Can a song make you afraid? Can a song move you to tears for a lament that is not yours, but might be? Can a song punch all the air out of you and still make you rejoice for the gifts life has bestowed upon you?
Les Misérables’ Bring Him Home does that. It hinges on this verse:
He’s like the son I might have known
If God had granted me a son.
The summers die
One by one
How soon they fly
On and on
And I am old
And will be gone.
Valjean is praying (the song is a prayer) for the safe return of Marius to Cosette, his adopted daughter, after the student goes to fight with the revolutionaries. But that filial distance makes the lyric punch harder – because I was granted not just one son, but two. If Valjean can feel like that about a man not even his own flesh and blood, how can I feel about mine own?
While I’m born into a privileged generation in a privileged country recognising that fathers in the past and around the world today send sons into danger with the necessary bravado, I send my sons into an uncertain world with a father’s anxious hope. But, like Valjean, I know that I am old and will be gone, so the decisions must be theirs, decisions in life and in love, based on the fragile knowledge of youth and its oh so foolish courage.
Valjean asks little of his God:
Let him be
Let him live
In the maternity room nearly 20 years ago, that was my plea too. With the pain of childbirth filling the space, the blood red, red, red everywhere, slick and dark and then a pink, misshapen thing suddenly there, head too big, arms and legs too fat, body too hot – any tentative thoughts about what our baby might look like, might grow to become, what mark he might make, dissolve into ‘Let him be, Let him live’. For Valjean in that moment of fear, as it was for me in that first precarious minute of my son’s life, the question is existential, as pressing then as it was in the caves, millennia past. Let him live.
If I die
Let me die
Let him live
There’s no father anywhere in the world at any time in history who hasn’t offered their life for their son’s, in thought if not in deed. It is the pivot on which one’s life changes on assuming parenthood –the ground shifts beneath you and humility floods through every pore of your body. There’s another whose life means more than your own.
This tumult of emotions demands music and singing of the highest order merely to keep up with Herbert Kretzmer’s torrential English lyrics. Claude-Michel Schönberg wrote a melody that starts as soft as a whispered prayer at the back of chapel, before soaring to the heavens in submissive passion. It is the apotheosis of musical theatre’s use of song to heighten emotion, fit to stand with the best of Puccini’s arias (a reference point made more explicit in Schönberg’s reworking of Madame Butterfly into Miss Saigon).
The Frenchman wrote the song for Colm Wilkinson and the Irish tenor, London’s first Valjean, is well up to the job. But he’s at his best with a little help from his friends, three more Valjeans (John Owen-Jones, Simon Bowman and Alfie Boe) at the 25th Anniversary Show. Here it is in its wondrous glory – oh to have been there to see that!
Try not to cry – I always do.