From the staff

Stevens: At the end of the day, 'Les Mis' feeds his soul

tsteven@newsobserver.comJanuary 17, 2013 

Some Les Mis Heads have seen the show “Les Misérables” hundreds of times. They’d go to the theater every week during its Broadway run. Some made cookies for the cast.

That’s not me. I’m not obsessed. I’ve only seen the play a dozen times or so.

I refuse to travel any farther than Hollywood, Calif. to see it, unless you count those plans to go to see the London production.

And doesn’t everybody have a collection of props from the show. Things like the yellow ticket of leave Jean Valjean must display and Valjean’s last confession. They are written in French. I can’t read French, but the yellowing papers are in a folder along with playbills and ticket stubs.

“Les Misérables” the musical has been around in America for about 25 years, but I missed the first decade.

I was working with Jim Lavery at Memorial Auditorium on a basketball event once and I asked him what was the show that had this little, sad-eyed girl. “Annie,” he said. No the other one. “You mean Les Misérables?” Such was my theater knowledge.

Sports and theater

At heart, I may have always been a theater kind-of-guy. My high school plays were “Lil Abner,” “Brigadoon,” and “Oliver,” and even those shows created a sense of wonder in me.

I was writing about high school sports then, like now, and I went to a basketball game on a Friday night before hurrying to the auditorium to see the final minutes of “Brigadoon.”

I clearly remember the bagpiper’s funeral dirge. I have no recollection of the game.

But for more than 20 years after high school, in my mind the theater was something for people who were smarter, more cultured and more refined than I was.

But Bill Morrison, a former theater critic for The News & Observer, wrote a glowing review of the UNC Chapel Hill PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of “Death of a Salesman.” At the water fountain, he said I should see it.

Real emotions

The cast included Eva Marie Saint and Judd Hirsch and for one life-altering night the audience included my wife and me. We sat about three rows back from the thrust stage and for roughly two hours we cared about people who never existed and who lived in a place that never was.

I discovered how much fictional characters can evoke real emotions. Willy Loman is a make-believe character in a play, but Willy Loman’s story resonated from reality.

Soon, I was overwhelmed by N.C. Theatre productions, by shows at the Cape Fear Regional Theatre in Fayetteville and by numerous productions at East Carolina University. I began to travel for shows and rearrange my schedule for curtain times. I even managed to get a walk-on role in NCT’s production of “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.”

Those few minutes on the stage rate among my most selfish delights.

But “Les Misérables” is special. The show can be enjoyed on many levels, but to me it is very religious, as reflected by religious icons in almost every scene of the recent film adaptation.

The story reflects man’s efforts to understand God. Valjean experiences a God of repentance. The lawman Javert sees a God of justice. Others believe there is no God. And throughout the play, many wonder why God would allow certain things to happen.

Valjean and Javert each believes in their hearts that they are on the side of righteousness. When Javert experiences mercy, his world tumbles.

The story is relevant today because it is set in a time when society is being strained. The rich get richer, and the chasm between the haves and have-nots is deepening. There is no job security, and people find themselves in unexpected financial disasters.

The workers sing:

“There are children back at home. And the children have got to be fed. And you’re lucky to be in a job. And in a bed.”

The poor say:

“Look down. Look down. And show some mercy if you can.”

And the disillusioned sing:

“Now life has killed the dream I dreamed.”

Valjean, who has lived a life of service and goodness since breaking his parole and becoming a fugitive from justice, faces his life’s biggest question. “Who am I?” Is he really a new man? Or just acting like a different person? Can he really be forgiven?

Like me, he decides he needs grace, not justice.

But you don’t find that out until the dead lady sings at the end.

Tim Stevens covers high school sports.

tstevens@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8910

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