As a seventeen year old, I was given the extraordinary honor of portraying the devoted, poverty-stricken mother Fantine in my high school’s rendition of the musical Les Miserables. Written by Boublil and Schonberg, its emotionally charged score has captured the hearts of audience members for years by portraying the downtrodden as heroes. Musically, the show challenges singers by demanding an extensive range and vocal stamina (I dare you to lock yourself in a room and belt “I Dreamed a Dream”); dramatically, it poses a problem for young actors who have little life experience to draw upon.
I had a really difficult time figuring out who Fantine was and how I was going to act like her. I’ll be honest with you: I’m not a single mother or a prostitute. When I discovered how much depth there was to her character, I utilized my literary analysis skills and dug into the 1,432 page novel, hoping to glean whatever character help I could from Victor Hugo’s own words. I’m a nerd, I know.
What you need to know about Hugo’s writing style is that Les Mis is a quintessential Romantic novel, meaning that emotion and introspection bring about the transformation of the plot. Emotion and introspection- I’ve got those two down. As I read the book, I felt as if Monsieur Hugo and I were sitting on a couch with mugs of hot chocolate, and he was telling me long-winded stories, lingering on his favorite details and sharing insight that he had gathered in his omniscient narrator’s view. I would like to imagine that he and I would have been incredibly close, like a devoted grandfather and granddaughter. His story enveloped me, and it infused the musical with life, adding background stories and insight that made it easier, as an actor, to forget myself and actually become Fantine (It was actually quite terrifying). Every line I sang had a deeper meaning, because I not only knew the snapshot of Fantine’s life portrayed in the musical, but her whole history as well.
The countdown is on for the Les Miserables musical movie, premiering December 14 of this year, and I have taken it upon myself to share with you some of the things that I learned over my two year study of the musical and the novel. Essentially, we’re going to be discussing sacrifice and how it develops the human spirit (wow, I sound like an English teacher). It sounds heavy, I know, but if you stick with me, I promise that you’ll get something out of it. I hope that you find this series as interesting as I do, and more than anything, I hope it will make your movie-watching experience more fulfilling.
You’re probably going to want to stock up on tissues. Les Mis, if nothing else, is good for wrecking havoc on your heart.