There was a time in my life where I found musicals to be a frivolous waste of time. I saw them as the fluff of an otherwise brilliant theater world. Playwrights like Tennesse Williams, Harold Pinter, Jean Genet and Edward Albee were masters. Meanwhile shows like Showboat, South Pacific and Anything Goes were simply pop culture drivel without artistic merit. I have performed in productions of Camelot, Bye Bye Birdie and The Music Man, but acting in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible has always been the only role I considered to have substance. Then, three things happened that would forever change my view of musical theater. First, I met Mrs. Orbson who absolutely loves musicals. Second, I got over myself. Yes I am brilliant, yes I can quote Shakespeare on command, but no I don’t want to be “that guy”. I prefer to be open-minded. I try not to judge until I have seen something for myself. Finally, and most importantly, Mrs. Orbson took me to see Les Misérables. My love affair with theater expanded in ecstasy as I watched the greatest musical and perhaps the greatest play I had ever seen. Orbson, theater and musical theater were now entangled in an exquisite ménage à trois.
This past weekend Mrs. O and I escaped our cave and ventured to Portland, Oregon to see the 25th Anniversary International Tour production of Les Misérables. This marked the 5th time I have seen the show live. We met up with a phenomenal friend and made our way to Keller Auditorium for the 3+ hour long performance. After five performances and owning three different Les Mis CD sets, I wasn’t sure if the performance would live up to my memories. I needn’t have worried. By intermission the performance swept me away to 19th century Paris where drama, action and romance collide in an epic musical display. From the exceptional performances to the stunning sets I had to stop myself from giving a standing ovation after every song. Les Misérables is a musical that I can study like literature – examining motifs in the very songs I am singing along to. This is a musical that makes me think as I watch a small group of students see the growing disparity between the wealthy and the impoverished. How’s that for relevant? As conditions worsen for the poor, the students, who themselves are well off, choose to revolt rather than stand idly by. They speak and fight for those cannot.
Of course any discussion of the Les Misérables would be pointless without mentioning the main character Jean Valjean. Here is a man who spends 15 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed a starving child. Here is a man who is then released into a world that neither welcomes him back nor allows him the opportunity to prosper. I will not spoil his story for you but his path to redemption and willingness to put other’s needs first were only overshadowed by a voice that most pop singers would sell their soul for.
Finally, there is Éponine. There is something about this character that I find more compelling then perhaps any I have ever come across in literature. That’s saying something considering how much I read. In this performance, Éponine was portrayed in a very different manner, but it really worked. Her rendition of “On My Own” was definitely one of the best I’ve heard. I want to talk more about her, but I really don’t want to spoil it for those who have never experienced the show. Suffice it to say, when you get the opportunity to see this musical, watch her closely, think about what she sacrifices and ask yourself who is the real heroine.
Needless to say, Les Misérables opened my eyes to all that a musical could offer. Musicals like Rent, Avenue Q, The Scarlet Pimpernel and Wicked have all made their way into my top theater experiences. I fully expect the Book of Mormon to jump into the mix soon. However, Les Misérables will always be my first and truest musical love.
So Very Relevant...
One of My Favorite Songs by my Favorite Character...