'Les Misérables' Has Always Been Too Big for Criticism

Bombast? Bathos? That's the point. The the original production has endured because it gave audiences exactly what they wanted.

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Universal / NBC / ITV / AP Images

Early reviews of Les Misérables are not very promising. As of this writing, Tom Hooper's cinematic adaptation of the hugely famous musical has a score of 55 on Metacritic. (In a particularly harsh review, Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum said the movie made her long for the guillotine.) A common theme is that for all its impassioned intentions, the film is an exhausting 157 minutes of vibrato and pathos and extreme close-ups on its weepy stars.

Les Mis fans will be discouraged by none of this. When it first opened in London in 1985, Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg's musical adaptation of Victor Hugo's novel also received very mixed reviews and complaints that the three-and-a-half hour show was overlong and overwrought. Of course, this did not stop it from becoming an international sensation and the third longest running show on Broadway after it hopped the pond. When I see the film next week, I intend to revel in every quivering note and cheer at each call to revolution. The point of Les Misérablesis its pure bombast: the way that it steamrolls any suggestion of cynicism with yet another soaring refrain.

A relic from the heyday of the '80s mega-musical (its peers include Cats and The Phantom of the Opera), for many of its fans Les Mis served as an early introduction to Broadway. I also suspect that it's a prime example of a cultural experience that you must encounter when you are young or you will never wholly embrace it. Fans of the musical are legion, and they come in all ages, genders and nationalities—but the onslaught of emotion released over the course of the production is best absorbed in a state of pre-irony vulnerability. (For a taste of this fandom, visit les misérables confessions.)

My affinity for this musical epic about redemption, first love and doomed revolution is at least partially rooted in nostalgia, and the fact that I fell in love with it at a time when I had not yet developed any emotional armor. There was a distinct period in my very early teens when if the original Broadway cast recording of Les Mis wasn't on my CD player, it was only so that Miss Saigon could get some airplay. Embarrassingly, my friends and I used to harmonize to our favorite song, "On My Own," on the bus ride to middle school. We had no use for boring, flaxen-haired Cosette (the emblem of the show) who gets the guy in the end. It was the resourceful, lovelorn street urchin Éponine who inspired us. "On my own, pretending he's beside me" is a poignant anthem for a girl who, at the advanced age of 12, fears she will never find love.

The current Glee era seems like an opportune time to dust off the beloved musical and dress it up as extravagantly as possible for a film audience. But Les Mis has remained a constant presence in popular culture—largely due to national tours, revivals, and anniversary concerts—also because it has a tendency to pop up in unexpected places, like an episode of Seinfeld where George can't get the song "Master of the House" out of his head, or a memorable scene in the first season of Dawson's Creek. (Even my bus rendition of "On My Own" can't have been as painful as Katie Holmes's version.)

Until it was undertaken by Anne Hathaway, the musical's signature ballad "I Dreamed a Dream" was most notably revived by Susan Boyle in her legendarily viral 2009 audition for Britain's Got Talent. It was a television moment carefully orchestrated for maximum impact, from Boyle's introduction as the frumpy underdog to the moment when the judges' smirks and the audience's eye rolls are transformed into thunderous applause. But despite the knowledge that you are being shamelessly manipulated, the catch in your throat when those first pure, mournful notes emerge from Boyle's unimposing person is entirely real.

Such is the magic and the appeal of Les Misérables: It is impossible to approach the material with anything less than quavering earnestness. Take for instance this great impromptu performance of "The Confrontation"—a tour-de-force vocal duel between the musical's hero Jean Valjean and its antagonist Inspector Javert—by Neil Patrick Harris and Jason Segel during a 2006 talk show appearance. Paul Rudd and writer/director David Wain also tackled the song in an enjoyable, if inexplicable, promo for their film Role Models. These clips demonstrate that resistance to Les Mis is futile; there's much more fun to be had by simply giving in to it.

Of course, the show's emotive score also has vocal detractors. Following Susan Boyle's moment in the sun, Nora Ephron (who was no stranger herself to unapologetic sentimentality) wrote a piece for The Huffington Post referring to "that song" as "the all-time most horrible song ever in history." (In keeping with my theory, Ephron's response to "I Dreamed a Dream" can only be the reaction of a person who first crossed paths with it as a fully formed, critically mature individual.) On the 25th anniversary of Les Mis, Guardian critic Michael Billington revisited his initial negative impression of the show, concluding: "What I find intriguing is that we think we live in a very cool, smart, cynical age. Yet, when the chips are down, what we really crave is a contest of good and evil, and lashings of spectacle."

Given the excitement over the film from a number of quarters (New York Magazine's Vulture, for instance, has been counting down the days to the opening with an advent calendar) it's fair to say that Les Misérables is in fact cool—in the way that things that are supremely uncool can swing back around. Like Cats or Phantom, Les Mis retains a certain kitsch appeal that harkens to an outsized, more lavish era of musical theater. But the show also has an immersive and enduring power that continues to resonate in popular culture. That it has held up better and stayed relevant longer than most of its compatriots is due to the fact that underpinning the production's lush extravagance is a timely story about the struggle of a marginalized underclass and (all cynicism aside) a genuinely stirring score. Les Mis speaks directly to the inner theater geek that lurks in all of us.