Category Archives: Musical notes

“Les Miz”, as an adult

Parenthood is one of the greatest blessings of my life, but it certainly does cramp my  moviegoing style.   The sad reality is that I average one visit to the movie theatre every 1.5 years (no joke).   But this past weekend, I broke my moviegoing fast with “Les Misérables.”  And if you only see one movie a year, that’s the one to see. It was, in a word, breathtaking.

I blogged earlier about how excited I was to see this film, largely due to the fact that I feel under the “Les Miz” spell in high school.  I practically wore out those cassette tapes (yes, I’m a dinosaur) with repeated use; I even got to see the stage production a few times.  But I haven’t seen the play, or even listened to the music, in about a decade.  So in a way, the prospect of seeing the movie raised some fascinating questions: Would the same things that captivated the sixteen-year-old me also captivate the thirty-nine-year-old me?   Which aspects of “Les Miz” would speak to me now?  And how would the intimate medium of film make it feel different from the largeness of a stage production?

Here is what I discovered.

1).  Fantine’s story is way, way more gut-wrenching on film than on stage.   “I Dreamed a Dream” is a haunting song that is more well-served by closeups and the occasional gulping whisper than when a singer has to belt it out to the back rows of a theatre.   And Anne Hathaway was phenomenally good at showing the degradation of her character — the gradual and complete loss of her dignity made me feel literally sick to my stomach, which is a feeling I don’t remember having during the stage production.

2)  The student uprising looks a lot different when you are almost forty than when you are sixteen.  I kept being struck by how young these guys looked.  There was something so poignant about their idealism.  I realized that I was looking at these young men with an almost maternal eye, simultaneously admiring them for their fervent devotion to a cause and yet  wanting to pull them off of the barricade and into safety.  (There was nothing maternal about my attitude when I was in high school, a time when I had a massive crush on the guy who played Marius in the San Francisco company.)

3) Over a post-film dinner out, my husband and I spent a lot of time talking about the religious elements of the movie.   As with the play, I was so moved by the bishop at the start of the film, a man whose stunning act of forgiveness is the catalyst for Valjean to turn his life around.   It shows how much one gesture of generous kindness can literally change the trajectory of a person’s life, and can affect countless other lives in the process.  (And I love how the movie brings him back at the end … a perfect detail.)

4)  Speaking of religion, one thing that really struck me in the film was the character of Javert, and the perils of his spiritual rigidity.  In essence, the story presents two views of God: Valjean’s (and the bishop’s), who is a God of second chances and mercy and compassion; and Javert’s, who is a God of black-and-white rules and swift punishment.   In the film, right before the song “Stars,” Javert is standing before a crucifix — an echo of Valjean, elsewhere in the movie — and that visual parallel made me think about how two men can have two very different views of the same God.  And  what leapt out at me in the film is that Javert’s view of God poses a danger, both to others (witness his relentless persecution of Valjean and his utter lack of compassion for Fantine) and, most of all,  to himself.  I hope I’m not giving away any spoilers here to say that when an act of stunning mercy is show to Javert himself, he simply can’t handle it.   His mind, which is so rigid in its view of right and wrong, literally cannot stretch to encompass a God of mercy and second chances.  With his vision of God and the world pulled out from underneath him, he kills himself.    This really leapt out at me: that Javert represents the danger of a mind that adheres to legalism and makes God as small as we humans are, rather than being open to something greater.  And it’s Javert himself who is the most harmed by that rigidity … which is thought-provoking.

As the days pass, I’m sure I’ll keep thinking more and more about this movie; it really is that rich a film.    But I guess if I had to shrink all my feelings about it  into one pithy statement, it would be this:  “Les Misérables” is a film that makes you want to become a better person.  It really does.   I can’t remember the last time I saw a movie that made me feel that way.  And somehow, with all the tragedy in the world these days, a movie that celebrates compassion and the nobility of the human spirit is just what we need.

Have you seen it?  What did you think?









We’re in an all-Christmas-music-all-the-time mode around here (minus the occasional playing of the Philadelphia Chickens CD).  The boys love holiday music, and they come by that honestly.   Every year, the day after Thanksgiving finds me busting out my Christmas CDs and getting into a holly jolly mood.  (I know, I know; technically, it’s the Advent season, not the Christmas season, but a month of “O Come O Come Emmanuel” gets rather tedious.)   It’s a short season, and I make the most of it.

Over the years, I’ve developed a few personal favorites in the carol department.

1) Andy Williams singing Mary’s Little Boy Child.  I know that Harry Belafonte sang it first — and his rendition is amazing — but the Andy Williams version makes me remember Christmases as a kid, and the record my parents had showing Andy smiling genially against a green background.  (I have more to say about Andy Williams, who passed away a few months ago, but that will have to wait for a  longer post).

2) I Saw Three Ships, sung by just about anyone.  It always lifts my spirits and makes me want to drink a cup of wassail while standing under a Victorian lamppost somewhere.

3)  We Need a Little Christmas, from the musical Mame.  It’s the perfect song to start humming in the days after Thanksgiving, and it’s nearly impossible not to sing along once you’ve heard it a few times.

4)  I adore Hayley Westenra’s version of “The Little Road to Bethlehem.”   It’s so sweet and so melodic.

5) The Angels’ Carol by John Rutter.  It’s exquisitely beautiful, both the tune and the lyrics.  This song and a crackling fire and a cup of tea: the perfect recipe for feeling glowy and warm, inside and out.

