A reader writes:
Megan McArdle is way off base on this one. What is precisely so depressing about Les Miz – a titanic bore on stage and a risible film now snookering viewers at a cinema near you – is that the work of Rodgers, Hart, Lerner, Loewe, etc. once represented popular taste. This was the music to which my working-class parents listened, daily. They knew many of the songs by heart. The joys of that music is that it communicates to all audiences. To see the public turn to shows like Les Miz, with their sledgehammer melodies and thudding lyrics is to weep for what once was.
It’s a paradox of the American theatre: One the drama side, things are looking very good indeed. The current crop of young playwrights is among the best I’ve ever seen. But the creation of an effective mainstream musical of any sophistication and taste is, increasingly and unhappily, a lost art.
I must add that it is rather strange to hear these sentiments from David Denby, who once wrote a bizarre essay in which he tried to explain the theatre was worthless – and, most of the time an embarrassing experience – whereas film eternally retained the potential for greatness. But maybe he’s had a Saul of Tarsus experience about the stage.
To a more sophisticated musical ear, Les Mis is a snore. It's basically a Popera, pop music with operatic passion. Modern ears are less trained to harmonic nuances of past composers (Kern, Rodgers, Loewe, Loesser, Bernstein, et.al; most of these composers trained classically, or had arrangers who had). You only need to look at the state of music education in this country to see why.
When I first heard Les Mis 20 odd years ago, while in grad school for music, I was appalled at its harmonic simplicity. Watching it on Christmas Day, I wept through the the whole thing, not minding so much that Hugh Jackman was singing a part much too high for him, or that Russel Crowe seemed like a somnambulant on a precipice half the time and was ahead of the beat constantly. Les Mis isn't about nuance, chic style, harmonic sophistication, even necessarily good singing!. It's the emotional impact that matters, hitting you relentlessly with it's hit themes over and over again. Knocking away the hard places in the heart and like opera, bringing about a catharsis.
Sorry, McArdle doesn't get it. Denby isn't talking JUST about "musical comedies of yesteryear." Has she never heard of West Side Story, Gypsy, Company, Sweeney Todd? They all have dark moments and characters. It's not that Denby wants silly, frothy musical soufflés and McArdle, and by extension "ordinary people," want sentimental work. It's about craft and language. Denby's point is that the composers he mentions were far more inventive, rich, sophisticated, surprising, and interesting than the Les Mis guys.
I'm all for simple (versus simplistic) and what great musical theater is/was is even more impressive that is was often done as musical comedy. Ever sit and play through Loesser's Guys and Dolls? Yes, compared to Les Mis it's practically Wagnerian in harmonic and melodic complexity and richness. But: it's clear in concept, and it sings. West Side Story was deemed unmelodic by many when it opened. The success of the movie four years later had more to do with it's canonization.
McArdle is correct that time, and familiarity can make art understood and accepted. Familiarity breeds comfort. I doubt Les Mis' stock will rise in coming decades. If anything it has already been overexposed and added time won't shore up it's surfacey quality. The problem with Les Miz has nothing to do with what they attempted to do, that was admirable and right in the tradition of the greatest musicals. It's that they did it so … mediocrely. It's all in the execution. If I want big, self-important works that grind me into submission with their earnest artlessness I'm sure I could find many a 19th Century opera to do that (cue Meyerbeer!), with the added benefit of even more length!
You tell me ultimately who is a more interestingly drawn and full-bodied character: Rose from that "trifle" Gypsy or the very serious Javert?
Update from another:
I nominate the entire Les Mis thread for a Poseur Alert. What snobbery.