Dear Alfie Boe, Britain’s Favourite Tenor,
Hello, my name is Sara. We’ve never met, and we’re not likely to, but I have a few things that I want to tell you, openly, on the Internet.
1) Congratulations on having an amazing name. It has a great number of syllables. It has many pleasant consonant sounds – L, F, B – with plenty of vowels. My regards to your mother, who made an excellent choice.
When (if) I ever get a dog, cat, or child, I’m naming him Alfie. If it’s just a dog or cat, his whole name will be Alfie Boe. I assume the child will have a different last name, though middle name is still open for discussion.
2) You grow a really great beard. Not a lot of men can do what you can do. I’m sure you keep it nicely trimmed for the show, but seriously, from the photos, it’s excellent. It doesn’t look patchy; it’s a great thickness and color. It might be one of the best beards I’ve ever seen (save for Bill Jolliff, a former professor who plays the banjo – don’t worry about it).
3) You reignited my love for Les Miserables. And you made my mother cry.
My love for the musical Les Mis came about long before you even existed in my life, but not nearly as far back as my friend Karith, who used to listen to the whole show every night before her childhood bedtime. She is a true lover (and defender – don’t even try to cross her) of the show.
I don’t fit into Karith’s category. How I made it through a childhood of classic movie musicals and three years of obsessive musical theatre classes without knowing this show is beyond me. I did see the school version when I was a freshman in high school. My high school’s chief rival put it on, and all I remember is being in love with the boy playing Valjean. He was a senior, a redhead, and had played Jesus in Godspell. (A side note to any men reading this: if you play both Jesus and Valjean, I will love you.) The show itself was lost on me.
It’s no surprise then that I first became truly acquainted to Les Miserables because of a boy.
My first year of college, I was in love (again, and almost for real this time) with a gangly theatre major who was roommates with my best friend. He was focused, passionate, and artistic – everything I loved and desired. And his favorite musical was Les Miserables. He had a poster in his dorm room, he regularly referenced Colm Wilkinson, and he had even read the Victor Hugo novel. I needed to impress him, and Les Mis was my chance.
So, over Christmas break, I bought the Complete Symphonic Recording from iTunes, 2.7 hours of pure musical goodness. Downside: it didn’t star the original Broadway cast, instead pulling stars from performances all over the world. Michael Ball made it on, but no Colm. I also started reading the book, nearly 1500 pages of descriptions of sewers and wagon wheels.
Suffice to say, it didn’t impress him as much as I had hoped, but I started to shift my affections from this gangly kid onto the story and the sound of Les Mis. It is an epic production, three hours of love and loss, betrayal and second chances, revolution and commitment. The opening chords and repeated musical themes drew me in again and again until I had the whole thing memorized.
It’s not just that the music is amazing and the story is amazing, but it’s that both complement each other and create meaning and hope. The story itself contains all of the best plot points: a flawed protagonist, an overzealous antagonist, a love triangle, near-misses, delightfully grungy and seedy comic relief, battles, martyrdom, and prostitutes. What more could you ask for?
More than that, it is a story about redemption, about the goodness of God and how His goodness can flow through His people. It’s about the dangers of legalism, of becoming the judge and jury for the world. And it’s about seeing the little, the downtrodden, the broken and loving them, no matter what it costs. In that way, you can change the world and redeem it through the sweet love of God, even as this place is broken, dirty, and heart-wrenching. Valjean is saved by grace, and he extends grace to others, shaming some and lifting others out of their own horrors.
The story ends with death and with life, as every good story should. But you already know this, Alfie Boe. Because you live it eight times a week.
Over the next few years, other musicals came to the forefront and Les Mis got pushed to the back. I remained close friends with this gangly kid who introduced me to Les Mis. He, of course, was the first one I called when I found out there would be a 25th anniversary concert shown on OPB. Filmed at the O2 in London, it was bound to be a magical experience, even over the television.
Alfie, oh Alfie, it was. From the first time I saw your magical beard and your crinkly eyes and heard your undeniably beautiful voice, you rocked my world. Colm was – and continues to be – incredible, of course, as he proved in the concert’s epilogue. He originated the role, but you – with your opera training and rock-and-roll heart – made the role different and stronger, giving the notes a different sort of power that moved me to emotion. And even as you did not move about the stage, your eyes acted for you, with the milky brown warmth of pain and grace.
It wasn’t just me. All of us watching that O2 concert gasped when you hit the “2-4-6-0-1,” and we closed our eyes to bask in the final note of “Bring Him Home” that rang out clear and pure like a tinkling of crystal. All you did was stand behind a microphone, and it was powerful beyond belief.
When I went to my parents’ home a few months later, I saw that they had the concert saved on their DVR. My grandparents were there too, and during a lazy afternoon, I fast-forwarded the show to “Bring Him Home” – I just wanted to listen to it once. As soon as the orchestra started and you sang the first phrase, I looked over at my mother, and tears were running down her cheeks. She’s a crier, but not about music. The combination of the song and your mad pipes and just everything overcame her.
That’s what you do. That’s what Les Mis does. It overcomes and it is about overcoming. And so, as you are doing a show tonight over in London at the Queen’s Theatre, I’ll be heading downtown to see the U. S. touring group’s final performance in Portland. And I’ll be thinking of you and wishing you well, that your voice is strong and you bring Valjean to life on the stage as you did over a television screen.
It’s a story that is worth being told.
P.S. The beard is great. Keep the beard.
Image from alfieboe.com