Songs from Musicals: #3, “Stars,” from Les Miserables

Honorable mentions: “On My Own,” “ABC Cafe: Red and Black”

A few years ago, I went to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which I love as much as any place in Philadelphia. I had started to develop a passing interest in medieval art, which had never really appealed to me before, and I was looking at a painting from the 15th Century which had the same basic topic as most other paintings from the 15th Century. A couple came up and looked at the painting while I was doing so, although much closer. In fact, the man got very close and actually touched the painting. I didn’t say anything – I waited until I was on the Internet to do that, because I am well bred – but I was shocked. Who touches a six hundred year old painting? Were they insane?

That’s basically how I feel about the Russell Crowe rendition of “Stars,” which I realize may well be the first version of the song that many of you heard. This is not a reflection of your worth as a person, but you’re wrong for liking it. I realize that my own preference, for Philip Quast, is based in the fact that I was introduced to the musical through the Tenth Anniversary Cast. I wouldn’t argue with someone, though, who favored Earl Carpenter or Norm Lewis, and would quibble only slightly with a Tam Mutu or Roger Allam fan. But Russell Crowe is the wrong answer, like saying there are five lights when there are only four. No one should unironically enjoy a song sung by a man who sounds like he stuck a kazoo up his nose.

It’s chic to humanize the villains in our stories, but doing so is a tricky business. Humanize aggressively, and your audience is weirded out; making Magneto a Holocaust survivor is one of the boldest choices in comics history, but I’m not sure it was a good one. When done well, it can illuminate a story: Clyde Barrow’s a touch impotent, so he’s got to use his gun as a surrogate. “Stars” goes in the opposite direction from the Magneto principle. It is so humanizing that Javert, who I suppose would be the closest thing Les Miserables had to a villain in the first forty-five minutes of the show, ceases to be a villain at all. That is, of course, the intention. Javert is a pawn, a tool used by an unjust system to enforce the unjust laws, but he does it out of a misguided sense of duty, not through malice or an evil heart. Javert is an old-fashioned moral objectivist. He believes in God, the God who will gather up the sheep and the goats at the Last Judgment and consign the latter to Hell while paving the way to Heaven for the former. Javert believes there are consequences for misdeeds; “those who falter and those who fall must pay the price,” he avers. “Stars” is an eloquent prayer from a blunt man; the supplicant, in order to fulfill what he believes firmly to be God’s will, asks the Almighty to help him find an escaped convict so that the convict can be returned to prison to serve out his time. It’s hard to be on Javert’s side, certainly when Valjean and his kindness and great heart stand on the other. (It’s also hard to be on his side when Enjolras, Marius, Grantaire, etc. are fighting against a corrupt government and Javert actively tries to bring them down through a little skulduggery.) But it’s also hard to hate Javert when he is pushed by his desire to do what he has always been taught was right. “Stars” is an exercise in empathy as much as anything else; even if you disagree with most of the things that Javert finds essential, his conviction is powerful and his belief genuine.

It’s interesting that Javert looks to the stars for reassurance. He is comforted by their predictability, their orderliness. He appreciates their closeness to God. But what he doesn’t mention, what in fact remains tacit, is that he has chosen objects of great beauty to look to for peace. Javert is no aesthete, and yet his faith guides him to something beautiful. It’s a poetic message; when he is alone and contemplative, something within him is stirred to acknowledge a distant, ineffable beauty.

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