Eponine, Fredo, and a Whole Lot of Suffering

I’ve always been a big fan of musicals, so it is often surprising to people when they hear some of the shows I’ve never seen live.  Over the years, I’ve crossed a lot off the list, especially since the Broadway tours started coming through the Smith Center.

The third season of Smith Center musicals got underway this week and kicked off with one I have longed to see: Les Miserables.  So, I was excited when my friend Morgan and I made a day of seeing the matinee yesterday.  She had never seen the show either, but I did have the upper hand being somewhat familiar with the music and having seen the (terrible) movie version last year.

I’ve always had the ability to be relatively familiar with something even though I haven’t seen it.  Friends have marveled at my ability to identify movies I haven’t seen based on just a few seconds of footage and knowledge of the cast and story (ask AlCantHang about My Blue Heaven if you don’t believe me).  Les Mis is one of those musicals I’ve been adjacent to for so many years, I had a pretty decent knowledge of the plot before I even saw the movie. And I, of course, knew “On My Own.”

I’m gonna be straightforward here: you’re hard-pressed to present me with a silently suffering woman who perhaps also has an unrequited love that I am not going to be fully enamored with. This is why I’ve seen “Mildred Pierce” a dozen times. Some of my female friends are not as fond of this particular female archetype, as they often come across as doormats. 

Eponine from Les Miserables is a doormat, let’s be honest. This girl is a glutton for punishment who pines away for her friend Marius, who seems to reciprocate a little, but not enough. Then, when this girl he saw for literally two seconds strolls by in her fancy high class clothes, he decides he is smitten with her. So what does Eponine do? She helps him get the damn girl, no questions asked.

Eponine’s nadir of doormat-dom comes at the top of Act II. In the middle of a brewing revolution, Eponine volunteers to wade her way through the streets filled with violent uprisers and angry soldiers to deliver a letter to Marius’ dream girl, Cosette. On the way back, she sings a ballad embraced by 12 year old girls worldwide for the past two decades: On My Own.

The song is basically about a girl fantasizing what it would be like to be with the boy she pines for.  The lyrics include things like, “On my own, pretending he’s beside me” and “I know it’s only in my mind, that I’m talking to myself and not to him.” Yeah, it is pretty literal, hence the appeal to the younger set. Again, I can’t lie, I love it. Been one of my favorite Broadway ballads for years.

Most of the time when I have seen it performed, the girl sings it in a manner that is sometimes sad and pensive, but ultimately hopeful and happy. Like Joey Potter. Come on kids, we all remember Joey singing this on Dawson’s Creek:

Some, like Samantha Barks, who played Eponine in the movie version, opts for a more melancholy “On My Own”, a girl sad she is stuck in this spot she can’t get herself out of—she feels the way she feels. Bookened with Act I’s even more downtrodden Fantine belting “I Dreamed a Dream” and you have the most depressing pair of long-suffering gals in musical history.

The Eponine in this show took a different tact with On My Own. She belted the crap out o the song and you could tell she was pissed. And it was awesome.

I love a long-suffering girl, but the trope typically features a female who doesn’t speak of her anger. You hear about her sadness, like Fantine, her disappointment, like Joey Potter, but you rarely see them get all that mad.

Eponine would be mad though. This is a chick that gets by on her own, as the song says. She continually puts herself out there, sacrifices for this dude, and the thanks she gets is that this guy honest to God asks her to go deliver a love letter in the middle of the war, risking life and limb in the process. It makes sense she would be angry that this kid has not had the epiphanous moment where he recognizes her sacrifice and realizes what he is missing out on.  

Perhaps the movies and the musicals don’t let these long-suffering girls get too angry because it breaks the illusion that there is hope this moment is coming. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t in Les Mis and it doesn’t most of the time in real life either. The long-suffering woman usually just ends up still suffering. Or they die, as is the case in this play. These are fun options to choose from, right?

So I loved angry Eponine. You get angry, girl. You’re hungry, your dude doesn’t realize you’re alive, and your parents seem to have no regard whatsoever for you once you age past six years old. I’d be angry too. Sure, there is some solace in dreaming about what might be or could have been. The other interpretations of this song certainly have merit, but this one was a surprising, refreshing change.

After the show, I was talking with Morgan, who seemed to be a little more invested in the Cosette and Marius relationship than I ever was.  I started to mull over it and grew a little concerned. Am I so jaded and obsessed with the long-suffering girl that I have been rooting for the wrong person this whole time?

It wouldn’t be the first time.

In college, I was driving with my friend Jamie and somehow we got to talking about The Godfather movies. Over the course of the conversation, I said, “Oh come on, everybody loves Fredo.”

Jamie’s jaw fell to the floor. “No, she loudly asserted. “Nobody loves Fredo.”

Our friends later sided with Jamie. Apparently I was the only one who saw The Godfather movies and took away from them the message “Poor Fredo.”  He may not be a long-suffering woman, but for those unfamiliar with the movie, it chronicles the Corleone family and their organized crime activities. Fredo is the second oldest of four brothers, but has the least responsibility because, you see, Fredo is kind of an idiot.  He means well, he just isn’t very bright.  So, while he doesn’t exactly suffer, he does have to sit back and watch as his brothers get responsibilities and rewards while he gets nothing.  To add insult to injury, they give Fredo meaningless tasks to pass the time, kind of like when you let your small child break the egg and put it in the bowl so they can say they “helped make dinner.”

(I hate to even deign to spoiler alert freaks, but um, spoiler alerts on the 40 year old movie dead ahead)

Fredo decides he needs to make a stand. He does so by betraying the family. For that, Fredo has to die. 

Now I get it, family is family, especially in The Godfather, but I watched Godfather II and cried when poor Fredo had to go. Sonny Corleone, the oldest brother who gets gunned down in the first film? Couldn’t care less that he died. Good riddance. You were violent and yelled a lot, I never liked you Sonny. Fredo though…I understood Fredo. I don’t condone the betrayal, but Fredo is the Corleone I get behind.  Even Tom Hagen, an adopted son that is second in my Corleone Power Rankings, can’t beat John Cazale.

But apparently I am the only one.  Even though I believe Jamie, I still don’t understand why people hate Fredo. I know they do, but come on kids, give him a chance.

After the show, I worried Les Mis was the latest text where I massively misinterpreted the message because I sided with the wrong character. I tweeted to see where I stood.

Well, it turns out Eponine is no Fredo. If anyone is the Fredo, it Is Cosette.  Turns out there are a lot of people who hate long-suffering men, but when it comes to long suffering women, I am far from on my own:

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