I went to see Les Miserables because I was contractually obligated. Not by AfterEllen, but by a blood oath I took backstage during a high school production of Jesus Christ Superstar.
“If they ever make Les Mis into a movie,” my friend and aspiring actress said, in the faux English accent she’d picked up after attending the renaissance faire, “swear you’ll go.”
To me, Margaret’s suburban girl obsession with the melodrama of the poverty stricken french seemed just as distasteful as her fixation on all things Holocaust. But then, when you’re a white teenager, casting about for something as irrefutably melancholic as your insides feel, more often than not, six million dead Jews fit the bill. Still, Margaret was my best friend, and at 16, I did just about everything she wanted. It’s tempting to read back onto that relationship nascent lesbian longings. (Which is also the name of my forthcoming solo spoken word/jazz/Gregorian chant fusion album.) After all, Margaret grew up to claim bisexuality, and I became, well me. By the way, I say claim bisexuality, not because I’m hoping to have my castle burned by villagers, but because I never saw evidence myself. Also, I have to admit, because the intellectual pursuit of bisexuality is another thing that appeals to suburban girls who want to be Anne Frank.
Whatever the reason, when Les Mis opened in theaters, I remembered my vow to Margaret. So I went.
Having listened to criticism from mental powerhouses such as Adam Lambert, who tweeted that Les Mis “suffered massively (because of) great actors PRETENDING to be singers,” I was trepidatious. In addition, my tolerance for melodrama is low. (Here’s my Lesbian ID Card. Feel free to check it.) When confronted with powerful chord changes and desolate lyrics, I sometimes shut down, feeling forced into experiencing emotions dictated by another.
This is probably why I made it through Anne Hathaway’s tour de force rendering of “I Dreamed a Dream” without crying, though I did stop eating popcorn out of respect. I was foolish enough to think I was home free after that, which is ridiculous because Les Mis is essentially dead puppy after Make a Wish child after dying hooker — for three hours. However, I’m still shocked by the song that did me in.
“Stars.” Screw love lost and youth squandered; apparently songs about stubborn Christians unjustly pursuing fugitives are what really get me. And let’s talk about Russell Crowe. If I’ve ever seen him in a movie before, it made no impact, plus I hear he’s a dick. Yet something in the stoic ruthlessness of his take on Javert moved me. What can I say? Assholes portraying assholes touch my heart.
Much has been made of the fact that unlike other movie musicals, Les Mis was sung live. This, the actors say, enabled them to make spontaneous choices and react to in-the-moment emotions. Certainly, this style of filming breaks new ground, but for me, what made the movie truly remarkable was the unique combination of theatrical musical numbers and actors attuned to the minutiae of a film performance. In fact, my least favorite player turned out to be the one I’d anticipated favoring, West End’s Samantha Barks as Eponine. I’d assumed a stage actor long familiar with her role would put a group of movie stars to shame, however; I found her performance slick and stage-y. Of course her voice is magnificent. But accustomed to playing to the balcony, she missed nuances Hugh Jackman and even Amanda Seyfried nailed. Even “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” (a song during which I’d planned to pee for the third time) was singularly reinterpreted, made crucial and immediate by that awkward English lesbian.
Though I didn’t leave the theater sobbing like these folks, all I can say is thank goodness for random teenage vows. Margaret may be working in a shoe store now, but her legacy lives on. This I swear. This I swear by the stars.