Why I Still Love “Les Mis” (The Musical)

Whenever I am asked about my favorite musical, I usually answer with one of three options: RENT, Sweeney Todd or Les Miserables.

And since I’ve defended two of those already…I believe it’s time I bear my soul and explain my love of this French melodrama.

Now, if you’ve heard me in the real world, you know how much I love the French Bad Boys of poetry and prose and Victor Hugo was one of them. Hugo may be more famous for The Hunchback of Notre Dame and a bunch of poetry about being sad but my introduction to Vic Hugo was in Les Miserables and I met the corpus first as a screenplay not even as a book. I didn’t read the book until college when I took the most me class humanly possible: The French Revolution and Literature. The book is…well, we’ll discuss the plot and then discuss the book/musical (yes, I know there are differences but I’m not here to discuss those yet).

The plot happens in three parts essentially. First part is about Jean Valjean who did a bad and is in jail for a really really long time where he is tormented by his not-boyfriend Javert who has a particular hard-on for Valjean even though he sees literally hundreds of prisons all the damn time. Valjean is released from prison and he tries to rejoin human society, he does another bad because R E A S O N S and is forgiven by Jesus himself, I mean a very kindly priest.

Second part focuses on Fantine who is a poor innocent waif who has a daughter who is the mascot of the whole damn production, Cosette and Fantine has lots of problems. She works in a factory and everyone is mean to her because R E A S O N S and eventually due to women being awful she is fired from her job and has to become a prostitute where she then dies really quickly after singing the best song in the musical. We shift to her daughter, Cosette, who is raised by the awful Thenardier family who are actually just kind of fun but still awful but fun. Valjean feels responsible for Fantine’s death because…plot and he goes to raise Cosette which means taking her away from the Thenardier family. They sing another great song and time moves forward.  

Valjean and Cosette are doing pretty okay, we meet Marius the most useless f*ckboy who has ideas of grandeur about revolution even though he’s rich and the useless lamp Eponine who loves him even though he does not seem interested in her at all. Marius and his friends plan to do a very small French Revolution in the streets even though they are all rich for some reason and things go horribly wrong. The actual mascot character Gavroche is shot and killed and it’s all bad and lots of people die in this part of the musical/book.

More sadness, more complaining, more ennui and Marius and Cosette decide they truly are in love and plan to run away together even though Valjean is like “Nah, fam, we gotta bounce outta France.” and more plot happens to get them to be in love. Valjean accepts that his daughter is no longer a child, the breeding pair go off and the music swells and curtain falls.

With that description, I’m sure you can see why as a book this doesn’t work. The novel is entirely too long and is boring because Hugo isn’t the strongest writer on his own. He needs an editor to tell him “Maybe don’t spend 50 pages on this.” But as a musical, it works very well. There’s a vague goal, a ton of characters and there’s someone for everyone to root for. If you’re awful, you probably enjoy “Master of the House” a little too much (I know I do). If you think you’re going to save the world by doing absolutely nothing you probably sing a little too loudly to “Red and Black” and if you’re like me and are incredibly melodramatic and have F E E L I N G S you probably have belted out “I Dreamed a Dream” or “On My Own” a little too loudly while shower crying.

The musical was penned in the 70s and it showed. There’s a lot of focus on the revolution part and that part, I will say, ages the least well. Mostly because the revolution is not lead by any of the people who actually stand to be hurt by increased industrialization and gentrification, it’s mostly rich white boys who are bored and have some vague ideas about what it is to be right and free.

The romance also ages terribly. Cosette and Marius get no time together so it just doesn’t feel like they belong together all despite the flowery language or many songs dedicated to their love. But most musicals have a hard time talking about romance in a way that makes any sense.

So I’ve said a lot of negative things…isn’t this supposed to be a defense of a work?

It is.

Upon the maybe 200th listen to the very very good London Symphony Orchestra’s version of Les Mis I am reminded of all the reasons I love this musical. Namely, Javert. Now, he has no arc as a character. He starts with a hard-on for Valjean and dies that way but to see someone so shaken to his core by another is powerful. There’s a reason “Stars” and “Javert’s Soliloquy/Suicide” get the most play on my mp3 player. The idea that one person can shake another so much that they see no other point in their morals than death is powerful. It’s dangerous, but power.

I may have poked fun at Fantine but her songs are amazing and heartbreaking. “I Dreamed a Dream” makes me think of every romance I’ve ever had and even though I have never found myself removed of my hair and in a gutter after being sold into prostitution, I feel her pain. And as someone with a strained history with men “Lovely Ladies” is a great if not blunt way to explain how sometimes men see women as just another purchasable good or service.

I may hate the Thenardiers are people but their song is raunchy, hilarious and so vulgar, I won’t how and why we read this in high school.  And even though I dislike how Eponine is written, I feel every drop of emotion in “On My Own”.

The music helps the themes of justice, love and honestly, the biggest theme of consequences to actions. One thing that is glossed over in the book is how Marius and his friends suffer after their failed rebellion. In the musical we get “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables” which is tragic and the staging helps sell that pain. His friends are gone, their ideas were fatal and their dreams are dashed. Now Marius sits alone and miserable and wounded surrounded by shattered glass, empty chairs and empty tables as he mourns his friends and his cause.

I’ll pause here to talk about the movie musical starring mostly Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe and it’s um…a mess? Again, many of the things that make the musical work on the stage do not work in film and the only nice thing I have to say is the thing everyone says which is Anne Hathaway as Fantine is inspired and amazing so I will not praise her more for it, she’s been praised enough. It isn’t the worst movie musical but it’s mostly just flat. Many of the actors they chose for the production cannot sing and thus songs that are meant to carry a ton of emotion mostly sound like they’re being extruded through a pasta machine while under torture. It just doesn’t work as a narrative film. As a stage musical where time and space are all condensed and strange, it’s easy to ignore when logic seems to exit stage left pursued by a bear.

But when the music swells through my headphones in the early morning hours of my commute, I cannot help but feel something. I cannot help but sing along when “Red and Black” plays. I cannot help but laugh at the places where language is quite fun like the little rhyme scheme before “Red and Black” starts:

I am agog!

I am aghast!

Is Marius in love at last?

I’ve never heard him ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’

You talk of battles to be won

And here he comes like Don Juan

It’s better than an opera!

It’s a fun musical filled with mostly misguided people. Valjean as Christ allegory is heavy handed but emotional. Javert as a bitter ex-boyfriend who is on a revenge mission to prove the fact that one a criminal always a criminal works. Cosette as innocent waif works and Gavroche as the best damn character with the most bravery works. It all works on stage and depending on the cast, it can be damn near inspiring.

Does it have its flaws? Of course it does but no matter what, when I find myself faced with a song from this storied musical, I join the ranks, I join the chorus and I sing along.

That’s why I still love Les Mis.

Proudly Goth in Every Way

I have been a goth for about 10 years now. And I don’t mean that in the pejorative way as an all-black clad edgelord even though everyone around me will agree that I am one of those. But I want to talk about being a goth, the evolution from emo to now a pastel goth and why I’m fine identifying as such despite being nearly too damn old for such a thing.

I have a comic book past: I lost my parents young, I was always just a little above average in intellect and maturity in comparison to my peers and I had quite the taste for things that were not too happy, too nice or too upbeat. But I had an aunt who was concerned about my image and the crowd I found myself in with being goth so I never outwardly looked very goth. Even during the height of my emo days in high school I was still a pink dot in a sea of boys in black trench coats and bullet belts if you can imagine such a thing.

It wasn’t so much that I resented my aunt’s mandate on my wardrobe but even when I began my job at the local Goth Barn I only went to so far with being a goth. I got to wear more black, I got to wear the t-shirts of bands I listened to and I got to accessorize but that was about it I never wanted to wear super skinny jeans or TRIPPs or anything. I may be a vampire but I am for sure vain and have always been.

It isn’t all black roses and My Chemical Romance shirts being goth. I absolutely understand all the criticisms a parent or society has with the term. Within the goth community there are very strained discussions of mental illness that glorify self-harm and not being medicated for serious mental health issues. It’s a community that is synonymous with melodrama and especially unearned melodrama. That was always difficult in high school listening to people go on about their problems that were not so problematic. That melodrama makes it difficult to want to be better or to change your situation. Wallowing in darkness is never a good way to cope with issues and the anti-authoritarian and especially anti-parent/guardian messages behind a lot of goth culture is risky; sometimes parents can be less than sympathetic and understanding but most of the time, it’s well-intending guardians just doing their best with complex emotions. But there’s an allure to rebelling against a machine. There’s absolutely an allure to the old photos of me in all black surrounded by a family of brightly colored outfits.  There’s an allure to being a little overly dramatic. But I can understand that to parents, it’s likely a little distressing to see their usually bright child descend the stairs fully as a vampire going on about how life is pain and death is a sweet sweet embrace.

We’ll skip over the college and post-college years except for one footnote. The lace dress. Yes, the lace dress. So when I was in high school I was inviting to a homecoming dance once. Once. And I got a dress from Torrid (previously the plus-sized Hot Topic) and it was black and lace and short and wonderful. I wore that dress in my senior photos, to conventions for gothic lolita, to my college graduation party that my anime clubbers threw for me. That dress was just recently donated and I miss it but that’s about the extent of my prior gothic impulses. A notable appearance of The Dress was at a local Twilight prom that I was brought to against my will. My former best friend liked the books and wanted me to go with him as he platonic date. It was held a bookstore and truthfully we were both too old for this but it sounded like a good idea to him and he said it was an excuse to look better than everyone else so I got dressed and went with him. Immediately a gaggle of teens asked if he was the Edward to my Bella and I said that I would sell him to them for a dollar. The night ended with us at the local IHOP me still in my black lace dress and him a little angry that I was willing to sell him off so quickly.

THE Lace Black Dress

My first office job forced me to dress decently and I did my best to stay with light colors because that is what’s socially acceptable. I had to be amiable and kind and outgoing even though my personality had always tended towards being a bit of a misanthrope and a vampire.

It wasn’t until the last few years and my cosplay resurgence that I found my love of black dresses.

I love black dresses. I own at least 5 of them. They’re modest and make me feel attractive in a way that I have not felt since I was a teenager. This coincides with my reemergence of loving the paranormal and my love of cameos. I’m primed and ready to be a casual witch.

Now my wardrobe is that of a pastel goth. Now, those things sounds like they don’t match but they absolutely can! I love pastel colors, thanks to all of this melanin, they really pop on my skin but I usually pair them with creepy-cute accessories like haunted castle rings or ouija board necklaces. Accessories really are the heart and soul of my wardrobe. It takes more than just a black dress and tights to be a goth. It’s also about the necklaces, rings and more. I also get to explore with makeup more now. I wear more highlight now so the light catches just right and I love bright red lipstick because it really pops on an almost all black and silver canvas. I’m a sucker for a bold lip and now if the occasion permits, a bold eye.

I also prefer the silhouette that being goth allows me. I can be modest or show skin as I wish. I can wear some bright colors and still tone them down with blackout tights or I can wear all over all  black and just enjoy the aesthetic of looking like a Victorian vampire.

But there’s something about being labeled as “goth” that I actually really enjoy. If being goth means that I like ghost stories, vampires, cameos and lace: then I’m happy to be a goth. If being goth means that I am honest about my emotional health and refuse to put on a brave face all the time because happiness is normative, then I’m proud to be goth. If being goth means that I feel the most comfortable in my skin that I have in all of my years, then I am proud to be goth.

Why I Started Wearing Jewelry

I almost never wore jewelry when I was in high school. Sure, I wore earrings but I never wore necklaces or rings. I did wear the occasional bracelet but I was born in the 90s so of course I did. But let’s back up. Why am I writing this? Well, I started wearing more jewelry as part of my great post-grad glow up and it’s interesting to go from someone who seldom accessorized to someone who loves necklaces and rings. But that wasn’t quick; it was slow, painful and involved many many lost opportunities to be even more fashionable than I was as a fledgling.

Let’s recap: in high school I had a controlling aunt who policed my image aggressively. There was absolutely an ideal I had to fit and while I don’t fault her for not letting me leave the house as I wished as a young person, that doesn’t mean that controlling nature was always handled n the best way. I dressed mostly preppy through most of high school and into college: lots of Old Navy v-necks, jeans and my one rebellious items were my black Chuck Taylors. I had my ears pierced as a teen somewhat against my will (another aunt was getting married and to be part of the wedding, I needed earrings) and I did love my earrings as a teenager. Because of hubris and an apparent lack of pain sensation, I ended up with three piercing holes in my ears and that was perfect. I could wear a pair of hoops and a stud that matched whatever color I was wearing (probably purple or black). I never wore a lot of necklaces back then for mostly two reasons: first is that I had and still have eczema and sensitive skin and that I did and still have more chest than my frame should allow. To the first point, the costume jewelry I wanted to wear reacted very poorly with my sensitive skin. Why did I want to wear mostly gaudy costume jewelry? I was a goth (still am a goth) and that meant vampire chokers, bat earrings and bracelets with broken heart pendants.  

