Everywhere I go, people are talking about this.
Yep, that’s right. Les Miserables! The Movie! This Christmas!
Oh! My! Heck!
But here’s a confession: I don’t care. Not even a bit. Apparently, I’m the only Mormon on the planet who doesn’t, because a few months ago, I read this article in The Salt Lake Tribune.
It points out that in Utah, Les Miserables is an institution. A phenomenon. A juggernaut. A few facts from the article:
- The Pioneer Theatre Company produced Les Miserables in 2007 and originally planned to run the show for two weeks. Ticket sales boomed, and the musical’s run was expanded to ten weeks. Vast ticket sales for Les Miserables allowed the company to completely wipe out its debts.
- Les Miserables has had nine separate runs at the Capital Theatre, and each of those nine runs has sold out.
- Tuachan produced Les Miserables in 2008. To date, it’s still Tuachan’s biggest grossing production.
Also, according to the article, ticket sales for Les Miserables are huge in Utah—bigger than for other comparable markets.
I think Mormonism might have something to do with it.
But first, a rant:
But before that rant, a caveat:
THE CAVEAT: I’ve been told by many, many people that the way I look at musicals is deeply flawed. For example, I can’t stomach Oklahoma! When Curly turns Jud’s imagined suicide into a game, I decide Curly is the villain, and I start rooting for Jud. Also, I’m not able to suspend disbelief and buy into most romances in musicals. Love at first sight really bugs me. Basically, I’m a grump and a curmudgeon. Consider the following words with that in mind.
THE RANT: I last saw Les Miserable in August at the Shakespeare Festival in Cedar City. I’ve also seen it in London a few times. (I served a mission in London, and going to Les Miserables was an approved p-day activity).
In my opinion, it is one of the poorest plays I’ve ever seen. (You may cast stones in the comments.) I’ll concede that the music is, at times, enjoyable, and I’ll acknowledge that the staging is pretty clever (especially if you see it where they use that rotating turntable stage thingy).
But, oh, the story.
The remarkably ho-hum story.
It’s so wildly sentimental. And the characters are all so one-dimensional. I’ve heard Les Miserables called a story of redemption, but the protagonist, Jean Val Jean, decides within the first ten minutes of the play to stop being a thief and give his life to God. Which he then does. For the next three hours. Without a doubt or moral hiccup along the way.
Sure, there’s political upheaval. And juvenile love. And poverty. And trouble. And spectacle. But after those first ten minutes, the development of our main character is done. He remains completely devoted to mercy and service and love and all sorts of other abstract concepts I both believe in and admire. But we, the viewers, spend the next three hours watching Jean Val Jean follow through on his promises.
Which, for me, is the problem.
Jan Val Jean is a one-dimensional spiritual superhero masquerading as a round, interesting character. And I can’t help feeling like the play’s character climax comes early and easily.
Which brings me back to Mormonism.
Could it be that we love Les Miserables in Mormon culture because of these failings? Think of our own spiritual superheroes. Don’t many of them follow a similar trajectory? Don’t many of them earn conversion early in their storylines and spend the rest of their lives making wise choices and doing the right things. I’m thinking of Alma the Younger or Paul.
Jan Val Jean’s story is familiar within Mormonism. It seems to follow the sinner-to-saint model we get in scripture again and again. These thoughts are, admittedly, pretty darn rough and undeveloped. Quite frankly, I’m not sure I accept all of my premises in this post, but maybe—just maybe—Mormons interact with stories in ways that are somewhat unique. And maybe this is one of the reasons why all of us seem to love Les Miserables so gosh darn much.
Well, almost all of us.