The 80s Called - They Want Their Socioeconomic Policies Back
"Come watch us grovel in the dirt,
then buy a souvenir and don it.
Rich folks pay 20 bucks a shirt,
that has a starving pauper on it."
-Gerard Alessandrini, from his famous "Forbidden Broadway" parody of Les Miserables, 'I Dreamed a A Show'
I haven't met a person of faith who hasn't emotionally connected with the 1987 Broadway musical Les Miserables. To be honest, I haven't personally met a religious person of any denomination who didn't have at least one song from this musical memorized. It features themes of redemption, of choices which affect the course of your entire life and the life of those around you, of first love, of heartbreak, of compassion, of sacrifice, of identity, of impossible dilemmas, of communal welfare, of individual integrity, of generosity and of greed, of law and of ethics. The list goes on and on.
This is an epic story with soaring music which captures the heart. Though it has a distinctly Catholic thread it appeals to people of all faiths. I know a lot of people in this network of progressive clergy we call Shelter of Peace are, like me, looking forward to the film version's release on Christmas Day.
I have high hopes that it will do what I know great storytelling can do, that it will provide to the masses what the stories of the Bible provide: a collective narrative, a shared frame of reference. This one happens to be centered on homeless children.
Cosette and Gavroche. The former is adopted by a generous, loving man after living her formative years with abusive foster parents, the latter comes from the streets and lives as an activist warrior, not unlike the homeless youth of New York City who emerge from the streets, from the system, from a network of caregivers or a fraternal society of sisters-in-arms made up of youth in similar circumstances as theirs. Both of these young people have dirt on their face and want for food. They long for home. They find each in their own way, on their own path, both in this world and hopefully the next.
And the motivation behind the entire story is a journey toward justice. The character of Valjean and his revolutionary companions begin the story fighting for their own survival and into the second act literally fighting for societal change, for a world in which people, children especially, don't have to live on the streets and don't have to starve.
For many people Les Miserables has been about experiencing how well a performer can sing a certain song. If it doesn't meet our standards, if one actress playing Eponine can't hit the same note a favorite actress of ours hit in another stage version of the show, we lacerate her. I know many moviegoers who are going to see this film and say under their breathe that they can sing better than one of the movie actors. Some will even sing out loud in the theater over the soundtrack. They will miss a lot of the points in the film.
Why I have such high hopes for this film is that it doesn't appear to be merely a showcase of a series of operatic type personalities and their strong voices. The actors in the film are exploring the depths of what it is to be someone living in poverty. The vivid sets and special effects are trying to bring 19th century Parisian urban blight to a place of deep meaningfulness.
I hope it will awaken the audience to think about real life young people in 21st century who are living on the streets fighting to survive who need the type of social change that will alleviate their suffering. I hope it will inspire people to fight for it.
"As I turned up the collar on
A favorite winter coat
This wind is blowin' my mind
I see the kids in the street
With not enough to eat
Who am I to be blind
Pretending not to see their needs"
-The Man In The Mirror, Michael Jackson, "Bad" 1987
Les Miserables opening on Christmas is the perfect bookend to another 1987 production receiving a modern revival- Michael Jackson's Bad album, which celebrated its 25th anniversary with a commemorative re-release along with a documentary film that aired on ABC-TV on Thanksgiving.
I don't believe that it's a coincidence that these popular commercial works both released the same year both tackled the topic of youth homelessness. The Reagan years left a lot of people who depended on social services with nothing to fall back on. Very deeply troubled human beings were dumped onto the streets by institutions that formerly cared for them. The crack epidemic was in full force during this year in New York. The "Bad" music video directed by Martin Scorsese used footage from the Boerum Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn around Hoyt-Schermerhorn train station, which looked so run down that according to the documentary, Michael Jackson reportedly remarked to Scorsese "people live here?"
Homelessness, drug abuse and the AIDS crisis put human suffering out at the forefront of popular culture in the late 80s. Today in the early 2010s, youth homelessness is on the rise and homelessness in general is on the rise here in New York. Drug dependency in the form of pharmaceuticals and crystal-meth is a growing epidemic. The HIV/AIDS virus is returning back with a vengeance, especially among young gay men and in communities of color. Many of our mentally ill are still so uncared for that mainstream society only seems to pay attention when they snap in increasingly more violent outbursts.
I hope that these two works from 1987 once again make us more aware of what suffering there is in the world and inspire others to make a difference for once in their lives. To ask ourselves, somewhere beyond the barricade, is there a world we long to see?
To say as Michael said, "I'm starting with me."