My first job at the local goth barn (Hot Topic) meant more jewelry but it never really went beyond earrings and the off bracelet. Which brings us to the second point: I am a small and chesty thing and most necklaces I tried to wear ended up being eaten by my cleavage. That is something entirely preventable but it really soured me on the whole thing as I had a weird relationship with my chest that has continued on into my adult life. I didn’t like wearing a piece of jewelry that drew attention to a part of me that as far as I was concerned already drew too much attention.

This weird relationship with accessories stayed the same through most of high school and almost all of college except for when I began cosplaying more in earnest. Costumes meant jewelry sometimes and I continued to make costumes, I continued to wear the pieces that mattered to that character. And that’s an odd thing to consider sometimes. At times, an earring, bracelet, necklace or similar can be the difference between an okay costume and really hitting the nail on the head and knocking an outfit out of the park.

Office jobs were really what got me to wear jewelry. There’s something about wearing earrings regularly that just make you look like you’re more of an adult. Even if I’m wearing skinny jeans, ballet flats from Payless, a t-shirt that may or may not have been a gift; you look just a little better with earrings.

It was not until recently with my full acceptance of goth into my heart that I found my one true love: cameos. I’m at my core a moody Victorian poet so I love me a cameo. And after purchasing a cameo from a woman who sells them out of a trunk and claims to bless each and every single one, a long-lasting love affair began. But cameos don’t always come on chains: I had to make my own necklaces and thus, a match made in glorious Hell.

One Gifted
One Purchased
One Made

I love it now when I get a compliment on a cameo. I like building outfits around my necklaces now. I like being able to show off a part of myself in the things I wear, which brings us to another aspect of my personal style: rings.

I am not proud of many parts of my body but I do think I have nice hands. Delicate fingers, soft hands and small palms mean that rings look good on me. The problem is that I am right-handed so wearing a ring on my right affects how I hold a pen so I tend to wear my rings on my left. I am not married but it’s a good way to be fashionable while also scaring off unworthy men.

This ties back into the otaku part of me that is a constant undercurrent of my existence: decoden. Decoden is a artform that has an emphasis on cute, mini and kawaii items and I especially love decoden rings. I love being able to have a little tray full of cake or a tiny donut on my finger: I may be a brat prince but I am a fashionable brat prince. I pick up a few rings at any convention I go to and I am happy to add to my collection of decoden rings.

My relationship with jewelry has changed over the years. I’ve never been big on bracelets but I’ve worn more necklaces in the past few months than I have in nearly my entire existence. What prompted this change? I’m not sure. Maybe I am simply getting older. Maybe I am more fashionable than I was. Maybe it’s just part of growing up and changing? Will things always be like this? Who knows. Will I continue to enjoy all of my cameos and rings? You bet your butt I will.

Ancestral Memories from the Local Cracker Barrel

I don’t tend to realize how Southern I am until I visit the vast Yankee territories and find their food and their demeanor mostly unappealing. But many of my friends both in the U.S. and abroad have no issue citing me as a Southern belle and Southern gentleman and despite me being African American, I have no issue saying that I am proudly Southern. It is true, the heritage of the South is not one of hatred, just most of it was built on the foundation of hatred. But to me the values of what it means to be Southern: respectful of elders, fiercely loyal to friends, self-reliant but still courteous and kind and generous and giving are all very important to me. For me, being Southern is a two-fold thing: it’s in personality and mannerisms and in culture and in food.

The personality of most Southerners is a loving mix of condescension and genuine concern. “Bless your heart” is a damning condemnation of a grave misjustice that sounds to the untrained ear a real expression of concern. Southerners are very concerned about contradictory things. During my childhood, I was simultaneously told that I wasn’t eating enough but the same people who had no issue calling me fat. I was told that I had no reason to rush into marriage while also being told that if I didn’t hop on that, I’d likely die alone.

Stuck in time. That’s the best way I can describe many concerns of the average Southern family. It’s as if things stopped in the 1950s sans some of the racism.

