There’s a scene in Moulin Rouge which is possibly in my top ten film scenes ever – The Emergency Rehearsal. Christian (Ewan MacGregor)is unexpectedly pitching the show they need finance for to The Duke, and he says it’s about love. The Duke sneers until Harold hastily adds more licentious details. Well, excuse me, M. le Duc, but I’m with Christian when he says “Love is a many-splendoured thing, love lifts us up where we belong, all you need is love.” I reckon some of the most powerful stories in the world are love stories, and some of the most beautiful songs in the world are love songs. Not the watered-down number 1’s produced by cloned boy bands but real, moving songs. Which, funnily enough, can often be found in musicals.
Take “Love Changes Everything” – it talks of the contradictory way you feel when you’re in love, the way it transforms you for ever, and the song just soars and takes you with it. I think I want it played at my funeral – obviously the Michael Ball version (is there another?).
Obviously there’s the whole range of love – romantic love, parental love, love of country or a cause… all of these have been covered spectacularly in musicals. Off the top of my head, Love Changes Everything from Aspects of Love, I’d Give My Life for You from Miss Saigon and Do You Hear the People Sing? from Les Misérables respectively. What I’m really looking at in this post is different ways romantic love manifests itself, as demonstrated spectacularly in Notre Dame de Paris by Richard Cocciante and Luc Plamondon. I don’t think it’s widely known in England although it did have a run in London with Dannii Minogue, and was featured on the Royal Variety Show one year. It’s not one of the blockbusters anyway, although it deserves to be – it’s stirring, powerful and has a modern edge whilst retaining the atmosphere of the time in which it’s set. (Quick disclaimer – to my shame I haven’t yet read Victor Hugo’s original book, so all references to story and characters here are entirely based on the musical).
The story features Esmeralda the gypsy and the three men who love her in their different, yet ultimately destructive, ways. Quasimodo, the hunchbacked bellringer, who loves her the most unselfishly and tries to protect her; Frollo the priest, whose lust overcomes his morals and eventually leads to Esmeralda’s execution; and Phoebus, the Captain of the King’s Archers who selfishly pursues her and takes advantage of her love for him despite being betrothed to another girl, and who betrays Esmeralda when she needs him even though she has risked her life to love him. These three men show the different facets of their love in the song Belle, in which they variously turn their back on the Church that has sheltered them, their priestly vocation and vows and their vows of fidelity to another woman. It’s the first time you get to know exactly how each of them feel about Esmeralda, whilst I have an image of her flitting just out of reach. It shows the power a woman could have over men even in an age dominated by man – each man is completely enthralled by her and breaks the rules they have set themselves in an effort to claim her.
Quasimodo alone recognises her free spirit – “A bird stretching out its wings to fly” is how he describes her at one point. His is the ultimate unrequited love, and he actually does die of a broken heart. He is the only one who wants what’s best for her even though he longs for her so much, to the extent that he murders the man who has raised him, the only one who has ever shown concern for him until now. His love for Esmeralda overcomes the love he has for Frollo, who he loves “more than any dog ever loved its master”. I think if you really want a heartbreaking love song, you could do worse than listen to Quasimodo’s Dieu Que Le Monde Est Injuste (God You Made the World All Wrong in the english version) – on YouTube here (ignore that the title says Vivre). Garou’s voice is perfectly imperfect as he mourns his own hopeless situation, the contrast between his ugliness and poverty, Esmeralda’s beauty and Phoebus’ wealth and handsomeness.
Frollo is the Bad Guy. In Belle he blames Esmeralda for inciting his own lustful thoughts. He basically admits that he wants to break his celibacy vows, he knows how wrong it is, yet it is Esmeralda who “is the devil incarnate” and who carries the weight of original sin. Belle is a foreshadow of Tu Vas Me Detruire where he sings of being torn apart by his obsession, of how he thought himself as hard and cold but consumed by lust and haunted by the gypsy’s eyes. And again he he blames Esmeralda and curses her. In the end, of course, he does destroy himself, and Esmeralda and Quasimodo alongside him. If Quasimodo’s is the ultimate unrequited love, Frollo’s is the ultimate destructive love.
Phoebus is a bit of git, really. I found when listening to first the English then the French, that Phoebus is far more sympathetic and distraught in the English. In the French he is much more calculating, quite determined to have his cake and eat it. His part in Belle sets out his plan to be unfaithful to Fleur de Lys and his fairly slimy nature comes up again and again in the show. In Le Val D’Amour he reveals that he frequently sleeps with prostitutes; in Déchiré he describes himself as ‘torn apart’ to a gang of his soldiers but he’s loving every minute of it. He also shows how little he knows of Esmeralda – despite the fact that she is young and innocent, he sees her as a stereotypical gypsy and mistakes her exotic-ness for loose morals. He shamelessly exploits her love but casts her aside for the wealth and stability of Fleur de Lys, leading to Esmeralda’s death. Phoebus shows the ultimate selfish love; and you just know that it’s not going to end well, however much Esmeralda wants to “live for the one she loves”.
I haven’t touched here on the fraternal love of Clopin or the platonic love of Gringoire the poet. But it’s indisputable that the power of this story is due to the importance of love.
Despite what The Duke thinks.
Here’s Belle. And if that’s a bit intense, let’s finish where we started, with the gorgeous Christian in Moulin Rouge.