As a child, there were two things I did well: read books and ask questions.
On the long car rides that dotted the map of my youth—from New York to Florida, to Ohio, to Maryland, to Montreal, or, less exotically, the 45-minute journey on Route 3, snaking through blasted rock in the Adirondack Mountains every Friday and Sunday per the terms of a divorce—I engaged in both. The reading must have been a respite for my parents, but the questions…
Today, when I’m around a child who annoys me with an endless litany of queries, I try to remember myself at that age. I remember the desperate search for knowledge, the frustrating empty spaces before I knew anything about the history and behavior of people. And I remember the tolerant way my parents abided my inquisition, answering as long as they could until their own stores of wisdom—about the Civil War or dinosaurs or the New York Yankees—were exhausted. When that moment came, the only solution was another book. Which inevitably led to more questions, which slowly built up a certain kind of brain. I still feel a connection with that child; we’re separated by a gap in the timeline filled by a teenage human who thought the search was over. Only the child and I are fully aware of how much we don’t know.
But when my mother and I were alone in the car, which happened rarely enough, there was one other activity to pass the time. Les Miserables. She loved the musical, adapted by Claude-Michel Schonberg from the novel Victor Hugo wrote while in exile from his native France, and had seen it at least three times, in Montreal, New York, and Buffalo (if you’re surprised by that location, you’ll be even more surprised to learn it was her favorite production). I had yet to see it even once, but from the songs we heard in the car, I pieced together the story. It was about a Revolution, in France, a few students attempting to lead the poor (“the miserables” of the title) in an uprising against the rich. A former convict, Jean Valjean, attempts to protect a girl named Cosette as she falls in love with one of the revolutionaries, and all the while he is tracked down by Inspector Javert, a man so rigorous and law-bound that it seems he’ll never tire of the search.
Like all good music, the melody captured me first. Most musicals have repeated refrains and similar snippets interspersed throughout different songs, and Les Mis is no different. Parallels run throughout the show, metaphors matching melodies, as when Valjean is pardoned by a bishop for stealing silver after finally earning parole, and realizes he must give his soul to God. The same urgent, imploring song is used when Javert is granted his life by Valjean, who frees him from certain death when they reveal him for a spy at the revolutionary barricades. It didn’t take me long to learn the songs, and together my mother and I would belt them out as she drove. She’d tell me I had a good voice—an outright lie that made me feel good anyway.
Predictably, we loved different parts of the musical. She was moved by Cosette’s gentle escapist fantasy in “Castle on a Cloud,” or how Eponine, the innkeeper’s daughter, mourned her life and impossible love in “A Little Fall of Rain.” These were the feminine parts, designed to pluck the heartstrings. I loved the goosebump ballads, the masculine solidarity of the students in “Do You Hear the People Sing?”, the wrenching confession of Valjean in “Who Am I?” as he saves a falsely accused man by unveiling his own identity. And of course, the most beautiful, saddest moment of all, when Javert is shocked by Valjean’s mercy, and the inflexible ethical framework that kept him upright for so long collapses in chaos, leading to…
But there are some parts I shouldn’t spoil. On those long car rides, living the drama, I was desperate to see the play. My mother’s stories were too much, too vivid, too alluring. Even after memorizing almost every song, I still didn’t know exactly what happened. Without seeing the action on stage, plot points were missed, and as I bombarded my mother with questions, she filled in what she could and left the rest to my imagination. But damn the imagination! I wanted the real thing.
Instead, I got something called The Grand Hotel, in a small theater that was either off Broadway or on the tattered, decrepit edges. Or so it seems now, in memory, but after conducting some brief research I found it was either at the respectable Martin Beck Theatre or the Gershwin Theatre, both venerable venues in the very heart of Broadway. And it won several Tony Awards—not best musical, but best director and best choreography for the aptly named Tommy Tune. So it must have been respectable, even very good. But it was nothing to me. The story, revolving around a Berlin hotel in the 1920s, left me cold, as did the music and everything else. Whatever this was, it wasn’t Les Miserables.
Finally, a few years later, my mother and stepfather took me to see Les Mis in Montreal. As we drove north through miles of farmland on either side of the border, we listened to the original cast recording, and I waited in anticipation, entertaining vague worries…did we accidentally buy tickets for a French-language version? Or I puzzled on certain story elements I knew, that couldn’t possibly be done on a simple stage. How does someone fall from a great height, for instance? How do you show a barricade, or even rudimentary warfare?
All my questions were answered in Montreal. The show was more spectacular than I could have hoped in the wildest of my wild dreams. The songs and sets and plot were more stirring by far when performed on the stage. There was magic in this, I understood, though like so many others in my generation, stage performances would eventually claim only the most minor role in the art I consumed. But that night, I saw impossibilities bend to the genius of stagecraft. The awe I felt, that first time, can never be duplicated, and I envy that younger version of myself.
Les Mis is on my mind now because I’m seeing a traveling production tomorrow night in Raleigh. By the time you read this, it will be over, and I’ll be looking ahead to the December release of the latest film adaptation, starring the likes of Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Russell Crowe and Helena Bonham Carter. I hope both are stirring. And yet, for the same reason that our childhood homes always seem smaller when we visit them as adults, I know that nothing can ever live up to that night in Montreal.
But the real underlying pull of Les Mis isn’t a single night at a theater or a cinema. It’s the inflated drama of the car rides, with the music blaring and the blood of Jean Valjean and Javert pumping in me, with my mother watching the road and harmonizing. Those were the moments when I scaled the ramparts and bestrode the barricades. Those were the gifts of a free childhood, of having a parent who would sing your praises instead of laughing, who would build you up not for who you were, but for whoever you were bound to become. And, thank God, I haven’t forgotten a thing.