My Expert Opinion

I have no interest in pretending this isn’t outright bragging – I have *fantastic* hearing. Seriously, really, really good hearing. When I’m downstairs and we’re watching TV, I can sometimes hear the kids rolling over in their beds upstairs. I can hear people in the bar across the street when it’s raining and the door is shut. The cat used to wake me up when I was a kid. Also, on top of that, I grew up as a classical musician, became a vocalist and had a totally shitty career in musical theater, so I have decades of training and experience under my belt.

A fair number of people had asked me what I thought of Les Miserables, the movie. Because of my superior hearing and training, I’m about to tell you.

When I first saw the play, I was in my late teens. My sister and I were in the audience, somehow we scored tickets in the center of the orchestra seats, and she turned to me and said, “(sigh) I mean – Look, is this gonna be any fun?” and I turned to her and said, “Well, I’m no scholar and I failed French Two twice, but I’m pretty sure we’re watching ‘The Miserable Ones’, so I’m guessing- No.” She said to me, “There’s a new Indiana Jones movie, with Sean Connery, opening *right now*…” and we both stood up – JUST as the lights were going down. So we sat back down.

At that point in my life, all I cared about was musical theater (and, probably more often, sex). The show opened and this band of men were bouncing giant voices off the walls behind me, singing “Look down, look down. You’re standing in your grave…” and all normally overpowering thoughts of my genitals evaporated. It was like being hit with a shock wave from an explosion.

As the show went on, all I could see were people driven by the one thing they judged themselves by – their singular dedication to That Thing They Held Most Dear. From the priest at the beginning giving Valjean the candlesticks, even the relentless dedication to the law from Javert and, eventually, the men preparing the barricade. The men on the barricade.

Marius shows up and starts talking about this girl he’s met, and his friends say, “Look. There’s something bigger here. There’s something more. Listen, listen to us. Do you hear the people sing? These aren’t just colors. This is the blood of angry men, the dark of ages past. If you’re gonna talk about girls, we don’t have time for your shit…” And I sobbed. I sat there all of seventeen or whatever and sobbed, from shame, from inspiration, I was transported.

Yes, the turntable and the barricade and the high B on “24601” and the vocal acrobatics from Cosette, it was the theater and it was the thing I cared about almost more than anything else – but it was seeing a group of men who had dedicated themselves to something larger that made me sob and sob. The way Les Mis made me feel might have fueled my totally shitty career for ten years. So… y’know – thanks for *that*.

When I saw the movie… the opening swell, the slow pan in on Hugh Jackman and then… the men. “Look down. Look down. You’re standing in your grave…” and I started to cry.

I did, but once the nostalgia wore off, I started to pay attention. And I was watching a different story then the one I knew. I cried when the priest gave him the candlesticks, I sobbed, but it was different. I sobbed because an old man was reaching down to a young man, a young man he didn’t know at all, with whom he’d barely shared a word, and he said, “I claim your life for God.” He is saying “I reach back to you through time, and you reach back to those who come behind you…” That priest is claiming Valjean as his heir. His son.

Then, when Fantine is thrown out, she gives up her hair, she gives up her teeth and finally she gives up all of herself to reach back to her child. Her daughter. She could walk away, the dream she dreamed is still there… but she can’t because “there is a child who will die if I go to prison.” As she is dying, Valjean promises to take care of Cosette and fights Javert because THERE IS A CHILD WHO WILL DIE IF I GO TO PRISON fer chrissakes.

The villains? The inkeepers who don’t take care of their children. The wealthy who won’t take care of their fellow people. Javert, childless and heartless, who wants the prisons filled even if all the children will die because of it. And of course, the soldiers who make sport of killing a child. How did this become a play I’ve never seen before?

And then – The barricade. And the note from Cosette. And Valjean sees the sleeping Marius and looks to the sky…

If I told you the *physical machinations* I had to go through not to openly sob, you’d be impressed. You’d think I do yoga. I could feel how difficult it would be to breathe, and I had to stretch my torso and open my throat so I could cry as hard as my body was demanding without making a spectacle of myself and ruining the movie for those around me.

All he knows is this – there’s a boy and that boy makes his daughter filled with love. He looks to God and makes an open prayer, a cri de coeur, a deal that, were it with the devil, he would make the same… If I die, let me die – Let *him* live. Bring him home.

If I told you I couldn’t make it through writing that last paragraph without sobbing, I wonder if you’d believe me.

My point is this – when Valjean gives his life to God and Christ, it means something to me. It has nothing to do with actual God or actual Christ, I fucking *invented* my own version of all of that. I translate “God” to mean “every other person, the sum total of humanity” and I translate Christ as “the weak, the meek, the downtrodden, those who need help, everyone mentioned in the beatitudes…” I’m sure some gay-bashing Christer would be furious about my *complete fabrication* of what it means to be a Christian, but that’s what happens in my head.

And when I see a show, I’m bringing so much of me to it that my opinion is useful only to the subset of humans that have my identical circumstances and history. When I was a young man, it was the dedication to a meaningful life well-lived that sent me sobbing. As an older man, it’s the passion for those we are responsible for, the ways we meet those obligations and also fail them.

I look at my own spawn, the charges I’ve created and am responsible for, and countless nights I’ve watched them, scribbling through idiotic homework or meticulously dressing a toy car in a doll’s dress, and I think, of him, “Give him peace. Give him joy. He is young… he is only a boy…” and, of her, “suddenly the world seems a different place, somehow full of grace and delight…”

Feet to the fire, I could tell you what I heard. I could pick apart the vocals, I could take a darning needle to the stitches and tell you what my marvelous, marvelous ears told me. But in the end, it doesn’t matter. When he was a year old, Barnaby would turn to me, point to the window and say, “train!” and three seconds later I would hear it. Right now, in all things, if they can keep collecting the best of me, even as I lose a bit of the best of me every day, then that’s the measure I choose for my life.