Monday, April 27, 2009
A couple of weeks ago, I posted an entry I called Seven Minutes of Pure Inspiration. Several friends passed along a link to the YouTube video of British woman performing on the UK version of American Idol, Britain’s Got Talent. My name for that post is accurate – at least for me.
If you take time to read my stuff, you will soon realize that I’m a sentimental sort. It won’t surprise you that I’ve watched the YouTube piece several times, and it still gets to me. The producers of the British television show must be enormously grateful for Susan Boyle. Who would have believed that a frumpy cleaning lady from Blackburn, West Lothian would give them such a ratings boost? Even Elaine Paige (who is Susan’s hero), known across the pond as “The First Lady of British Musical Theater,” must also be exceedingly grateful for Susan these days. Her on-the-air honorable mention by the bashful contestant got the whole world talking about the stage legend again (as if the celebrated Ms. Paige needs an assist).
The title of the British talent show is curious to me. It’s as though the Brits are trying to inform us smug Americans of something we didn’t know, which, of course, is ludicrous. Britain does indeed have talent. If you’ve been to the West End in London or witnessed a performance in Stratford Upon Avon of the Royal Shakespearian Company, you know that the Brits not only possess talent – they set the standard. The English language was made for the performing arts, and set to music, those Brits can set the heart ablaze. Their lyrics. Their melodies. List your favorites.
In this digital age when word-of-mouth advertising happens not in living rooms or on street corners or over a cup of coffee or at the water cooler but over computer social networks at the speed of light, instant stardom is that much more attainable. And today we have a new star. Susan Boyle. A couple months back, you’d never heard of her. Now, we all know who she is.
Susan’s performance has unleashed a flood of words – commentary both written and spoken. I have read some who blast those nasty Brits for giving Susan such a cold welcome; rolling their eyes and expressing such derision in their clucking and hissing and head wagging and “yeah right” as Susan took to the stage. And maybe, just maybe, it was that chilly welcome that magnified the power of her performance.
Here Stateside, the judges on American Idol make a big deal over “song selection.” Well, Susan’s choice turned out to be brilliant. “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Misérables may rank among the most gripping cries of the human heart ever put to music.
You may think from the outset that Susan selected a tune that highlighted her “dream” to be a star. If you do, you missed the lyric entirely.
When Carolyn and I got our tickets in London, we had one of my favorite evenings in all our travels. We were no strangers to Les Miz. Years before, we were caught up in the story – first when we studied the lyrics of the powerful Broadway production. That led to a thorough reading of the epic novel that inspired the stage musical first published by Victor Hugo in 1862. It is a powerful story of redemption and social justice, from the beginning when the Bishop of Digne unexpectedly forgives Jean Valjean, recently released from prison, for his petty theft of silver. Javert, Jean Valjean’s accuser, devotes his life to putting Valjean back in a jail cell. But that is only the beginning.
Hugo’s fictional characters are universal. That’s why some say we remember fiction much more clearly than biography. There is no more powerful portrayal of a mother’s sacrificial commitment to her child than Fantine’s care for young Cosette. Valjean is touched by Fantine’s devotion. Her life is snuffed out early, as poverty and cruelty rob her of a capacity to provide for her daughter. Her life nearly gone, spent and ravaged by illness, she sings an ode to dashed dreams, crushed hopes, lost love and an inescapable farewell to the lovely little girl, Cosette, for whom she gave everything she was and had.
When I watched the performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” at the Queen’s Theatre on the West Side in London that night, it filled me with deep emotion. It was so painfully sad. Fantine suffered every abuse known to womanhood through the centuries; but the greatest heartache of all was letting her beautiful Cosette go, fearfully releasing her to a world of savage brutalities. And when she ends center-stage accompanied by weeping violins, she sings –
“I had a dream my life would be
So different from this hell I’m living
So different now from what it seemed
Now life has killed the dream I dreamed.”
Not a dry eye in the house. Especially mine.
Fantine asks Valjean for a solemn promise to care for her Cosette. That promise is another moment of redemption for Hugo’s protagonist. That promise drives his character for the remainder of his event-filled life. His pledge to Fantine is a sacred promise he will keep.
So Susan Boyle did not sing a peppy motivational tune about big dreams of fame and fortune for her World Debut. Susan sang from the broken heart of a dying Fantine. The tension between dashed dreams and great hopes all mixed up with promise and redemption and mother/daughter and loyalty and sacrifice and tragedy and a prayer for protection gave us a lament that stirs up something deep in the soul.
It goes way beyond appearances; way beyond bushy eyebrows and frizzy hair and a thrift store dress.
It touches us all.
Apparently, Britain’s got talent.
Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2009