But that brings us to Southern hospitality and food. I will begin by telling a story. A friend of mine was staying with me for a small anime convention here in San Antonio. I woke up early to press my costume and in the time it took for him to wake up: I made homemade cinnamon rolls, made coffee for him with two kinds of creamer (I like hazelnut and he liked vanilla), pressed my costume and prepped a cocktail for the two of us. He woke up to the scent of brewing coffee and cinnamon rolls. Not to the sound of me faffing around the kitchen. The scent of coffee and cinnamon rolls. That is Southern hospitality. Honestly, we could have an entire other blog post on Southern food so I’ll start with a brief primer: Southern food is not about health, it’s about comfort. It should feel like a warm hug from the Lord. It’s rich, it’s buttery, it’s fatty and salty and sweet and most importantly: it’s about family. There are no small portions in Southern food, each meal is for a minimum family of four. That emphasis on family is what lead me to write this post.

As of now, I am painfully single while being painfully Southern. I love cooking for people and the deal is sweetened by me occasionally getting to eat what I make. There have been plenty a Thanksgiving where I cook for hours only to eat mac and cheese and buttered rolls in the kitchen washed down with copious amounts of wine and human misery. I cook to feed people, not to feed myself. That followed me into college where I found myself not cooking to feed myself, I was cooking to feed my kouhai, my friends, my partner and more. This got worse when I graduated and lived on my own. When I lost my long-term partners, I lost a reason to cook entirely. There is no making fried chicken for one. There is no amount of mac and cheese that can mend a broken heart and no amount of mashed potatoes that made me feel like I was home again.

Which brings us to Cracker Barrel. Ah, yes. The Cracker Barrel. The bastion of silly Southern stereotypes. Cracker Barrel is everything Yankees think the South is. Think of it as the Dolly Parton Southern Experience of food. And while I should hate it for continuing to perpetuate a level of  ethnic erasure of Southern culture and Southern food: I don’t hate Cracker Barrel.

Let me rephrase that: I love Cracker Barrel. When my mother passed away and my family had to call everyone and announce her death, we did so at Cracker Barrel. Sundays after church? Cracker Barrel. Extended family in town? Cracker Barrel. And as a kid, I couldn’t stand the place. The pancakes tasted like cardboard to me even though I was in love with their maple syrup slathered over their sausage patties. I didn’t like their biscuits which were not as tender as I could make them. The apple butter my aunts insisted on was like cinnamon tar. I hated it as a kid.

I am older now. I am nostalgic now. And I am single now. And any place where I can be served by a kind Southern woman with soft eyes and a plate full of biscuits and not at all sweet cornbread (much to my chagrin) and a copious amount of butter, jam and yes, apple butter.

I love being able to order mashed potatoes and the default being sawmill gravy (or as you Yankees call it “cream”). I love being able to choose between ham being sweet  with brown sugar or salty with bitterness and brine (choose sweet or we’re going to fight). I love that I can gorge myself on hushpuppies and mac and cheese and fried chicken.

The place became even more relevant to me when I moved and stopped going home for Thanksgiving. As someone who barely gets to eat all the lovely foods of the holidays twice a year, I did lament not being able to have the traditional Thanksgiving feast. Luckily, the Cracker Barrel is here to fill your sadness with ham and dressing and green beans and tea, oh the tea. It’s not home but it is good. It feels like all the times my mother, my grandmother, my aunt and I cooked for those they loved. Soul Food is not meant to be consumed alone while sitting on the sofa watching reruns of John Mulaney stand-up. It’s meant to be shared. And even if I’m alone at a table, I feel more at home surrounded by the Americana nostalgia-filled gravy-induced bender. And in the moments that I do get to share biscuits with a friend, it feels like an extension of my own table: it’s just another meal being shared with a loved one and that’s why Cracker Barrel is so interesting. The kitchy decor, rows of rocking chairs,  the claustrophobic store, the food that tastes just homemade enough to disguise the fact that you are in fact in a restaurant, the clinentle that seems to be mostly older people or families crowded around too small of tables: all of it, all of it is a beautiful disaster. So occasionally while I wait for my biscuits while slurping down a sweet tea that is just sweet enough or a lemonade served in a frosted mug because of course it is as I weigh the pros and cons of ordering the Coca-Cola Fudge cake and I ask myself:

What am I doing here?

Once that first tray of biscuits arrive, I am reminded. I’m here because it tastes like home. I’m here because even though I am sitting alone, I do not feel lonely. I am here because the food is good, not too expensive and reminds me of the good times I spent with my family.

That is why I am at the local Cracker Barrel.