Do you hear the people sing?

Today I saw Les Miserables on stage for the second time in three months. It’s probably the show with which I have the longest, strongest affinity for: I’ve seen multiple productions, I own the DVD of the movie, and I’ve listened to the songs hundreds, if not thousands, of times since I first heard them as a teenager. The music is every bit as wonderful to me as it 20 years ago. But I have lived 20 years worth of life in between – and so it’s interesting to revisit a show as an adult that you first viewed through the lens of your teenage years. The music is the same, but my reaction is different.

I can guarantee that 99% of teenage girls see Les Mis for the first time and their favorite song is immediately this one:

It makes sense. Eponine herself is a teenager, and unrequited love is the stuff teenage entertainment is made of. Eponine is spunky and brave. She’s the real girl next to Cosette, the show’s flimsiest character, whose only defining characteristics are “beautiful” and “loved by Marius and Jean Valjean.” Eponine, on the other hand, is the patron saint of the Joey Potters all over the world.

I loved On My Own when I was 16 years old. It was always the song I imagined myself singing when I fantasized about performing on a Broadway stage. I sang it in my bedroom, in my car, in my dorm room, thinking of one guy and then another. There’s always a Marius in your life when you’re a teenage girl.

I still skip ahead to that song when I put on the soundtrack and serenade my neighbors for a few hours. (The joys of apartment living. Hey, at least I’m serenading them with a good voice. They should consider themselves lucky for getting a free concert.) But before I skip straight to it, I spend a little more time in the first act of the show, with this one:

Those? Those are the words of a woman in her 30s. (Probably not, because it was 19th century France, so let’s be realistic: she was probably like 22.) Those are the words of a woman who has lived and loved and lost – of someone whose life is not where she thought it would be. And those are words that most of us can relate to now, right? I know I can. I know I sometimes wonder where my life took a turn and how it could have been different. I know that, while I am mostly content in my job and my life, there are parts of it that aren’t at all what I pictured when I was 16 and looking ahead. Looking back, I remember what it was like to be young and unafraid, when dreams were made and used and wasted. I was so naive for so long – as many of us probably were – and sometimes it stings a little to think about it. Yes, sometimes it’s funny, too. But Fantine’s words hit a little harder now than they did when I was younger.

And that, my friends, is the beauty of music and art – it can mean one thing to you when you’re younger and something completely different as you grow and age and live. It’s why I firmly believe that how much you like Catcher in the Rye is directly related to how old you were when you first read it and why I sometimes wish I could experience a Pixar movie through the eyes of a child. But that’s the great thing about all of these pieces of art: there’s something for everyone to react to. If you see Les Mis and don’t react to Fantine or Eponine’s heartache – two very different types of heartache, but both heartache nonetheless – you might instead be reacting to Enjolras’ idealism or Javert’s resolve or Valjean’s struggle. You may see parts of the story differently than you once did, hear lyrics you had never noticed before, or empathize is a way you never did when you were young. And that, in fact, is the mark of an excellent, classic work of art.

One thing hasn’t changed since I was a teenager, though. The boys of the barricade get me every. damn. time.

P.S. This was apparently my 200th post. Thanks for sticking around with me over the past few years here. I have fun things planned for my next 200. 🙂

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2 thoughts on “Do you hear the people sing?

    • I tried reading the book in high school but never finished, despite probably reading 600 pages. I was thinking yesterday I may try it again.

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