“Les Mis,” Musicals, & The Art of Criticism

I’ve been excited for weeks about the opening of the film adaptation of “Les Mis”: a big, sprawling, spectacular and semi-insane musical based on the novel (to which all of those same adjectives also apply).  I saw the movie and came away deeply satisfied with a problematic product – even the best art is almost never perfect – but checking out critical reaction online left me frustrated; not with the film, no, but with the criticism.  It’s a frustration that, as a casual but sincere fan of musical theater, I feel every time a movie musical is released, and it stems from the too-common and too-arch critical response towards this popular art form: that is, an aversion to the very nature of musicals.  I’m not really into musicals, intellectuals and aggressively heterosexual males declaim, marking their cultural territory as surely and as snottily as those who brag that they don’t watch television.  But television tells some great stories, and so do musicals; and while, yes, the premise of people breaking out into song as a means of conveying emotion or narrative mechanics is rather ridiculous so too is the premise of people speaking entirely in perfectly metered Elizabethan English, but somehow Shakespeare has never lost his elitist cred.


Criticism doesn’t require enthusiasm as a prerequisite, but it does require engagement.  Real analysis simply can’t happen from a place of dismissal.  It’s fine and fair to point out that Russell Crowe is totally overwhelmed by the part of Javert, that even Broadway vet Hugh Jackman has his range stretched by Jean Valjean – but to criticize a big Broadway show for having big Broadway showtunes is not only stupid, it forecloses the possibility of any kind of real discussion or insight.


To love something does not mean to think it perfect.  (I still love the hell out of “Buffy,” but I also picked it to pieces on this blog; this review of “Les Mis” is one of the most enthusiastic on the entire Internet, and it still finds plenty of flaws.)  But there are so many more interesting things to say about “Les Mis” – an enormous, and enormously popular, novel which has been retold as a musical (also enormously popular), movie (several times over), miniseries, and now movie musical – than to foreground one’s own disdainful preferences.  Rejecting an entire formal category just seems so willfully self-limiting, especially when that form contains multitudes within itself; someone unentranced by the earnestness and bombast of “Les Mis” might, for example, find themselves enjoying the meta-humor and intimacy of “[Title of Show]”, even though both are musicals – but in order to discover the latter, one must first seek to transcend their own proud ignorance of an entire genre.


To a certain extent, I can understand having difficulty with an unfamiliar form; whenever I have tried to read comic books or graphic novels I am reminded of how much I prefer pure text, because it is just an easier way for my mind to work.  Compiling dialogue and thought-bubbles and illustration is, to me, like reading a foreign language – it takes effort, and that effort oftentimes eclipses the narrative pleasures on offer.  But consequently, I’m no more fit to review graphic novels than I am foreign-language texts, and my inability to easily absorb a form in which most ten-year-old boys find ready fluency is hardly a mark of my sophistication.  Smugness and superiority might lead to a few witty zingers, but it doesn’t enrich anyone’s understanding or experience of an artistic property (even if that property is “Rock of Ages”), and that’s something to truly bemoan.

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