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Musicals and romance: minor rant

Thinking about the Phantom of the Opera musical film that's coming out in December has resurrected, in my mind, an ancient debate between my younger sister and me. I was about 15 when I discovered the Phantom musical (and promptly read the book), and she was about 13. The debate went something like this:

SIS: Christine should go with the Phantom [rather than normal love-interest Raoul].
ME: The Phantom kills people.
SIS: Well, everyone has their flaws.

She'd laugh as she said the last sentence, knowing it wouldn't hold up as an excuse in real life for half a second. And that's precisely why I don't support it in the story either: I'm of the realist school of storytelling. I don't mean that everything in a story must be possible or truthful (see my love for LOTR), but the choices the characters make, and the way they react and suffer as they go through the story's twists and turns, must seem real in order for me to get behind it.

The Phantom is, without a doubt, the most interesting character in the story. He's a stylish, talented evil genius, with a tender side for his protégé Christine. He has many sympathetic moments and gets most of the musical's best songs. However. When romantic-minded teenage girls sigh that Christine should choose him, they are conveniently overlooking the fact that he kills people. Not just people who deserve it, either; he kills basically innocent people just to freak other people out. Raoul may not be as fascinating as the Phantom, but he's reliable, loyal, rich, and handsome, and doesn't murder for sport. Any girl who's ever had a stalker-ish, jealous, dangerous jerk of a boyfriend can tell you: Christine is way better off with Raoul.

Having set you straight on Phantom, I turn now to the Marius-Cosette-Eponine love triangle in Les Miserables.

Lots of people, not just teenage girls, who see the musical version of Les Mis come away saying, "Marius should have gone with Eponine." And though I disagree, I don't blame them for thinking so, if they haven't read the book. The musical seriously shortchanges Cosette's character, and the Marius-Cosette relationship. After showing up briefly as a neglected 7-year-old and being rescued from the Thenardiers, Cosette doesn't show up in the musical again until she's grown up, and is then portrayed as a dull, domestic young woman drifting around aimlessly with Jean "Dad" Valjean. Her courtship with Marius in the musical, condensed from the novel to save time, ends up practically a parody of itself:

MARIUS: (bumping into her in a park) Oops, sorry.
COSETTE stares at him and scurries off.
MARIUS: Wow, she's pretty. Eponine, find out where she lives.
EPONINE: My soul despairs at your request, but okay.
EPONINE takes him that night to the garden gate of COSETTE's house.
MARIUS: Hi. Um, I love you.
COSETTE: Neat! I love you too!
VALJEAN: Cosette, we have to move. Someone's following me.
MARIUS: I have to run anyhow. Revolution, you know. I'll love you forever, though.
COSETTE: Okay! Bye.
EPONINE: Hello? Over here, dude? I still love you. Oh, forget it, I'll just die instead.

In the book, Cosette gets a lot more space to grow, and is a lot more interesting. Her mother dies early in her life, she's then left with the horrible abusive Thenardiers, Jean Valjean rescues her and puts her in a convent school, and when she first sees Marius in the Luxembourg Gardens she's an inexperienced but curious and unique 15-year-old. (Marius is maybe 20.) A season or so goes by, covering many pages, in which they watch each other daily in their strolls through the Gardens, developing a mutual flirtation and fascination without ever saying a word to each other - after all, Jean Valjean is sitting protectively right next to her the whole time. The attraction builds subtly and with much sweet humor. Marius finds a handkerchief with the initial "U" on it and assumes her name must be "Ursule." On another day we get this amusing episode:
---

All at once, a gust of wind, more merry than the rest, and probably
charged with performing the affairs of Springtime, swept down from
the nursery, flung itself on the alley, enveloped the young girl
in a delicious shiver, worthy of Virgil's nymphs, and the fawns
of Theocritus, and lifted her dress, the robe more sacred than that
of Isis, almost to the height of her garter. A leg of exquisite
shape appeared. Marius saw it. He was exasperated and furious.

The young girl had hastily thrust down her dress, with a divinely troubled
motion, but he was none the less angry for all that. He was alone
in the alley, it is true. But there might have been some one there.
And what if there had been some one there! Can any one comprehend
such a thing? What she had just done is horrible!--Alas, the poor
child had done nothing; there had been but one culprit, the wind;
but Marius, in whom quivered the Bartholo who exists in Cherubin,
was determined to be vexed, and was jealous of his own shadow.
It is thus, in fact, that the harsh and capricious jealousy of
the flesh awakens in the human heart, and takes possession of it,
even without any right. Moreover, setting aside even that jealousy,
the sight of that charming leg had contained nothing agreeable for him;
the white stocking of the first woman he chanced to meet would have
afforded him more pleasure.

