At The End Of The Day Bring on the next revolution: Le Miserables and memory
It is a cold dark Saturday night. The rain falling outside is hard and loud. I am laying on the couch in my pajamas fresh from a bubble bath in which I sat and drank wine straight from the bottle. This and the fact I have been fearing a virus that could kill my immune suppressed body could help explain why I am crying hot tears that slip down my cheeks as I blast the 1985 original London cast recording of the musical Le Miserables through ear buds. It could also be because this musical has a way of pulling at your heart so it comes out your eyes.
I have not listened to this since I was child. Yes I have seen the film adaptation and I hated it. Please do not ask me any further questions about it. On the farm my parents would crank the sound up to a deafening volume as they pontificated loudly over the music, the benefits of living so far from anybody who would be annoyed by such a din in addition to our large and vocal family.
As I lay on my couch in my inner city Melbourne suburb, I can still see the house on the farm my family worked on but did not own, crowded with mess and children. The huge pile of clean washing on the couch that my siblings and I pick and sift through for clean underwear and socks for school or church.
My mother referred to our washing piles as ‘Laundry Sculptures,’ if a famous artist had recreated it in a gallery they would have made millions. But we didn’t think of that. It was our life just like it was our life to go to church and pray before eating every meal. I still find folding washing calming, but the laundry sculptures of my childhood can never be recreated.
I was responsible for getting my younger siblings ready for church every Sunday while Mum and Dad were at the dairy doing the morning milking. Then it was an hour drive to church. Church lasted for three hours. Then my parents would have to do the afternoon milking and any other farm related tasks. A day of rest, Sunday was not.
Le Miserables was the soundtrack to these madly frantic mornings. My father would sing along to At The End Of The Day and Lovely Ladies. It wasn’t until now on this Saturday evening that I finally understood that the song was about sex workers and most of the lyrics were double entendre. As a child I remember thinking yes it would be ‘’Easy money lying in a bed.’’ Why don’t my parents make money that way?
Just look at this particular line ‘Take a look at his trousers you’ll see where he stands!’ As a kid I had no idea. As a grown up I’m very indignant and angry at the blatant sexual harassment pervasive in the workplace Fontaine was employed and then fired from.
That love of this musical was uncool and lame was not clear until I left home and went away to university. Where I would hide the cd and not play it ever again, eventually I lose it in one of my many moves.
Now twenty years later thanks to a recent tweet about Phantom Of The Opera, I was inspired to revisit my own long lost musical love. I had never gotten as excited about Phantom Of The Opera. My parents did embrace The Phantom as well but it never moved my young mind as much as Le Miserables, possibly because there was no children in it living in poverty and growing up to fall in unrequited love with their best friend during a revolution.
As I listened to 1985 London recording of Le Miserables all the way through and then started it again I was overwhelmed with memories of what the musical had meant to me in comparison to now. I don’t remember crying at all while listening to it repeatedly as a tween.
Of course I still knew every song practically word for word. As a grown woman with Sundays no longer filled with church and younger sisters asking me if I had brushed or washed my hair. I had time. The kind of time my parents never did.
My parents who worked so hard and never rested this work ethic was considered something honorable. It was something we were all in together. That some of the ideas regarding faith and god presented in the musical might have been a comfort to my parents and helped them uphold their faith, a faith I grew up not to share but reject. I got something different from the musical’s ideology. Especially as I listened to it now. Yet it can never be underestimated what it was to grow up witnessing your parent’s be visibly moved and inspired by music as an art. Parents were not educated but encouraged you to be.
It may not be high art but it will always remind me of my parents and how hard they try and that’s one of the reasons listening to it one rainy Saturday night made me cry. To remember them discuss the songs and laugh at jokes in the songs I would not understand until a grown up woman with her own filthy little mind. I now understand why Lovely Ladies made my Mother so uncomfortable and my father so exuberant as he sang along.
My mother had a copy of the novel that the musical is adapted from, a huge tomb of a book by Victor Hugo. My mother tried to read it and then lent it to an aunt. My Mother explaining that reading the book was like trying to swim in treacle. I tried at 12 and failed also. It was not nearly as compelling and fast paced as the musical. I just wanted to get to the part where Cosette meets Marius and Eponine dies in the arms of her unrequited love.
When I was little I planned to have two little girls after I got married and I was going to name them Cosette and Eponine. Of course I would always love the one named Eponine more. I don’t know why Jean Val Jean couldn’t take little Eponine with him when he took Cosette. Eponine’s negligent parents would have barely noticed. It isn’t fair!
If ever I had the house to myself I would tackle the clean laundry sculptures by folding clothing item after clothing item while singing along at the toop of my voice to On My Own and imagining what it must be like to be in love with someone who doesn’t love you back as anything more than a friend. I thought it must be a delicious kind of pain that would inspire my creativity and make me write brilliant mournful things.
Le Miserables premiered in 1985 at London’s Barbican Theatre one critic described it as ‘’a load of sentimental tosh.’ When Victor Hugo’s novel was released in 1862 the writer Baudelaire described it as ‘’a vile and inept book.’’ When I read about this I think of telling my mother. ‘’Mum! If Baudelaire hated reading it it’s more than ok for you and I not to have finished it.’’
When I am 14 my parents take me to experience the musical performed on stage In Melbourne at Her Majesty’s Theatre. I felt very grown up. Unfortunately the seats were not good and my myopic eyes could not see anything happening on stage. It was all just a distant blur. This was ok as having only experienced it through the music and lyrics of the songs, I had a rich imagined world that I had built around the music to fall back on. As far as I was concerned the music and lyrics were all I needed.
Oh how deeply I felt I was with Eponine when she dies at the barricades in the arms of Marius. I was with her as she roamed Paris’s underbelly after thwarting her criminal Father’s robbery. I imagined I was her wandering alone at night under a big bright moon singing about being shut out of a world that’s full of the kind of happiness she will never know. I did feel very alone like her and this was why she meant so much to me.She was not just a character she was a friend a kindred spirit. And after looking up the actress who played her Frances Rafelle, she is beautiful.
The person who is responsible for the English lyrics to the musical Le Miserables, Herbert Kretzmer was contacted only six months before the show opened in London’s West End. The original person who had been hired had produced work deemed unsatisfactory. In 2015 Herbert Kretzmer celebrated his 90th birthday and it coincidentally fell on the 30th anniversary of the premier of Le Miserables. The lyricist never hides the fact that he is a Jewish atheist nor the fact that he didn’t translate the original songs from French to English he wrote new ones, saying that songs cannot be translated but they can be retold, ‘I don’t translate I recreate.’
I can still here my father walking through the messy house in his clothes covered in cow muck towards the shower as he sang along with the plight of John Val John and the urban poor of pre revolution France. My Dad is a good strong singer and has been known to participant in church choirs but it’s hard to juggle that sort of thing around the sporadic and relentless schedule of a farming and agricultural workload.
On Sunday mornings you got to hear my father sing along to songs about rising up against wage inequality and ‘’cutting the fat ones down to size.’’ Perhaps my parent‘s loved the musical so much because it proposed that in the end if you work hard and have integrity, at the end of your life you will be rewarded by god. Like the priest who saves Jean Valjean from being recaptured by vindictive police inspector Javert, a man devoid of empathy for the extreme poverty that inspires a lot of crime in 19th century France.
For me the musical planted the seed of Marxism, a hatred of social and racial injustice that would be fed by higher education and my thirst for reading as much and as wide as I can. The idea that your worth should not be wrapped up in how productive you are and that a lot of the time hard work and the fight for justice in wide far reaching contexts is not always rewarded.It can be met with overt and violent opposition.
The fight must continue and I know now it’s not only happening as far away places such as America. It’s happening here in my own back yard. The indigenous population of Australia is 3 percent yet 34 percent of incarceration inmates are aboriginal and make up 50 percent of those in juvenile detention. The police here in Australia don’t get convicted when for deaths in custody. Police brutality receives no negative consequences. During a pandemic capitalism is being upheld instead of humanity and empathy by our government is non-existent.
Listening to The musical reminded me that thanks to my mum and her influence I have a life that involves so much time to read and consume art. I have a neat stack of yet to be read books that’s nine books high sitting on my desk as I write this.
I call my Mum to ask her why she loves the musical so much. She tells me she loved how full of ideals and dreams the young people were and how brave. The following day she tells me how much she loved the backstory of the Priest as described in the original novel and how he was on a journey that she believes ‘’we are all basically on.’’
‘’You finished the book?’’ I say second guessing my memory.
My mother tells me it was ‘’the best book I never finished.’’ My Mother tells about how Victor Hugo nearly lost his entire first draft of the novel on a boat and had rewrite most of it. I suddenly remember her telling me this growing up. A valuable lesson in creative resilience.
Of course the petulant teen part of me says something like how she cannot have really loved the book so much if she never finished it. My mother says
‘’I did finish an equally long tome but I was in hospital having Hannah, and in those days you got a week there and time to finish a long book. Unfortunately for Le Mis I think there was cows, five children and exhaustion.’’
I feel what I should feel in that moment: guilt and an over abundance of love and gratitude. I decide not to tell her how I have found out that the Mormon church has amassed 100 billion in accounts intended for charitable donation. The church has been misleading their members by stockpiling this revenue. They do this while my own faithful parents have not even got secure housing in the middle of a pandemic. A church that constantly converts low income families all over the world. But what would be the point of sharing this information. It would not do anything but hurt her. There is nothing I can do or say that would waver my mother’s faith.
Once again the more than thirty year old musical Le Miserables is helping remind me of where I came from and how much it shaped my hatred of police and the ruling class, a desire to continually read and learn about people and want with all my heart to be a writer.
When I confess with some sheepishness to a couple of my friends over messenger that I am writing about the musical Le Miserables I am met with unabashed joy by two people who love it the way I do. The drama and intensity of every character.
We discuss our favourite songs and scenes. The love sick Eponine who is the pin up girl for all our obsessions with people that do not love us back. How one of my friends had a full on crush on the woman who played Eponine. It was a yet to be acknowledged sign of her horniness for both boys and girls. One of these friends was in an Anglican girls school production of Le Miserables that included Lovely Ladies. The spectacle of a bunch of 15 year old private school girls singing their hearts out about sex work is something I am sad I never got to witness or be a part of. Private school kids get everything.
The Le Mis love fest lasted a while and it made me feel really happy about where I ended up in life. Fourteen year old Jess would be pretty pleased to know that yes she did get to experience the delicious pain of unrequited love and that she finally found a way to forge herself a different kind of home. It is time now like it was then and has been before to bake break and revolt.