I was rewatching the 2012 Les Miserables adaptation today (because how better to stave off panic about my university interview tomorrow?), and I noticed something. At the three times in my life that I have been a fan of Les Mis, the three occasions it’s affected me, my favourite character has shifted.
When I first saw Les Miserables, I was nine years old, and it was a school production for which my brother was in the band. It was the first time I’d been to anything at the school, which later became my secondary school.
Because I was so young, I didn’t understand most of the story and, as an amateur production, it lacked the scope of some stage productions with revolving set and fancy costumes. The thing I remember about it is the cannon of tricoloured confetti at the end which, in hindsight, seems a little tasteless. (A cannon? Really?)
I had no idea what was going on and the historical context—not to mention the religious subtext and political messages—of Hugo’s creation entirely passed me by, but for some reason I absolutely adored the show. Although the only recording I had was a somewhat limited collection of “favourites”, I listened to them repeatedly for years.
My favourite character was Cosette: little lost Cosette, without parents or a home, lost in the woods as she went to fetch water. Not, I think, the older Cosette (her love story wasn’t of interest to me), but the young one. In a play so full of older characters, she was the only one who truly captured my imagination, and it was her name that I used in playground games for some time after that.
For the record, I assume Gavroche was in that production, but I have no memory of him, so perhaps he wasn’t as interesting simply by virtue of being a boy.
Tickets to see Les Miserables in the cinema were my fourteenth birthday present, if I’m getting the years right. I don’t know what I did with the tickets or the programme—I expect I kept them as a souvenir, but that’s the sort of thing that frequently gets misplaced in a room as messy as mine.
ETA: I’ve just remembered that at least one of the tickets is tucked inside my copy of the Brick, aka Les Miserables in novel-form. I thought it would make a good bookmark. I can therefore confirm that the date of this second viewing was the 12th February 2010.
Accompanied by my parents and a childhood friend, I sobbed my way through the performance. Although, since we were in the very back row, we were high enough that we could see Enjolras use his truly impressive stomach muscles to pull himself upright in order to climb off the barricade, after it had rotated to face away from the audience, so that was some consolation.
That time, my favourite character was Eponine. Heartbroken, unrequited, impoverished Eponine—like any girl who has ever had feelings for someone that aren’t returned, I saw her as a champion of my cause, an example of true devotion and love. And, you know, cross-dressing. Because all of us dress as guys sometimes. Some of us more than others.
Of course, after reading the Brick and a load of analysis, I know that ‘Ponine’s pretty crazy in her behaviour and that Marius owed her nothing, but at the time I was utterly outraged that he should fall for Cosette who was, horror of horrors, a soprano.
My family (parents, brother and sister, me) went to see Les Miserables in cinemas shortly after it was released at the beginning of January, an infuriating wait when we’d been sure that we shared the US release date of Christmas Day. I started crying after “Come To Me” / “Confrontation” and basically didn’t stop until after it finished.
I remember being incredibly amused by an advert that ran before the film for the stage musical: Audiences are fighting for tickets! Far too entertained by this, I turned to my sister and sang quietly, “Do we fight for the right to a night at the opera now?” She didn’t think it funny. It was one of those occasions where I temporarily forgot that not everybody knows the full score quite as well as I do, having obtained it on CD shortly after my 2010 theatre visit.
Now, I’m not going to downplay the role that fan fic played in where my sympathies lay on this occasion: I read a lot of it, and mostly it was about Les Amis, so of course I became passionate about the uprising itself, and the role played by the revolution within the storyline.
Grantaire, the cynic, breaks my heart every single time I think about how he died, and Enjolras is the person I aspire to be and whose personality I see in myself. I’m not the only one, either; my friends tend to refer to my outrage at political or social issues as “Enjolras mode”, and it can make situations uncomfortable at times.
There are too many students for me to explain exactly why each one holds meaning to me, but needless to say it is their efforts that appeal to me.
I’ve always been a fan of revolution. As a kid I was fascinated by the Suffragettes’ Movement, and in school when we learned about the Russian Revolution I was more enthusiastic about that than the rest of the course put together—because let’s face it, after three months on the Treaty of Versailles you are sick of the damn thing. I love people who rebel and try to change the system. It’s why I liked A Tale Of Two Cities and why I’m reading A Place Of Greater Safety.
But doesn’t it show how I’ve changed? As a child I empathised with Cosette, who was so young and innocent and wronged by the world. As a younger teenager, I could see myself in Eponine, who was jealous and broken hearted. And now that I’m on the brink of adulthood, approaching my eighteenth birthday, the angry adolescent inside me is aching for revolution and rebelliousness, and for the redemption in Grantaire’s final moments, and the charming, terrible Enjolras.
Les Miserables has been my favourite musical since I was nine years old and had no idea what it was about. As I grow older and change, so does my understanding of it, and my interpretation of its message.
What I don’t doubt is that I’ll continue to love it for many years from this point.* And who knows, maybe one day I’ll come to you and say, “Hey, you know who I totally get these days? Valjean, man. I mean, it was just some bread but now there’s this guy chasing me and I am totally screwed.”
Let’s hope it never reaches that point.
*I’m still kind of mad that I’ll never be able to play Enjolras because I’m a girl, though. I mean, I can sing his part, no problem. Alas, gender, how I curse thee as a construct and the barrier you pose.