Driven to tears: 'Les Miserables' in Brisbane
BRISBANE, Australia – The people around me were sobbing, singing lyrics known by heart, clapping, and even hooting in appreciation after each scene, and standing up to give a rapturous ovation at curtain call. They came in gowns, frocks, fascinators, and tuxedos, and left with revolution in their hearts.
This was the scene at the Lyric Theatre of the Queensland Performing Arts Centre in Brisbane, Australia, where I witnessed the city's premiere performance night of Les Misérables on November 13, 2015.
And it is a scene, given this production's clockwork precision and heartfelt performances, that is guaranteed to repeat itself when the Australian cast of Les Misérables begins its tour of Asia on March 11, 2016 in Manila.
I was among a fortunate number of Filipino journalists invited to attend the gala night performance on November 13 of the same production that was to tour Manila. I was able to interview members of the Australian cast and creative team. I also interviewed Claude-Michel Schönberg himself during his most recent visit to Manila, just before leaving for Australia.
Resonance and relevance
Those among us brought to tears during the gala performance in Brisbane were in the majority.
Many among the audience focused on the endearing songs and stories of unrequited love, of selfless fatherhood, and of redemption. Others focused on the flawless production, the seamless automated set design, and the integral 3-dimensional screen projections. While still others focused on both the charisma and allure of its gorgeous and handsome cast.
I couldn't help but focus on how Hugo's depiction of poverty, brutality, squalor, and exploitation in 19th century Paris mirrored 21st century Metro Manila and other metropolises around the world. What nearly brought me to tears was my own sense of shame, rage, responsibility, and helplessness as a citizen. Les Misérables was inspired by the failed 1832 uprising in Paris and was written during the same milieu as Philippine national hero Jose Rizal's incendiary novels Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo.
Ultimately, this is the criterion by which this entire assemblage of artistry – from Schönberg and Boublil's songwriting 3 decades ago, to the acting and singing of this latest generation of cast members – will be judged: whether they successfully communicate Hugo's sentiments on personal redemption and revolution to today's global audience. And by this criterion, Les Misérables prevails.
It is a testament to Hugo, Schönberg, and the multitude of artists who have since made Les Misérables what it is today that it still touches a nerve, stabs the heart, and stokes the conscience of audiences half a world and two centuries hence its first publication, and 30 years since its theatrical debut.
Hugo spoke with action, not just words. Elected to parliament in 1848, he defended the freedom of the press and spoke in favor of universal suffrage, free education for all children, and the abolition of the death penalty.
Schönberg himself has certainly taken to heart Hugo's call for a quiet revolution of compassion. He revealed to me that the Sun and Moon Orphanage he established in Parañaque City, Philippines decades ago now cares for some 200 children, and that Margot, his adopted daughter from the Philippines, is now in her 20s.
Schönberg said he even organized a fund-raising concert for the survivors of Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan), and revealed that he was on his way to visit the homes constructed with the funds raised.
The French songwriter is Jean Valjean incarnate, and his own daughters as well as the children at his orphanage are his very own Cosettes. This faithful adherence to Hugo's vision reflects in his musicale. And it is this sincerity that shines through at Les Misérables in Brisbane.
The musicale also gave me hope by reminding me that a festering and squalid urban battleground can, in just a span of a century, rise to become the high mark of western civilization that Paris is today. If Paris can become great, in time, so too can Manila, or even Aleppo or Baghdad.
As I looked around at the audience in stilettos and lace, fascinators and frocks, I wondered if these same thoughts crossed the minds of others who watched Hugo's masterpiece around the world. Do they really hear the people sing?
Doubtless there were people among the creme dela creme of society in attendance who, like the respected mayor and factory owner Valjean, harbor hearts that resonate with the call for a quiet revolution underneath a garb of glamor.
Few of the “people” themselves were in attendance on gala night. Most of the modern-day counterparts of the hoi polloi depicted onstage have not the time, money, or, arguably, the appetite to watch or read about a reality they already know all too well. Perhaps they would fail to rally to Hugo's masterpiece, much in the same way the people of Paris failed to rally behind the young bourgeois student revolutionaries that instigated the 1832 uprising depicted in the novel and the musicale. But I could be and I should be wrong.
Les Misérables was, for me, a stark reminder that for all its modern-day sophistication, Paris has long been home to both valor and tragedy.
Les Misérables was made all the more timely when, some 10 hours after the gala night performance in Brisbane and still on the the same date half a world away, Paris suffered simultaneous terror attacks that left 128 people dead, once again becoming a battleground as it did in 1832.
As posts accumulated online, I was also reminded of the 41 victims of terror in Lebanon the day before, the 147 people killed in Kenya on April in 2015, the 220 killed in Zamboanga in 2013, and the ongoing spate of Lumad killings in my own country.
The tears I had held back the night before began to fall as I wandered the streets of Brisbane the morning after.
Doubtless, once again, reason and compassion will eventually prevail over brutality. Those who truly hear the people sing will see to that. More than ever, Les Misérables is relevant and resonant. – Rappler.com
Writer, graphic designer, and business owner Rome Jorge is passionate about the arts. Formerly the Editor-in-Chief of asianTraveler Magazine, Lifestyle Editor of The Manila Times, and cover story writer for MEGA and Lifestyle Asia Magazines, RomeJorge has also covered terror attacks, military mutinies, and mass demonstrations as well as reproductive health, gender equality, climate change, HIV/AIDS and other important issues. He is also the proprietor of Strawberry Jams Music Studio.