The Les Miserables Problem: Making Ugliness Beautiful

Updated on January 5, 2017

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. Thus, the stage musical is for people who can afford the original Broadway run's expensive seats, yes, but they're also designed to play in Peoria, that is, to enchant the general public right out 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 what I think is interesting is that Marxist cultural critics tend to be right in pointing out that shows about misery, poverty, and strife tend to take a messy reality and sort of pretty it up for the comfort of the audience. Rent makes AIDS and drug addiction into a form of bold self-expression, a personal choice people make to differentiate themselves from the "suits". This basically trivializes the struggles of real people going through similar things (watch this video for more about what I mean).

And Les Miserables 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; none of these things are beautiful. The novel was about the wanton cruelty of society, and people's callous indifference to ideals like justice and truth. But they make a glamorous musical out of it? What's going on here?

When you study the principles of design for art like I did, you can see how many of them also apply to music. Balance, harmony, and repetition show up in Les Miserables. 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 Miserables is not that kind of story, it's on the Romantic side of romanticism vs. enlightenment. When the song 'Turning' reminds me of Greek theater, it makes me feel psychologically 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.

I don't know why it is but the more I experience in life, the more I think this maxim proves true; if you want fiction, watch the news, if you want truth, read a novel. Hugo's original novel is something everyone should read. But I worry about the stage musical and films, because I feel that the experience of watching a musical or film is more removed from oneself, more passive, than reading a novel. Reading forces you to be an active listener. Your imagination allows you to feel like the events are unfolding around you. I'm not saying that it's wrong to like the musical version of Les Miserables. But we have to understand that being in a beautiful place with expensive wine and 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.


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