HPPUB DRAMA, MUSICAL OR PLAY REVIEWs of Martin Guerre, Les Miserables


Author:  Boublil, Alain; music by Claude-Michel Schoenberg; also lyrics by Stephen Clark

Title:  Martin Guerre

Where seen: Minneapolis, Guthrie, 1999

Performance time: 135 minutes + intermission



Recording: Dreamworks 004450215-2

Relevance to HPPUB: trading identities; arranged marriage; popularity

Review:            This musical raises again with me the question: can a tuneful show, intended for general audiences, and period piece set in a long past culture really deal with important social and political problems? To a writer this is important, because there are pressures in the literary world for writers to establish themselves first by writing what "other people want."

            Indeed, the music has a rising lilt. It can be stirring sometimes, but it is not grand opera. The ending ("Live with somebody you love") dies away rather than providing the chills and fever of Les Miserables. And I do think that opera provides the opportunity for in-depth psychological probing (look at the operas by Richard Strauss, Wagner, Berg, Schonberg) that musicals lack. Arnold Schonberg once wrote (when discussing his 1909 Five Pieces for Orchestra) that music gave him the opportunity to delve into things he didn't dare talk about. One wonders what a composer like Georges Bizet would have done with this material.

            But the story is important. In 16th Century France, young Martin Guerre agrees to an arranged marriage but is unable to consummate it. Is this because he is too young (so says the script), or maybe because he is attracted to men? In the meantime, he goes off to war against the Protestants with his "best friend" and buddy, and is mistakenly left for dead. His friend takes over his identity and marries his wife, later to be convicted of his deceit in a French court when it turns out that Guerre has survived.

            There is a lot a stirring material in the script. There is a song about the friendship between Martin and Arnold, and it lives one wondering just how far into love a "platonic" friendship is supposed to go. There is rhetoric about the solstice of young manhood, preceding its long summer (if life isn't cut short by war or reckless behavior). Yet it must be tamed by women. It must fit religious and collective purposes. Society is hardly ready to permit creative, self-directed life. In one song, there is talk about the importance of bearing children; indeed Guerre's "impotence" is supposed to have brought on the floods from an angry God.

            There is also this schizophrenic idea of switching identities, when Martin lives his friend's life. Now, I had my own platonic passions for friends at that age, but I didn't want to become them, just be more like them. What would it be like to go down the Lost Highway of another's life? But, unlike the case with Les Miserables there is no real villain, just a village idiot.

            The stagecraft is impressive, including the setting of a fire on stage when the French village of Artigat burns. Cannons and blanks are fired (were they available in 1560?) I saw this at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, and afterwards took a tour of the impressive seven-level facility, with its costume factory and inventory of stage hardware. It looked almost like Universal Studios.

Les Miserables (by Alain Boublil, music by Claude-Michele Schoenberg, lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer, based on the novel by Victor Hugo, performed at the National Theater in Washington DC Dec 2005 through Jan 2006 by Cameron Mackintosh).  This famous musical has been broadcast on PBS from London with its encore of the 17 Jean Valjeans from different countries. The soaring music includes numbers like “Do You Hear the People Sing” and “One Day More,” and the rollicking “Master of the House” that returns in the “Wedding Chorale.” The novel spans 1815 to 1832, starting with Jean Valjean being released from 19 years on a chain gang for stealing a loaf of bread out of filial responsibility. A saga ensues with a typical nineteenth century low tech but clever plot of mistaken identities, hidden loves and pregnancies and more legal trials, finally in the context of a rebellion in 1832 in Paris. For plot details, the visitor can go to Cliff Notes or to a high school or college literature course anthology, but what matters in the musical is the political context, the cry for personal freedom in its various contexts. It may start with love and family but this must cross class and privilege lines, and lead eventually to revolution, which has already happened in France but still continues with various post-Napoleonic outbursts. Freedom can mean revolution, sacrifice for a cause, but ultimately the aim is libertarian: the individual can best help others if he can follow his own self-defined purpose using his own special talents first. How often people are not allowed to do that because they are tethered to the needs of others, especially through blood loyalty. Ultimately, how well you can do by yourself in life matters, and you need the freedom to do this, but you still have to pay your dues. How well others do can depend on you.

The stage work is stunning, with an assemblage of carpentry and metal (a collapsed apartment) that seems like a sci-fi hermitage from “Quintet”. Jean Valjean is covered with tattoos (he reveals one when he sings “Who Am I” and rather deliberates the ethics of telling the truth), but much of the younger male cast was extremely nimble and attractive. The wedding scene near the end was sumptuous, with real reception food, and the music mentioning “queers.”    

Randall Keith plays Jean Valjean; Gabriel Kalomas is the Bishop of Digne; Robert Hunt is Javert; Leslie Benstock is Cosette.

Movie of Les Miserables


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