even in English, which is 20 percent more user-friendly than French. But I have read enough about the story to get the plot, characters and theme from Wikipedia (motto: “When you just don’t have time for Cliff’s Notes.”)
I understand Les Miserables is about poverty, injustice and redemption. It is about love and the power of mercy. It is about man’s duty to higher principles that are more compelling than our duty to the rule of unjust law.
See, I get all that.
But as soon as folks on stage or on the screen start caterwauling about those things, I start squirming in my seat. I start wondering if there isn’t something else on TV that might be a better way to spend my time. Maybe a Gilligan’s Island rerun. Or that channel that sells Sham-wows and George Foreman grills.
I guess I understand why the producers of that musical decided to have everybody sing the words instead of speak them. If you want to bring such a massive book to the stage or screen and do it justice, you have to find a way to make the experience seem endless.
“Of course! We’ll have them “sing” the words! But they’ll do it in a way that makes it impossible to walk out of the theater whistling the melody! That’ll seem endless!”
For the record, it’s not only “Les Miserables” that makes me squirm with impatience for the end. I’m pretty much that way with opera in general.
Long ago, I team-taught a high-school humanities course, and we took a field trip to a matinee performance at the Chicago Opera House. I spent a week or so up front telling the students how important opera was if they ever wanted to be sophisticated and well-educated. When you’re a teacher, it’s just one of those harmless lies you learn to tell kids, like insisting algebra is important.
We saw an abbreviated version of “Carmen,” and there were other school groups in the audience. Directly in front of my class was a grammar-school group from a much less advantaged background than my students, who came from professional families who likely made opera a regular part of their lives.
At the end of the opera, as Carmen dies and Don Jose bellows a heart-breaking aria while hugging her body, the little girl in front of me turned to her friend and whispered, “Shoot, she messed him over like that, and now he’s singing on her? Shoot. I don’t get it.”
I nodded in agreement, because it was still dark in the house and I wouldn’t have to explain my smile to my students. Soon enough, when the performance ended and the lights came up, I would have to cloak my face in rapture and crow about how wonderful it was as we walked back to the bus.
I think about that little girl every time I try to watch “Les Miserables” on TV.
And then I change the channel to see how much time I have left to buy that George Foreman grill before the offer ends.
I realize millions of sophisticated folks have sat though “Les Miserables” from beginning to end. Many of them have even endured multiple viewings. They treasure their visits to Les Mis – so much so they’re even on a first-syllable relationship with it. Or maybe they call it that because they realize they’ve already spent so many hours sitting through the performance they would be foolish to waste time in their lives on extra syllables.
But I just can’t force myself to sit through the whole thing. I guess I’m worried if I devoted the time it would take to watch the full-length performance, I might miss something in the meantime – like an Olympics, or a presidential election.
It’s not that I have anything against music. I love music. I even love music that involves people expressing emotions while singing the lyrics. For decades, I have performed in blues and rock bands that play songs like that.
But when I play those songs with the band, the words make sense when they’re joined to music. After all, pretty much every blues or rock song ever written is about sex. The driving, rhythmic blues/rock beat is decidedly sexual. On a good night when my band plays, couples get up and move their bodies on the dance floor in dark, sweaty unison, as in sex.
And the songs usually end abruptly after three minutes, like, well, you know.
But, as they say on TV, if the experience lasts up to four hours, call a doctor to make it stop.