Monday, February 28, 2011

Lessons from a High School Musical

Yesterday I went to the local high school's production of Les Miserables. Now, I'm sure the fact that I've read the book (unabridged!), am a huge fan of the musical (I think I have it mostly memorized), and was up there myself on that same stage 10 years ago (and miss it) colored my experience. But I couldn't help feeling that, try as they might, these high schoolers were totally inadequate to the task of portraying one of the most complex and deeply human stories in literature. The singing was decent, with a few highlights that made up for the awful bits, but the acting was atrocious. Where was the director these kids needed? Anyway, like any obsessed writer, I took a few lessons away from the evening. Disclaimer: as a reader and writer of fantasy, everything I will say will apply most strongly to that genre.

1. Conflict does not equal shoving.

Here's a summary of how all the conflict was portrayed in the play: people shoving other people around the stage. And when I say that I mean that ALL negative character interaction devolved into shoving. Seriously. It began with soldiers shoving prisoners around a lot. All right. That makes sense. Then there was a whole crowd of factory workers shoving each other all over the place. Ok... that scene is supposed to break into a fight between Fantine and one of the worker so that still makes sense. Fantine as a whore struggling with a prospective client meant  whole new levels of shoving. I can still justify this. But it was when Fantine began chasing Jean Valjean all over the stage in order to shove him while he's trying to help her that it went too far. She literally ran across the stage after him multiple times in order to shove him while explaining to him that it was his fault she had fallen into prostitution. It got completely ridiculous later on. Eponine is in love with Marius! Why is she shoving him so much?!?

Ok, kids, look. Maybe things are different in high schools now than I remember them. But is shoving really the way you respond to every kind of conflict? Even mild conflict, simple differences of opinion, seemed to result in shoving. Perhaps they think shoving each other around on stage in front of a large audience means they are cool or edgy or mature? I don't know. My mind is still reeling.

And this put me in mind of some stories I've read in recent years. Not that there was rampant shoving involved. But I feel that some authors tend toward depictions of violence in their works in the same way these high schoolers tended toward shoving. Conflict is about so much more than physical violence. There can be whole worlds of conflict in a look or a word.And filling your work with blood, devastation, death, war and horror does not make your story or you cool or edgy or mature. It makes you, in my opinion, a lot like a high schooler.

2. Portrayals of Sex and Sexiness do not make you look more like an adult.

I think it's telling that a lot of these kids only REALLY got into the "acting" when they got to pretend to be whores. Then suddenly girls who had been standing around like cardboard cutouts were all contorting their bodies in ridiculous ways in an attempt to "out sexy" each other. But it wasn't just during the "Lovely Ladies" scene when there was some excuse for it. No, every time there was positive interaction between two characters of the opposite sex the girl would inevitably be writhing around on stage in ways that must seem very sexy to high schoolers but seem very awkward and silly to me. (Well, I'll give the girl playing Cosette a pass here, she was cardboard pretty much the whole time.)

I get the impression that to these kids sex equals maturity. I get the impression that this is true of some writers as well. They seem to think that if they include lots of sex in their stories it makes them more of an adult and makes their books more edgy and mature. (News flash folks, there's nothing more immature than irresponsible sex.) When two characters can't have genuine interaction without the air crackling with sexual tension or falling into bed together at the next possible moment... you're just proving to me that you have the same emotional range as a high schooler.

3. If you're not mature enough yourself, you shouldn't be trying to portray complex issues of humanity.

Les Mis is an incredible show based on an incredible book. The book explores all sorts of mature themes like inequality, the struggle for freedom, mercy and forgiveness, falls from grace, redemption, love, death, sacrifice. The musical creates a lot of beautiful music that echoes these themes as well. Quite honestly, none of these kids were up to the task of portraying these themes well. They're far too young and inexperienced to understand these things. They did their best, I'm sure, but they really should never have tried. Les Mis just isn't good fodder for a high school musical.

There are some authors in the same boat. Perhaps they're young or just inexperienced. But they really aren't mature enough to be exploring the things they're trying to write about. Authors attempt to expose the true horrors of war but have never actually seen war outside of a TV screen. Then they dare to call Tolkien's depiction of war too light, fit only for children. Would you say that to Tolkien's face knowing that he survived the trenches of WWI and knows more about war than you ever will? I guess this is the area that I feel "write what you know" has some merit. Don't write beyond your own maturity level and don't write about issues that you can't truly comprehend due to lack of experience. In my opinion, you'll just end up looking like an awkward high schooler.

Well, now that I'm done being a wet blanket, I'll leave you with my favorite song from Les Miserables, Stars...


  1. And later on, we'll be talking to a man who DOES gardening.

    On a more serious note - and to prove that our marriage is a sham because you're sitting right next to me and I'm still leaving this as a comment on your blog - while I heartily agree with what you've said in general, the point that hit me strongest was your comments about sex in books and emotional range.

    Of course sex belongs in books. People have sex, and books are about people. So while I don't think Ricky and Lucy need to sleep in separate beds, I think that gratuitous portrayals of sex that borders on (or is) the explicit are unnecessary. After a few times, it reflects an adolescent obsession with the subject without any emotional depth. Sex, in real life, is a private affair, so to expose it so constantly in your book feels disingenuous at best.

  2. One of my favorites. I can't imagine a high school trying to do this one though. For just the reasons you mentioned,I'm not sure they're ready for something that deep. Most of them have not experienced enough loss or forgiveness to understand Les Mis.

  3. Les Mis was a fabulous book. As you said, seems a stretch for most young people just because they haven't lived enough yet.

  4. Then I count myself lucky I saw the original cast memebers perform the play in London!

  5. Ah, Alex, now I have to be bitterly jealous of you. I have a video of the 10th anniversary concert performance which is wonderful. Colm Wilkinson is amazing. I would really love to see it professionally done.

    One other good thing out of this experience, it's inspired me to read the book again. I had a REALLY hard time getting through it the first time, but I was also about 10 years younger. I'm enjoying the beginning, which seemed like such a non sequitur the first time, a lot more now.

  6. I LOVED this book, but have yet to see a performance of it (I don't get out much). I think you've got some excellent points about maturity and overdoing the same thing. It sounds to me like the director had read somewhere about stage acting and needing movements big, but I think you're right--Le Mis is complex and the SAME big action all the time cheapens it--different situations call for different actions.

    That said, i live in Ann Arbor and the high school productions I've seen here look professional--better than most college performances i've seen and as good as any community theater. I think they could have pulled it off--that said, there are a lot of opportunities for young kids to perform, so by high school, the leads have typically been acting for years and the cast is made up of their national award winning vocal performers. (AND the director is excellent)


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