When "his Ursule," after having reached the end of the walk,
retraced her steps with M. Leblanc, and passed in front of the bench
on which Marius had seated himself once more, Marius darted a sullen
and ferocious glance at her. The young girl gave way to that slight
straightening up with a backward movement, accompanied by a raising
of the eyelids, which signifies: "Well, what is the matter?"

This was "their first quarrel."
---

One day Valjean catches on, and stops taking Cosette to the Gardens. Marius can't find her, and falls into depression for several months. Finally he gets his odd little street-urchin friend Eponine to find Cosette's address for him. She does, and he leaves Cosette a love letter in the garden of her house. The next night he comes and visits her, and this starts a blissful period of about six weeks in which they meet nightly in her garden, secretly while Valjean is out, and get to know each other very well. (Not like THAT. Get your mind out of the gutter.) When the crisis point comes--when Valjean gets paranoid again and decides to move and take Cosette away, and Marius is left with nothing better to do than fight on the barricades--they've had quite a long time to fall in love.

In the musical, they've known each other, what? Twelve hours? "I did not live until today," Marius sings. "How can I live when we are parted?" Today? Just today? Come on, you shallow kids, get over it. Who do you think you are, Romeo and Juliet?

Now, as for Eponine, here's the most passionate thing she says about Marius, as expressed in the novel. They are in fact her dying words:

"And by the way, Monsieur Marius, I believe that I was a little
bit in love with you."

A little bit. Perhaps not a whole gorgeous heart-wrenching song's worth; just a little bit.

But the way the musical presents it, who could think otherwise than: Eponine was the soulful wonderful one, who Marius blindly didn't see, choosing instead the boring Cosette who he hardly knew.

Ugh. Not so, my friends, not so.

That said, "A Little Fall of Rain," Eponine's death-song duet with Marius, is perhaps my favorite track.

Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
mysticpenguin
Sep. 30th, 2004 10:56 pm (UTC)
Hello, hope you don't mind me popping in late here. I thought that this was an excellent commentary and it sort of surprised me that no one else had answered it yet.

1)One of the traps in Phantom, I think, is what people read into the character. Most of the people I knew who really loved PotO were at the height of their passion for it in their teen years. I know I did. Erik strikes me as being written almost exactly at teens. Hm, moody, isolated genius who nobody properly appreciates? Sounds a lot like how I'd describe myself at sixteen or so. I think that a lot of fans go the step further from seeing something in his character they can identify with to seeing him as an idealized version of what they think they might like to be. He's doing his own thing and in charge of everyone whether they know it or not. Until the end of the story we don't actually see him taking many consequences for his actions. But because being a psychotic murderer and freakishly ugly aren't really desirable qualities, they tend to fall away or be de-emphasized in the romatic Erik that turns up in lots of fan versions of the story (and I do include Susan Kay's Phantom in that category). It's silly, and I think that a lot of fans do grow out of it. I was one of those "Erik and Christine 4ever" kids when I was in high school. I think that I was probably eighteen or nineteen before I realized that wow, the boy's a freak and his story is way overblown and really kinda not all that good in the first place.


2) I don't know, I think that Cosette stayed pretty static through the novel when compared to Fantine and Eponine, and even Madame Thenardier. All she really did was grow up and marry Marius. In the book we do get to see a lot more of where she's coming from, and she does put a little more effort into covering up her relationship with Marius, but she seems to me to be content being led around by the nose. Hugo had a lot of issues he was flogging with that book, but early feminism wasn't one of them. I rather think that Cosette--and most of the other female characters, actually--was in there as sort of emotional manipulation. I think the way things happen to and around her was Viccy's indirect way of saying "See what happens to our innocent womenfolk when society goes on like this."

But in her favor, I suppose that simplifying Cosette so in the play at least spares her those annoying musical-Eponine type of fangirls. Poor Eppie is as bad as Erik for romantic idealization.
mollyringle
Oct. 7th, 2004 01:11 am (UTC)
Good points (hurray; someone cares!) :)

The beauty of the Phantom is that you can appreciate where he's coming from, and feel for him, without having to say he's the good guy. He's one of those sympathetic demons, of sorts; and those are always fascinating. But for a relationship--yeah, it's mostly a teen-Goth idealization that would view him as desirable.

I haven't actually read Les Mis in its entirety for many years. I do wonder if I'd feel different about the characters nowadays. I rather suspect I would. There are definitely more dynamic females than Cosette out there; no question!
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )