There I am, right next to Jean Valjean. My eyes are shut because, apparently, that note is a beast to hit. Or I'm just blinking. Or both.
It seems somehow appropriate that the film version of Les Misérables was released this year—ten years after my own Les Mis experience. I saw the film version a couple of weeks ago and I still can’t stop singing the songs (you’re welcome, family). I loved the movie for both its own sake (seriously, were you listening to Anne Hathaway? and looking at that camera work?) and for all of the Les Mis-associated memories it brought back.
The original London cast performance of Les Misérables opened on October 8, 1985, the day before I was born. In a very literal sense, Les Mis has been there my whole life.
I can’t pinpoint the moment the musical entered my consciousness, but I know it hadn’t registered as important until the year my high school drama teacher decided we would put on a production in our run-down auditorium. I knew some of the songs, a bit about the plot, and absolutely nothing about what the musical would do to my junior year of high school. Les Mis changed me. I know it sounds kind of hokey and clichéd, but really. It did. That production, my production, was one of the defining experiences of my adolescent years.
At seventeen, the themes of love, redemption, and identity resonated with me—really, aren’t they what being a teenager is about? Figuring out who you are, messing up a lot and trying again, learning that love is both exquisitely simple and devastatingly complex.
And then there was just how hard we all worked and the people we had the opportunity to work with. The musical was so very big and we were all so very young. Talented, but young and only minimally experienced. Few of us had performed outside of other school productions. Our teachers believed that we could do it, though. Matt and Kelly and Trevor and the loads of other adults who I used to call Mr. and Mrs. never questioned whether or not we were capable. Instead, they told us to keep working. I wish I could adequately thank them all for that.
Of all the hundreds of hours of rehearsals, I remember one in particular; we visited a homeless shelter to sing some highlights of the musical. I remember our teacher’s words as he spoke to the people there about the songs we would sing. Jean Valjean was transformed for me…he became someone who was “down on his luck” who “wanted a better life.” And there were nods and mmm-hmms and eyes that brightened with comprehension. I remember the sudden understanding that this wasn’t a story written for a dressed-up, theatre-going elite. “For the wretched of the earth/there is a flame that never dies/even the darkest night will end/and the sun will rise;” we were singing about hope and hope is for everyone, particularly the hopeless.
I just dug out a cd someone made of one of our dress rehearsals, and I am struck more than anything by the sincerity of our voices. I love that. I listen to the pit orchestra struggle along in the background as Jared sings “Stars.” Ben and Jessica break my heart with “A Little Fall of Rain.” I shake my head at the number of high Cs I hit. “One Day More” still gives me goose bumps from the moment Matt starts singing. I miss that entire cast.