What’s your favorite Christmas carol?  Can you pick just one?

Thankful for the ordinary times

I like Thanksgiving.  It’s a non-flashy, non-commericialized holiday that is all about good food, good people, and gratitude.  And football, of course, if you go for that kind of thing.  (As the mother of two boys, I find that I am going for it more than ever before.)

I don’t know about you, but I’m hungry for this holiday.  Like many moms, too often I view the average day as something to be gotten through as quickly and painlessly as possible rather than as a treasure chest of small blessings.  I need to be reminded that this is my life: this, right here, right now.  It may be loud and messy and at times overwhelming, but there is a sweetness about these years as a mom of young children … and in the course of an average day, there are so many things for which to be grateful, if I have the eyes to see them.

In the spirit of that, I offer you this beautiful video by Catholic singer/songwriter Marie Bellet.  I’m sure there isn’t a mom alive who can’t relate to it.  Every time I watch it, I end up crying (in a good way).  May we all be thankful for the blessings of ordinary time, not just this Thursday, but every day.

“Les Miz” looks mahvelous

So last week I was talking to my mom on the phone while watching “Dancing with the Stars,”  because we women are great at multitasking like that, when my ears caught the sound of something familiar and my gaze was caught by something that was clearly not the samba.   And I turned up the volume and lo and behold,  it was the trailer for the movie version of Les Misérables, due out at Christmas time.   And my ability to multitask promptly went bye-bye as I tried, in my crazy-excited-incoherent way, to tell my mom what I was seeing as I was seeing it, which surely came out as a garbled string of words along the lines of  wait, wow, Les Miz, cool, Anne Hathaway, I had no idea they were making a movie of this, oh my gosh, they’re making a movie of this, wow, wow, wow.

Watch it and see for yourself.

Are you as excited about this movie as I am?    I’ve seen the play several times over the years, starting when I was in high school and had the most outrageous crush on the guy playing Marius in the San Francisco production, and of course I  once had the soundtrack memorized and could play the songs on the piano and all that.   And I was such a fan that I even read the zillon-page book, with  a somewhat mixed reaction — yes, Victor Hugo could pen a great story, but wow, Victor Hugo was Mr. Tangent Man.  He’d be writing a chase scene in which Valjean and Cosette are being pursued by Javert, and then he’d make them climb over the wall of a convent to hide, and then he’d promptly spend one hundred pages telling you everything you never wanted to know about the order of nuns who lived there, and what the Mother Superior was like, and what their daily nun-routine was like, and as the reader, I’m thinking, “Umm … chase scene?  Where did you goooo?”   It got very annoying.  Either Victor had no editor, or his editor had no backbone.

But my own little tangent is over.  Back to the musical: it looks amazing.  The trailer made me want to cry (in a good way).  And when I checked out the movie website, I found that what makes this different from other movie musicals is that the actors aren’t lip-synching to a pre-recorded soundtrack . They are actually preforming the songs live on set, which is something that has never been attempted on this scale before.  This means it is likely to feel far more authentic, and less stagy, than such movie musicals usually are.

And watching the trailer made me realize how much I am longing to see this story, and these songs, in close-up.  As a stage production, Les Miz is  powerful, but it’s BIG: big set, big barricades, big voices, big gestures, big facial expressions.   It’ll be a totally new experience seeing these characters in close-up, with the subtlety and intimacy that the movies can provide.  I get chills just thinking about it.

Also, I’m realizing that the last time I saw the play was about fifteen years ago, at least.  It was before having kids, before getting married — before many things, actually.  Will my experience of Les Miz be different now that I’ve lived more, now that I have been deeply in love and had children and known loss and renewed my own faith?  I’m guessing yes.   I’m guessing that certain aspects of the story will pierce my soul in ways that they did not when I was twenty-four.   And I’m mighty curious to see which ones.

So what about you — are you going to see the movie this Christmas season?   What did you think of the trailer?  Were you surprised that Anne Hathaway can actually sing?  Do tell.

A song for April

I don’t know about you, but I was pretty excited to welcome April.   We’ve had a weird few months here in the Bay Area: January and February were far drier and warmer than usual, and then March  was rainy rainy rainy and gray gray gray.  It was like we had spring before we had winter, which was kind of disorienting.  The trees were blossoming, my sandals were coming out of hiding, I was thinking of splurging on a pedicure, and then bam!  — along came the cold.  I hate to contradict T. S. Eliot, but April is not the cruelest month.  That honor goes to March, at least in these parts.

But tonight, as I took a brief walk after dinner, I saw signs that changes are afoot.  I saw pink jasmine starting to blossom.  I saw curtains of purple wisteria.  I even saw a lilac bush in full, gorgeous bloom, right in front of someone’s living room window, and I crossed the street for a closer look.  It was hard to restrain myself from walking boldly onto their lawn and burying my face in the blooms, but I somehow managed to behave myself (the people in that house don’t know me, and thus are not aware that when it comes to lilacs, I simply can’t be held responsible for my actions).  Though the evening air was cold, I saw enough blooming beauty to make me feel that maybe, just maybe, I won’t have to wait long for spring.

And in honor of the month, and the change of seasons, I offer here this beautiful  little song.  I’ve loved it ever since I was in high school, when I used to listen to it on my dad’s record album.   I can’t think of a lovelier tune  to welcome the spring.

April Come She Will by Simon & Garfunkel