The Spirit of Les Miserables

My mom called last week to tell me that there would be a one-night-only showing at my local movie theatre of the 25th anniversary concert of Les Miserables at the O2 Theatre, and she asked if I wanted to go. Of course I did; I lost count of how many times I saw Les Mis on Broadway, but it was approximately 8, sheerly because I could not afford to go every weekend. All but the last were spectacular. (The last one was an off-Broadway revival, and it was pathetic.)

The first time I saw it was around 1987, which made me either 11 or 12. Colm Wilkinson was starring. The dynamics of the show are a big part of its magic-- from the booming, rousing group songs to the pin-drop moments between phrases of "Bring Him Home." I am convinced that anyone who isn't moved by that song is clinically deceased.

Tonight's showing was sold out, and my parents, brother, and I had to sit separately from one another (though close enough for me to lean forward and tap two of them, at least).

Nick Jonas played Marius, the young male lead. Turns out that about 1/4 of the audience were girls who squealed every time he made a pained expression and complained bitterly when he kissed Cosette. And that was fine. It was even sort of endearing. But it was the rest of the audience who created the atmosphere that made me want to envelop all of them and take them home with me and beg them to create a commune with me, and...

Sorry, I'll back up. It's that all of us-- ALL OF US-- were singing every word, politely, quietly, because we couldn't help ourselves. We breathed together. I got chills right to the top of my scalp. At the end of every song, we applauded, though there were no actors there to receive our applause. It didn't matter-- we had to applaud anyway, or our heads would pop off from trying to bottle it up.

The man next to my mom was mentally challenged, and couldn't quiet his excitement. He sang every word, spoke the actors' names aloud, and sobbed so hard that he choked and sputtered at every emotional moment. When it came time to introduce the writers, the lyricist, the producer, he shouted enthusiastically, "Look! He's here, too!" He knew every one of their names, and the names of each of the members of several different productions.

There were teenagers there who had done Les Mis in their high school productions. There were parents and grandparents and couples and singles.

I sat there in this theatre feeling very at home for the first time in a long time. THESE ARE MY PEOPLE. After all these years of being away from performing, there is still nowhere on earth I can remember feeling as near to God as in a theatre. There are moments when everything else falls away except for that perfect note, that silhouetted spotlight, the echo of the orchestra. Moments when I forget to breathe.

The end of the concert came, and the cast bowed. Then they showed the two London casts. Then came a sign on the screen that said, "Original 1985 Cast." Out came the performers-- a dozen? Two dozen? I was too excited to pay close attention. I giggled with joy and tapped my dad. "Oh my God! They're all there!" It was like seeing old friends, all in one place again.

We both leaned forward in our seats, just loving this moment, getting to see the original cast up there on stage with their younger counterparts, smiling and waving. There was wild applause until it petered out. A moment of silence. And then it happened.

The opening notes sounded out on the piano.

It's happening. He's going to... it can't be true. It is. He is!

It was that moment when you know that a wonderful thing is about to happen-- it's really going to happen, and you can't even stop it if you wanted to, but why would you want to? He stood in front of the microphone.

God... on... high...

Colm Wilkinson, 25 years later, in the role he created. There were gasps. There were sobs. A good portion of them were mine. I didn't even bother trying to stop the tears as this man rang out in perfect falsetto one of the most beautiful songs ever written. Others joined him, but I tried to block them out (sorry, others). For me, it was an awakening of a part of me I'd forgotten even existed. A spiritual part. my need, you have always been there...

"If I had known that was going to happen," my dad said, "I would have flown to London."

Thank you, everyone involved with Les Miserables through all these years, and thank you, audience, for an extraordinary night.


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