I wasn't exactly a tween when I was first exposed to Les Miserables, but I still was hanging on to my tween sensibilities. I was 15 and on a trip with my grandparents to London where we went to see it on the West End. The next week, we were in Paris where I spent the whole time not-so-subtly belting "On My Own" and weeping over the monuments of the June Rebellion. I have always been unapologetically into musicals, but Les Mis became another animal and, despite its historical context being far beyond my world of experience, I related to it wholeheartedly.
I'm not alone in this. As Rachael Maddux over at Slate points out, Les Mis fanaticism often starts during the tween/early-teen years, which is somewhat puzzling:
On paper, it's decidedly un-kid-friendly: The sets are stark, the costumes drab, the source material a 1,500-page novel in which Victor Hugo details everything fetid and frightening about early-19th-century France. In Les Misérables, as in reality, the smallest humans bear the cruelest burdens of poverty and injustice and disease. The adult characters fare better, but not much. The show is buoyed by the unflagging refrain of "One Day More," but the moments of triumph are only a salve, never a cure. "Lovely Ladies" and "Master of the House" are two bawdy bright spots, but the darkness is so dark.
What explains it, then?
For me, the answer is simple. Eponine. Eponine is why I sunk my braced teeth into Les Mis so completely, she's why I bought the soundtrack and she's why I maaaaaay have had a French peasant costume hidden in the back of my closet throughout all of high school. Her story — an impoverished girl who is so deeply in love with a revolutionary that she would die for him even though he is clearly in love with someone else — was a story I related to. "I, like, am Eponine," I remember saying to the girl who drove me home from drama club every night. "Like, for real."
And I was! Only instead of impoverished, I was a middle class Wisconsinite and rather than loving a dashing revolutionary, I was in love with the drummer of the high school jazz band who looked exactly like Rivers Cuomo from Weezer. And while I probably wouldn't have jumped in front of a bullet for him, I definitely would have faked a nervous breakdown in an AIM chat just so I would know that he was "thinking about me."
Obviously, in reality, I and most other teen Les Mis fans had nothing in common with Eponine, but that doesn't mean that we didn't feel everything in common with her. And, when you're 12/13/14/15/16, your feelings are running the show. Have a crush? It's crushing. It's overwhelming. He or she doesn't like you back? It's a metaphoric bullet through the heart. So OF COURSE you can relate to a story about a girl who is profoundly in love and lonely, a girl who [SPOILER ALERT] literally takes a bullet to the heart. That, and it's all set to song.
But, as Maddux points out, perceptions may change as fans get older:
As a kid, I never quite connected with the character of Fantine; she appeared early in the show and it was easy for me to forget her amid all that followed...[But] after years of ambivalence, I was suddenly consumed by Fantine's plight: the desperation of a young mother entering the pits of hell to save her child. At 28, I don't have or particularly want a child of my own, but I'm theoretically closer to motherhood than I've ever been, closer to that heart-wrecking love, closer to that possibility of being willing to give up every last shard of my soul for another small human. That abrupt deluge of empathy convinced me of something I'd been loath to accept for a while: I am now a grown-up.
Other things that become apparent as you get older: Eponine should probably stop pining and get the fuck over Marius because, at the risk of using a cliche, he's just not that into her. Marius likes boring, rich girls who live hidden away behind fences, not scrappy, awesome hood rats who fight on the front lines. Her time (and it kills my 15-year-old self to say this) would have been much better spent focusing on herself or going after someone like Enjolras who A.) is way hotter than Marius anyway and B.) could probably handle a woman like her.
It'll be interesting to see how the increased maturity of fans — fans who, despite no longer being in their teens, cannot wait to see this movie — will change how they (we) perceive this supposedly-sprawling film adaptation. Somehow, I doubt it will change all that much. If the movie does its job (and — oh! — how I hope it does), it should be able to send us right back into our little tween shoes (mine are platform Sketchers, btdubs) and make us relate to Eponine (or Cosette or Fantine or whoever your tween heart desires) despite the fact that we should probably know better.
I Dreamed a Tween [Slate]