Do you ever stick your foot in your mouth regarding literature? Do you know what I mean? Like, you always assumed Evelyn Waugh was some old lady or you mistakingly thought the title of that novel was Tequila Mockingbird? Maybe you tried to pronounce Fyodor Dostoevsky in conversation and your tongue crashed and burned in complete betrayal.
In honor of Les Miserables showing in a theatre near you, I decided to confess one of my biggest literary missteps. Back in 2000, I toured England for six weeks through a program sponsored by the campus ministry at my university. Our group could spend two free days in London, and one of the “must do” items on my list was to see a performance of Les Miserables at the Palace Theatre because anyone who heard about my free time in London insisted I go. They could barely speak of the show without crying, adding how my life wouldn’t be complete until I had seen it.
I actually knew very little about the musical. I thought it was something about the French Revolution (Literary Misstep #1). I had only heard one song from the entire show, “On My Own,” because I had a roommate obsessed with Dawson’s Creek, and she made me watch a scene where Joey (Katie Holmes) sings it for a beauty pageant, finally getting Dawson to look at her as a girl. You can find it on YouTube. I won’t provide the link because it’s painful.*
So, anyway, my friends and I are up at the very top of the Palace Theatre, super excited about the idea of seeing Les Miserables IN LONDON. (Something about saying IN LONDON after everything makes it that much cooler. Bag Pipes IN LONDON. McDonald’s IN LONDON. Pigeons IN LONDON. Wearing pants IN LONDON) The music starts, and I’m instantly enchanted. The rotating stage. The gorgeous score. Everything. However, before we even hit intermission, I’m suddenly lost in the plot. Based on very little context, I had convinced myself that at some point two men, who look exactly alike though are not twins, switch places to save one from returning to jail, awaiting eventual execution. Right? Was I missing something?
I kept expecting a man to come out, looking exactly like Jean Valjean. You might also consider: 1) we sat at the very top of the theatre, 2) all of the actors sang every line of the entire show, and 3) all of them had British accents, so understanding the nuance of the plot was difficult.
Not until several days later did I realize why I was so confused. I mixed up the plots of Tale of Two Cities and Les Miserables. Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton switched places to save one from the guillotine and save the other man’s soul through ultimate sacrifice during the best of times and the worst of times. Not Jean Valjean and, you know, some other guy in France with a British accent. Jean Valjean offered grace to his most hated enemy as he heard the people sing, singing the songs of angry men. In my defense, Valjean hid his identity to keep from going back to prison, plus the France thing, and the battle thing with French uniforms. It’s all very understandable. Right?
I’m the weirdest and dumbest person ever.
Moving on, we saw Les Miserables over the holidays with my husband’s family. We loved it, except for the hot mess performance of Russell Crowe. Anne Hathaway was amazing, and Hugh Jackman could sing to me any day of the week. Lovely man. I still recommend one of the Broadway recordings for your listening pleasure, but the movie pulls out emotion and depth you can’t really see from the nosebleeds at the Palace. So, spill it.
When have you been most embarrassed in literary circles?
*Okay, okay. Here’s the link to the “Someone-sings-a-song-from-Les Miserables-worse-than-Russell-Crowe” video. Watch at your own risk.