At the end of the play, you’re another day older

21 Feb

Unlike me at her age, my younger daughter does not want to be a professional actor when she grows up. She’s too interested in too many things to make that a priority. That said, she adored being in her high school’s musicals and plans to audition for shows in college. She loves the camaraderie, the costumes and the commitment to ensuring the audience has as good a time as the performers. This was never more evident than her junior year, when she played the title role in Hello Dolly: eight costume changes, huge production numbers, four sets of lovers coming together by show’s end, lot of color and smiles and red feather headdresses. What a delight!

Then they announced the show for her senior year: Les Misérables — the polar opposite of delightful. It’s an ambitious choice for most professionals, much less high schoolers in an affluent suburb with only a fleeting acquaintance with poverty. What’s more, they decided to give the major roles to girls who hadn’t had a featured part before … and last year’s Dolly Levi was cast as this year’s Whore #2. (“Do you at least get the lyric, ‘Bit of skirt – she’s the one sold her hair’?” I asked hopefully. “No, Mom, that’s Whore #1.”)

For those who need a brush up, the three-hour musical is based on Victor Hugo’s sprawling 1862 novel about justice versus mercy against the backdrop of the unsuccessful 1832 Paris uprising in support of the poor (not the French Revolution — honestly, people, pay attention in world history!). The show debuted in 1985 and took the world by storm, with any number of theater kids belting out “On My Own” and “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” in their showers for years to come.

However, this show is kind of a hard sell these days. While many are eager to quote Hugo’s message of hope — “Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise” — as the moral of the show, it can also be boiled down to: Don’t dream of love or you’ll end up a dead prostitute/ street waif. Don’t dream of a better future because you and all your friends will die. Don’t fight for your principles because nothing ever changes. And oh, don’t get too fond of anyone because only two main characters are still going to be breathing at the end of the show.

There have also been more parodies and jokes than true fandom lately. That was kind of true when it first debuted. Back in the late 1980s when the wicked parody show Forbidden Broadway was at its best, it had a whole Les Miz medley featuring the actress playing Fantine complaining about the dreariness of the setting after a career of tap dancing in flashy costumes and styled wigs: “There was a time when shows were fun …” The 2012 movie version was derided for casting non-singer Russell Crowe as Javert, and despite Anne Hathaway earning an armful of awards including an Oscar for playing Fantine, the following year was marked by articles like “The Most Annoying Celebrity of 2013,” “Why do people hate Anne Hathaway?” and “Do we really hate Anne Hathaway?

Then there was Diner Lobster:

With all this snark out there, where did that leave this suburban high school production in 2020? Despite weeks of nerve-wracking rehearsals and a bout of flu nearly sidelining Jean Valjean the first weekend, they came through with a solid show infused with a lot of heart. The vast majority of these kids will never suffer the pain, desperation and injustice their characters faced, but there they were by the dozens, sharing the stories of those who were pummeled by life yet kept fighting for their children, their society and the chance that goodness will prevail. The experience of walking in their characters’ boots will stay with them, I am certain.

And, my daughter was a consummate pro, changing from nun to factory worker to hooker and downtrodden Parisian with great aplomb as a featured chorus member. She did what I could never have done in high school: set aside any prideful grousing about what the musical isn’t to focus on what the musical can be: moving, collaborative, and even a bit humbling.

Thankfully, she left the snarkiness to theater professionals like me:

See you on the flip side …

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