WHEN LES MISÉRABLES ARRIVED on Broadway in 1987, New Yorkers came to the theater ready to cry. Pretty much everyone knew someone young who was dying or dead, usually after terrible suffering. The death toll was growing exponentially, with no relief in sight. Outside the theater district, a certain heartlessness pierced the air. AIDS gave every bigot an ostensible reason to despise gay men. Reaganomics was well underway, and cities were dealing with unprecedented numbers of the homeless as mental health facilities lost their funding and threw patients onto the streets. On Wall Street traders were indulging their new love of junk bonds, which fueled an October stock market crash. The scales of wealth and misery were not yet at the tipping point, but we were at the point where we could imagine a tipping point, like the one depicted in Les Misérables.
It was the right musical at the right time.
Les Misérables is still running in London 28 years after it opened there. On Broadway it closed after 16 years, but was revived only three years later. The musical is what they call a sensation, meaning that its cultural import is felt beyond the world of theater. Nebraskans wore the T-shirt. The songs were recorded in at least 14 languages. Les Miz shows up as a leitmotif, for instance, in Brett Easton Ellis’s 1991 American Psycho, a novel about a young Wall Street comer whose sociopathy is meant to represent the ruthlessness and soullessness of his time. Wearing impeccable Valentino Couture suits, he murders his victims between work and drinks or dinner at Manhattan’s fabulous hotspots. Throughout the musical is ever present — its posters are on the street, its muzak in elevators. The antihero himself is a fan of the show; he prefers the London cast recording to the Broadway.
In Ellis’s universe the musical is like one of the designer brands that occupy the killer’s consumption-addled brain, but it stands apart from his Ralph Lauren pajamas, Baccarat wine glasses, and gazelleskin wallet (Barney’s, $850). Ellis presents the musical as just another yuppie commodity, equating the show with a Paul Stuart tie, casting a cynical eye not only on the musical’s notion that human suffering serves some kind of purpose (even if we can’t know what it is), but also on those people crying in the theater; he is in effect condemning a culture that celebrates its own empathy while stepping over the bodies of homeless people on its way to the theater.
In his show Forbidden Broadway, the great parodist Gerard Alessandrini put it this way (to the tune of Fantine’s “I Dreamed a Dream”):
Come watch us grovel in the dirt
Then buy a souvenir and don it.
Rich folks pay 20 bucks a shirt
That has a starving pauper on it.
As a fan of the show, I understand why some people don’t connect with Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s Les Misérables. Its melodies reflect the decade when Andrew Lloyd Webber was king — they are lush and overstated and bombastic. The score is set in recitative, with every inch of dialogue sung, which certain people simply cannot abide. The story is sentimental and earnest; there is literally not a moment of humor in it, unless you count the antics of the Thénardiers, a Dickensian pair of craven...read more