Thursday, December 23, 2004

To See The Face Of God: I saw Les Misérables last night at the Pantages in Hollywood, a fantastic Christmas present from my parents.

I'd seen the play once before, and have read the book--the big book, the 1500 page one, not the abridged version.

Converting a book that long into a play--even a three hour play--is a bit of a task. Even harder is converting it into a musical. Musical numbers are called "Show Stoppers" for a reason; they generally stop the action cold as the characters sing about whatever situation they've just found themselves in. Creating interesting and beautiful music that actually moves the story forward is hard. Moving forward though that much plot is downright miraculous.

Or is it? Hugo's book is definitely abridgeable. Hugo is the epitome of "Show, Don't Tell." Rather than just telling us "The priest was a kindly man," Hugo spends the first hundred pages of the book telling us about the priest's exploits, to the point where the uninitiated may be disoriented by the book's shift in viewpoint character after so many chapters have gone by.

A chapter goes to chronicleing an entire battle, solely so we can see a man picking pockets at the end. A chapter goes to the history of the Paris sewers, so that we can understand that carrying a nearly dead man through them is probably really, really gross.

What's left when all this is brushed aside is extremely sentimental and moral fiction. Hugo creates genuine moral dilemmas for his characters--does Valjean save the man who is to be convicted in his name? Or does he keep the promise he made to save an orphaned child? If he turns himself in, the promise will be unfulfilled and he will leave all of the people he employs jobless and destitute. But he will have to live with the knowledge another is suffering in his name.

The story is about selflessness and sacrifice, of giving when there's no chance of reward, even giving your life for a cause you believe in despite the futility of your gesture.

That's an oversimplification, yes. The play also says a lot about government and religion and personal responsibility and economics and justice and mercy. But I think it's the message of sacrifice that resonates the most with me.

No comments: