In his homily for the opening Mass of his pontificate, Benedict XVI said: “There is nothing more beautiful than to be surprised by the Gospel, by the encounter with Christ. There is nothing more beautiful than to know Him, and to speak to others of our friendship with Him.”
Many know the surprising joy of meeting the Gospel in Les Misérables: Victor Hugo’s nineteenth-century novel, in the dozen film adaptations, and in the musical theater phenomenon. (My production company was one of the partners in the London and Broadway version of Les Mis.) I believe many more will be surprised to enter the modern day Via Crucis of director Tom Hooper’s new film adaptation of the musical, which opens on Christmas Day.
There is no Hollywood sacrilege here. Protagonist Jean Valjean’s journey in the story is a living witness to the Way of the Cross.
Writing about the novels of William Faulkner, Thomas Merton observed that:“a writer can be profoundly biblical in his work without being a churchgoer or a conventional believer, and. . .in our time it is often the isolated and lonely artist, facing the problems of life without the routine consolations of conventional religion, who really experiences in their depth the existential dimensions of the those problems.”
Victor Hugo by Léon Bonnat (1879)
This is certainly true of Victor Hugo (1802-1885), the author of Les Misérables, but it’s true too of the many collaborators, investors, and producers of what has become the most beloved musical of all time – true whether or not they acknowledge it. Some artistic expressions – in literature, theatre, film, fine arts, dance, music, television, and in so-called New Media – intuitively show us dimensions of redemptive longing, and they are the ones that touch the depths of the soul. And often surprise cynics in New York and Hollywood.
These are the avenues of inculturation that Blessed Pope John Paul II urged us to pursue in proclaiming the Good News: “The inherent missionary nature of the Church means testifying essentially to the fact that the task of inculturation, as an integral dissemination of the Gospel and its consequent translation into thought and life, continues today, and represents the heart, the means, and the goal of the new evangelization.”
Critics, of course, often resist such works, even as the general public embraces them. It was true in 1862 when Hugo’s novel was published. Critics skewered the book; readers made it an international bestseller. It was true in 1985 when the Royal Shakespeare Company premiered the musical adaptation of Les Misérables in London, which met with tepid critical acclaim at best. One critic wrote: “There is a string of impressive sights over the three-and-a-quarter hours, but little to grip the ear and still less to trouble the mind.”
I can testify that all involved in the show were puzzled by such comments after the New York opening. Were the critics really deaf to the show’s soaring score? To songs such as “I Dreamed a Dream,” “A Heart Full of Love,” and “Bring Him Home”?
What is it about the interior journey we take when we enter this story that makes some critics lambaste it but audiences love it? I think it’s because, despite his own moral lapses and spiritual doubts, Victor Hugo gave us a story that reflects the Gospel of Jesus Christ. As the boy Gavroche sings on the barricades in the musical, “I never read the Bible but I know that it’s true.”
Christopher West has said there is no other theatrical production that has so awakened his yearning for heaven or given him such him hope of its fulfillment, because the show“explores the hidden realms of our hearts and beautifully affirms what we long for (desire), what we’re created for (design), and what we’re headed for (destiny).”
It’s as Chesterton put it in The House of Christmas:
To an open house in the eveningHome shall all men come.To an older place than EdenAnd a taller town than Rome.To the end of the way of the Wandering Star,To the things that cannot be and that are,To the place where God was homeless and all men are at home.
Victor Hugo’s own words were a harbinger of the musical theatre adaptation of his masterpiece: “Music expresses that which cannot be put into words but about which it is impossible to remain silent.” The critics’ laments seem to suggest that such themes as forgiveness, justice, self-sacrifice, and love are unworthy if they are redemptive.
Hugo wrote his novel when the moral and political crises of nineteenth century France had consigned so many to unrelieved suffering. Today the creators of the stage version, and now the film adaptation, present their interpretation at a time when we endure our own set of cultural and political crises that can render us broken-hearted, but can also raise hope and inspire us to become agents of transformation.
We may be a “creative minority,” as Pope Benedict XVI describes us, but all of us hear echoes of something primordial when we hear true, good, and beautiful music and lyrics in our own day. If we act on these inspirations, in ways great and small, we can each contribute to the flourishing of a civilization of love.