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What Makes Them Great?: Javert's Songs in LES MISERABLES

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Few musicals of the last thirty years can claim as many hit songs as can Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schoenberg’s ubiquitous if powerful Les Miserables. “I Dreamed a Dream,” “Do You Hear the People Sing,” “One Day More,” “On My Own,” “Bring Him Home,” and “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” are among the titles that have, through the decades, become household names–and not in theatregoing “households” only, as Act I’s concerted finale, “One Day More,” has inspired “flashmobs” in the world’s malls and train stations, while “Bring Him Home” has been sung to soldiers. “Stars” (Inspector Javert’s Act I song) is not so widely known a title yet is not obscure, and I consider it the very best song in Les Mis. Inspector Javert’s Act II solo that ends with his suicide (from a bridge, into the River Seine) is probably too long, too fragmented, and, like “Stars," too embedded in the plot ever to have become a “hit.” Still, it's an outstanding number, possibly the best in Act II. The ballads “I Dreamed a Dream” and “On My Own” both make perfect sense when sung outside the musical’s context–something that can't quite be said for either “Javert’s Suicide” or “Stars.” These two songs, sung by the “villain,” are a bit harder to hum; it would make little sense to perform “Javert’s Suicide” in a mall, or to sing “Stars” without first explaining who this man Javert is. In their contexts, then, why are “Stars” and “Javert’s Suicide” so effective? What makes them great songs? Possible answers include their placement within the show and (even more than their words) their music.

To put “Stars” in context, one must mention the fact that policeman Javert has been eluded for years by defiant parolee Jean Valjean but suddenly finds himself hot on Valjean’s trail once more. Confidently, Javert looks to the night sky and likens the “stars...filling the darkness/With order and light” to the perfect, earthly order God has established and expects human beings to maintain. In the song’s conclusion, Javert renews his vow never to “rest” until he again sees Valjean “safe behind bars.”

Boublil’s original lyric for “Stars” was in French; Herbert Kretzmer wrote the version all English speaking Les Mis fans know. It might be the case that Kretzmer’s lyric is relatively awkward; it's true that both the English and the French versions contain phrase repetitions. Yet repetition is apt considering what Javert is praising: the fact that the stars themselves are “always the same”–that the laws God built into the universe allow for no divergence. Of special interest is the way the lyric’s introduction (“There, out in the darkness/A fugitive running...”), the portion before stars are mentioned, establishes the dramatic situation--so that if “Stars” were sung out of context, the listener would at least know what Javert is, and has been, doing, if not precisely who he is. (No doubt the reason for this, in context, was to refresh the audience’s memory; since Javert’s last exit, many new characters and a couple new plot threads have appeared.) The lyric is an extended metaphor (stars are God’s ways; just as stars turn to “flame” when they “fall,” humans go to Hell when they sin), rare enough in musical theatre. The English lyric of “I Dreamed a Dream” relates Fantine’s past; the English lyric of “Stars” sums up Javert’s world-view.

Still, it is the music more than the lyric that makes “Stars” great. Musically, the song resembles 19th century religious pieces, specifically Schubert’s “Ave Maria” (the resemblance is striking when only the orchestral part is heard--see below); this is fitting, since Javert sees himself as an agent of God’s justice on earth. Where some other solos in Les Mis are “fragmented” (e.g., Valjean’s “What Have I Done?” and “Who Am I?”) “Stars” is unified: single-minded, like Javert himself. It is not a “monologue” but a song; like “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” it is a ballad or even (to continue the Schubert comparison) a Lied. “Stars” is melodious; it is all of a piece; it is evocative (the stars can be “heard” in the orchestration); it sustains a comparison; and it tells us most everything we need to know about the character who sings it. Only the best musical theatre songs “are” so many things.

Late in Act II, Javert’s world-view is upset by Valjean’s pardon; given the chance, at the barricade, to kill his pursuer, Valjean spares Javert’s life and sets him free. All at once, Javert realizes that God’s justice does not work the way he “knew” it to; unable either to absorb mercy or alter his philosophy, he kills himself. Musically and lyrically, “Javert’s Suicide” is a “dark” reprise of Valjean’s “What Have I Done?” from Act I: there Valjean accepted grace (from the Bishop he robbed), and here Javert rejects it. Where Valjean asked, “Yet why did I allow this man/To touch my soul and teach me love?” Javert rhetorically asks, “How can I now allow this man/To hold dominion over me?” That the two situations are mirror images of each other is implied in the writing.

Yet it is (once again) the music more than the words themselves that distinguish the number. If “Stars” “sings” like a Schubert song, “Javert’s Suicide” is a monologue structured along the lines of a Verdi aria; like “Cortigiani” in Rigoletto, it opens with force, then dissolves into lyricism (a section reminiscent of "Stars"). As with “Stars” the orchestration makes clear this number’s core, an emotion best described as “total, existential panic”:



The desperation is vivid, as are the gushing noises of the Seine, which suggest Javert’s insignificance. Most revealing of all is the ending. Starting at 2:56, one can hear first the summoning of courage to jump (Javert is afraid); then the sudden spring from the bridge; then the long fall, with a kind of triumph about it; then the shock of hitting the water (any sense of dignity or triumph vanishes here); and at last the instantaneous sweeping away of the body by the current (Javert was just a man, “like any other”). Musically awe-inspiring, “Javert’s Suicide” is both the best imaginable summing up of Javert’s character and an impressive piece even by operatic standards.

“Javert’s Suicide,” however, would be nothing without the number to which it alludes, “What Have I Done?” By contrast, “Stars” is virtually an original, its melody heard verbatim nowhere else in the show; and this is unusual for songs in Les Mis, most of which provide the basis for recitatives or even other songs (e.g., “On My Own” is based on “Come to Me”). It also makes its dramatic impact within the confines of a “ballad” format–rare, again, in a score filled not only with “monologues” but also with “musical scenes” (e.g., “Lovely Ladies,” “Red and Black”–both of which advance the plot). If the Rossinian “One Day More” is the most impressive ensemble number in Les Mis, then “Javert’s Suicide” is one of the most impressive solos and “Stars,” if not “the best” song, then arguably the most profound of the ballads and surely the best of the almost-hits.

Link to "Stars" instrumental: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AOSnxetsFL0
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Updated Jan-15-2018 at 06:01 by Bellinilover

Categories
Classical Music , Non-Classical Music , Recorded Music

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