The Write Way: When Drama Becomes Melodrama.

Valentine PierrotI am an unabashed fan of Les Miserables, the show and the movie. I suspect I would like the book, as well, although having picked it up at Books-A-Million yesterday, I realized I would need a camel caravan to carry it home. But Les Mis (and The Christmas Carol) are productions I never miss in any form.

Why those two? That’s another blog.

Recently I had the treat of seeing both the movie and the touring company of Les Mis within the same month. While neither were perfect, both were outstanding in their own ways. I found myself distracted, though, by the overdramatization of the stage version. Hence, the subject of melodrama vs. plain old-fashioned drama. defines melodrama as: A dramatic form that does not observe the laws of cause and effect and that exaggerates emotion and emphasizes plot or action at the expense of characterization.

Just as written the musical Les Mis borders on melodrama. Fantine’s fall from grace into prostitution, Jean Valjean’s heroic attempts to become a better man, the barricades where the best and brightest give their lives for very little. These are huge, sweeping events, and in any audience at any time you will hear the zippers and clasps of handbags as women rummage for tissues for themselves and their male companions. The music is so stirring, the melodies so easy to hum, the staging is so . . .

And that’s where the distractions occurred for me.

Let’s clear the air first. Melodrama is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is what it is. Melodrama is like cotton candy. It’s so wonderful going down, but in the end, if it weren’t for sticky fingers, you wouldn’t be sure you really ate it. There’s nothing left, not even a lingering taste on the tongue.

Compare that with chocolate mousse?

The difference is substance, that sense that the world has changed when you leave the theater, that notion that you have changed, too, and will do something different from now on, be something different. (Whether that comes to pass or not.)

The production I saw billed itself proudly as more dramatic than previous versions of Les Mis. And they were right. At times this production stepped over my personal line into melodrama, pushing the tempo to a speed where the words lost meaning, asking fabulous performers to shout their lines so the musicality was lost.

The difference was particularly highlighted for me in one of my favorites, “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.” The first time I saw Les Mis Marius, the lone barricade survivor, goes back to the now empty room where he and his friends plotted their rebellion, and he laments their passing. At the very end of the song the friends appear in the background, and we know by their brief appearance that their ghosts will always haunt him.

Dramatic, yes! Melodramatic? No, because the song established Marius’s character, the loss he would never forget, his own ambivalence about his survival. The friends were part of that, a ghostly presence in his life.

The latest version placed Marius on an empty stage lit with candles. No chairs, no tables. The friends enter early, all carrying candles, and as the music builds (too much so that the lovely melody was overwhelmed) they dash wildly off stage.

Melodrama. I lost the flavor of the scene, Marius’s regrets, the familiar setting that was so necessary to the words of the song. By overly dramatizing the scene and not letting the story and music carry it, the power disappeared.

As novelists, no matter what kinds of books we write, we have to ask ourselves what we want our readers to take away. Do we want to bludgeon them with emotion, story, the sweeping grandeur of history? Or do we want them to fill in some of the blanks, reach within themselves to find meaning they will remember, be so stirred by the power of simplicity they will never forget what we have written?

That line is not always easy to find. But knowing there is a line and taking it into account means we’re halfway there.


  1. Janet Warren on March 12, 2013 at 2:19 pm

    I found this interesting. I have rarely cared for stage productions because I usually find them to be overacted and overly done. I never thought about the fact that most I see are not subtle enough for me. They are too in your face, IMO.Also,I usually prefer books to the movies. They are richer in my visualization while I read rather than seeing it on screen. My grown daughter is just the opposite.

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