On competence


Cosette Sweeping, Emile Bayard 1862

I’ve watched at least ten different versions of the musical Les Miserables, including the movie and a junior high performance in a middle school in nowhere, Pennsylvania. Ostensibly the songs and roles are always the same, but each production has its own energy, its own highs, and its own flaws.

The best and worst version of Les Mis is “Les Miserables in Concert: The 25th Anniversary.”, put on in London in 2010. Although it used to be all over the internet, it now only exists for rent or purchase on Amazon Prime, or as a very shaky Vimeo in multiple parts. I find myself coming back to it, time and time again, as a comforting re-watch.

First, the atmosphere is electric. The O2 Arena, with a seating capacity of 20,000, is packed to the brim. A twenty-five year anniversary is a big deal, and the audience knows it. The lights are dimmed. There is an full orchestra, the instruments gleaming and vibrating with pre-show tension. The etched cartoon Cossette with the sad eyes, the everlasting symbol of the play, fills the screens on the stage.

Next, there is a brief pause, and then, the orchestra launches into the main theme, thundering through the quarter notes, punch by punch. The orchestra is so, so good. You know you are in for a treat - an amazing show being performed by artists and musicians at the top of their game. The stage lights flare and rise, and you see a massive choir standing behind the musicians, radiating energy onto the stage. Wild applause breaks out across the

Finally, the convicts come out on stage, with Valjean, played by Alfie Bowe, his eyes flashing like a wounded animal, at their lead. Javert, played by an electric Norm Lewis prowlings at the back, and then steps up to the microphone. It is clear from the very beginning the stage belongs to them together, alone.

The rest of the cast is just as electrifyingly talented and amazingly suited for their roles. The quiet ferocity of Lea Salonga as Fantine, Matt Lucas and Jenny Galloway, perfectly ghastly as the Thenardiers, and Ramin Karimloo, whose galvanizing performance as Enjolras in “Red and Black” makes me want to stand up and give him an ovation every time, is so well-done.

It is an enormous, immense pleasure to watch someone who is good at something do their job.

So, why is the 25th anniversary concert also the worst version? Because, in spite of everything being aboslutely perfect, it has one flaw, and that flaw is Nick Jonas, because he can’t sing.

Nick Jonas, in this concert, compared to the Broadway stars with operatic voices and the ability to project and make the right facial expressions at the right time, sounds and looks terrible. He just cannot compete with the ranges and stage presence of the other actors..

Now, to be fair, he is seventeen years old at the time of the musical, and he had gone through a lot in life: a diagnosis with Type 1 Diabetes, a disappointing release of an album that was supposed to finally launch him out of Disneyville, and the whole purity ring incident.

nick-jonas-box

I’m not the only one who was angry: People thought Nick Jonas was SO bad, that they made videos where they cut him out of Red and Black and put in Michael Ball, who did an amazing job in the 10th anniversary special (I told you I’ve watched a LOT of Les Mis.)

Competence is important. Competence is noticed and appreciated. Both in whitecollar jobs and in the arts, competence is one of the qualities I appreciate the most in individuals. But lately, incompetence feels like it’s everywhere in my life.

In the beginning of “House of Cards,” Frank Underwood said, “Competence is such an exotic bird in these woods that I appreciate it whenever I see it.” And it was as much of a pleasure to watch Frank Underwood undercut everyone as it was to watch Kevin Spacey act the part. Then Kevin Spacey turned out to be guilty of sexual harrassment and assault allegations.

The CEO of Equifax said he took full responsibility for the enormous data breach that compromised almost 150 million people’s personal information, and then made $70 million from shares sold around the time of the breach.

Email dumps from officials reveal that politicians are not any smarter or better than us, and, in fact, often dumber and completely incapable of operating technology that even interns are expected to master.

The real world is rife with incompetence and disappointment, as anyone who becomes an adult is bound to learn.

So why do I expect anything from a musical? Because the musical is important to me. Ever since I saw Les Miserables live on Broadway in seventh grade, I have loved the show, lived for the show, studied it, listened to it late at night. I’m angry because I expect art to be an escape from the grinding misery of daily incompetence for me.

And, what I’m mad about most, what I’m so mad about that, eight years after the concert I can’t stop thinking about it, is that the directors and casting agents of the 25th anniversary didn’t respect any of that or believe the audience was smart enough to demand good performance.

At first, I was extremely angry at Nick Jonas. But, upon reflection, I decided that, at that point in his life, the decision to be or not be in Les Miserables wasn’t even his choice to make. So who I’m really angry at is whoever decided that casting Nick Jonas and selling sex appeal was better than making a cohesive, beautiful show that served the true spirit of people who can sing the role. And that’s a bigger sign of their incompetence than his, that they put him in that position, that they made him carry a ball (or box, if you want to get technical) that he dropped, that they made him look bad. And that they shattered the illusion for so many people tuning in, hoping to tune out.