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'Les Misérables': Why musical-haters will like it

'Les Misérables' has appealed to a lot of critics and has already racked up awards nominations, but it can also win over those who wouldn't be caught dead at a musical.

By Staff Writer / December 28, 2012

'Les Miserables' stars Hugh Jackman (l.) and Anne Hathaway (r.).

Universal Pictures/AP

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For months, musical fans have been praising the casting decisions (Hugh Jackman! Anne Hathaway! Oh, fine, Russell Crowe), devouring trailers, and nodding with approval over the awards praise showered upon the film version of “Les Misérables” by the Screen Actors Guild and the Hollywood Foreign Press.

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Staff writer

Molly Driscoll is a Books and the Culture staff writer.

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So there’s no fear that the big-screen adaptation of “Les Mis” will appeal to them, those super-fans who can tell you that Colm Wilkinson was the original Jean Valjean in London and can recite every separate part of ensemble number “One Day More.” They’ll be turning out to the theater in droves to see their beloved story of a French revolution and the people who are affected by it and will hum along to the songs under their breath as they soak in the vocal performances.

But you know who else should give the movie a chance? People who hate musicals.

There is a (fairly large) group of people to whom simply the word “musical” is enough to conjure up shuddering. Singing, like people do on “Glee”? And over-emoting and wearing over-the-top costumes? Count them out. They’ll be watching TV (not “Glee”).

But I know of several people who view going to see a musical as on par with a tooth extraction who, through accident or being forced to go, saw the stage version of “Les Mis.” I, the eager fan, asked them how they liked it, and got positive responses from all of them. “It was… good” was the main reaction, almost all with a surprised tone.

And the reason that “Les Misérables” can win over musical-allergic theatergoers is that it’s not glitzy. It’s not glamorous. There are no kick lines, no spangly outfits, no drawn-out dance numbers. It is the story of various people struggling to survive in nineteenth century France that happens to have some musical numbers attached.

The story is powerful enough that the book by Victor Hugo was a classic long before the musical came along – some may complain that revolutionary student Marius and protagonist Jean Valjean’s adoptive daughter Cosette aren’t especially deep characters, and they’re right. But everyone remembers Jean Valjean himself, the escaped convict, and his moral struggles and the ruthless Inspector Javert who pursues him, certain that no criminal can be a good man and vice versa.

And the music’s just gorgeous – if you simply like music that sounds beautiful, it will win you over, whether or not you’re a musical fan. (It will also get stuck in your head, especially the anthemic “Do You Hear the People Sing?,” so beware.) 

Anyone who’s read the novel will know this beforehand, but it’s pretty darn good at subverting the happy ending most people associate with musicals, also. Let’s just say the show has a pretty high body count.

It’s a serious story about people struggling with almost insurmountable problems – things like getting food and finding a job and when it’s right to stand up to your government. One character, Fantine, is forced to become a prostitute because she has no other options. Not exactly musical fun time, is it?

So yes, they sing. But give it a chance beyond that. There are no sequins – I promise.

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