Everyone pummels Les Miserables.
It is too French. It is too drab. Russell Crowe sounds like a muppet when he sings. It is not musically complex enough. It is too long. It is no “Top Hat.” Its women are all perishing frails incapable of independent agency. It is a suppurating welter of vague emotion, a themeless pudding of bad teeth, barricades, and too many shots of people singing in the rain. None of the characters progresses or changes. All in all, it is something awful that the French forced on us in the ’80s and that we only like because it touched us, formatively, when we were 8 to 14 year-old girls. (I am paraphrasing, but not much.) These are all real objections that I have heard raised, and most of them are accurate. It doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test. Of course it doesn’t.
But before the nation goes galloping off to “Zero Dark Thirty” and forgets the magical times we had with Jean Valjean, Javert, Fantine, & Co., I want to speak up on behalf of the musical.
It is because of, not in spite of, these things, that we like it.
It is easy to pummel the show because it is awash in painful sincerity. Look at these people singing their feelings! In France! In the rain! Don’t they know how they look? We have been weaned on Avenue Q and Spamalot, and we know the old warhorses best from the knowing winks they get in more self-aware productions. Les Mis is far from self-aware. This tale of perishing Frenchmen, of priests, prostitutes, convicts, and the ill-fated June Rebellion is, if anything, self-oblivious. Perhaps there is the same kind of cynicism behind it that lurks behind anything too painfully sincere.
But that’s why it’s so fun to watch.
We live in an age of irony. Everyone wants to be at the back of the theater making snarky comments. We are all commentators, and we spend great volumes of time making ourselves look silly on purpose so as never to be accused of looking silly by mistake. From Lady Gaga to Lena Dunham to all those Urban Outfittees dressed ironically in floral muumuus, we are scrambling around constantly making certain that everyone is aware that we are aware how we look.
And why not? We are always being looked at, online at least. Irony is natural as a response to our new semi-public lives.
No one in Les Miserables has any irony whatsoever. If the show had an ounce of irony it would collapse, instantly, under its own weight. No one in this musical has ever paused to consider how he sounds. If they did, they would stop immediately and dash away, murmuring apologies.
The whole plot is about a flawless convict with a lovely tenor voice who adopts the child of a Prostitute With A Heart of Gold, while being pursued by a Single-Minded But Misguided Policeman. It’s all archetypes and cliches. Even the comic relief — the scurrilous Thenardiers — are not jokers but clowns, all broad gags and bad coiffure. The show comes chock full of ready metaphors and stock figures to whom our responses are well-rehearsed. None of these people care how they sound. It’s oddly refreshing.
Consider the last time we heard from this musical, when Susan Boyle came vaulting onto the national scene. We liked Susan Boyle ironically. She sang with no irony at all.
The trouble with ages of irony is that they produce a deficiency of straight-men. Most Big Works, the ripest subjects for mockery and canonization, require monumental confidence and total obliviousness to your effect on others. Les Mis, wherever you think it falls in the pantheon, has both in spades.
“There is a microscopically thin line between being brilliantly creative and acting like the most gigantic idiot on earth,” wrote Cynthia Heimel. “So what the hell, leap.”
“How can anyone accomplish anything immortal / When they realize they look pretty funny doing it and have to stop to chortle?” asked Ogden Nash. It’s almost impossible.
After a certain point, this irony cloys. Seeing Les Mis makes me dare to hope that 2013 will be a year of sincerity. If you want to walk around in a floral muumuu, for the love of the Revolution, do so because you like floral muumuus. And sing, if you like.
Les Mis is greatly ridiculous. And great. The two are inextricable. And that’s the way it should be.