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Les Miserables the Musical: The Problem of Making Ugliness Beautiful

I was a critic on the internet starting in 2010. I started out reviewing anime, but have since branched out to cover all sorts of topics.

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I'm not big on Marxist interpretations of culture. It's not that I don't think they're correct in saying that entertainment serves the needs of the consumer class; but nowadays the consumer class is not the "elites" like it used to be back in the days when musicals were in Italian and German and were called operas. Yes, the stage musical is for people who can afford the original Broadway run's expensive seats, but they're also designed to play in Peoria. That is, to enchant the general public right here in "flyover country". Marxist interpretations hinge on the consumer being the bourgeoisie, and class structure has become a lot more complex, variable, and nuanced since Marx's day, especially with the advent of the internet.

But, Marxist cultural critics are often right in pointing out that shows about the misery, poverty, and strife of the lower classes take a messy reality and pretty it up for the comfort of the audience. Rent makes AIDS and drug addiction into a form of bold, counter-cultural self-expression. As if it were a personal choice people make to differentiate themselves from the "suits". This trivializes the struggles of real people going through similar things (this video talks more about that).

And Les Misérables takes a novel about many kinds of social problems: injustice, corruption, poverty, prostitution, cruel punishments, thievery, political resistance, etc., and makes it into a beautiful musical. But the problem is that none of these things are beautiful. The novel was about the wanton cruelty of society, and people's callous indifference to ideals like justice, compassion, and truth. But they make a glamorous musical out of it? How is that possible?

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When you study the principles of design, you can see how many of them also apply to music. Balance, harmony, and repetition show up in Les Misérables. The music is good in the way a classical-style sculpture is good. It's aesthetically pleasing in a mathematical, on-point way. But Les Misérables is not that kind of story. It's on the Romantic side of romanticism vs. enlightenment. It was a story intended to expose and bemoan the ugliness hiding beneath the façade of beauty in Hugo's time. It was intended to make people uncomfortable, and inspire change.

When the song 'Turning' reminds me of Greek theater, it makes me feel like the problems the song expresses are less immediate and real. It makes it technically good theater, but not emotionally expressive theater. It's turning Victor Hugo's work into a series of pretty-sounding melodies that repeat over and over again, like they're trying to hypnotize, rather than engage, the audience.

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The more I experience in life, the more this maxim proves true: if you want fiction, watch the news, if you want truth, read a novel.

Hugo's novel is something everyone should read. But I worry the stage musical and films, because may make the experience of the story more psychologically distant from the audience. It's debatable, but reading feels more active and immediate to me, while watching a stage play or film has a measure of emotional distance. You go into novels. You ride on your own imagination. You are shown, in a movie or play, someone else's imagination of the events.

I'm not saying that it's wrong to like the musical version of Les Misérables. But we have to understand that being in a beautiful place with expensive wine, looking at exciting costumes, and being dazzled by singers' performances does not accomplish what Hugo intended to accomplish by writing the original story. Real pain and suffering doesn't end when the house lights come on and the curtain closes.

© 2017 Rachael Lefler