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Do You Hear the People Sing; All I Really Need to Know I Learned from Musicals

I’m using the summer to talk about all the wonderful lessons I’ve learned from Broadway musicals. Kathleen Kelly in You’ve Got Mail, says, “So much of what I see reminds me of something I read in a book, when shouldn't it be the other way around?” I feel that way about musicals.

Last week I talked about South Pacific because I think that show gets to the heart of deep-seeded, ugly racism and its cause. Last week I felt like our nation was breaking and my heart was breaking with it. This week, I’ve felt waves of hope from all kinds of encouraging things I've seen. It reminds me of one of my favorite musicals. (See what I mean?) I was introduced to Les Miserables by my high school theatre teacher in ninth grade. Until then, I had no idea a musical could make me feel so much. If you don’t know this show, it’s impossible to adequately describe it in a few sentences. In my defense, it's based on one of the longest novels ever written. However, if I were to boil it down, I’d say it’s a story of redemption which takes place in 1830. The protagonist, Jean Valjean, upon leaving prison, steals from a priest who chooses to extend grace rather than seek retribution and that changes the course of Valjean’s life as well as the lives of everyone he comes in contact with.

Something I've found encouraging this week was people trying to bridge the gap between the races. Whether it’s been in an article, social media post, or a sermon, I’ve heard so many white people apologize for their complacency, for failing to acknowledge their own privilege, and for not taking a stand against racism in the past. I've heard people ask great questions and actually listen to the answers.

As a Christian, it's impossible to not see Jesus in the redemption story of Les Mis. Like Valjean, we deserve punishment for our sins, but Jesus vouches for us. And it should move us to live like we know we've been given the gift of grace. In addition to God's grace, I've experienced grace in my whiteness. It has given me freedoms and benefits I can’t measure. Though I know being white doesn't make me superior, I also know that the privilege my whiteness affords me is undeserved. In light of that privilege, I have two choices. I can pat myself on the back like I earned it, or I can use it to listen to those who haven't been as fortunate. I can be like Valjean and live like I understand the grace that's been given to me.

Unlike last week where I chose a short (often overlooked) song, I’d like to talk about Do You Hear the People Sing, which is one of the most well-known songs from the show. If you’ve seen Les Mis, this song is the toward the end of Act I. It starts with just a few voices and builds to an anthem sung by the entire company.

Take a listen:

Do you hear the people sing?

Singing a song of angry men?

It is the music of a people

Who will not be slaves again!

When the beating of your heart

Echos the beating of the drums

There is a life about to start

When tomorrow comes!

I’ve seen so many beautiful images of peaceful protest in the last week. The protestors are angry, but they just want to be heard. There are those who will have you believe they are all violent or all looting, but that’s simply not true. Like those participating in this revolution in France, the protestors are hoping for a better tomorrow. One where there is truly justice for all. We drove by a peaceful protest in our city earlier this week. I could feel their beating hearts and see the resolve in their eyes. There is a life about to start when tomorrow comes. I truly believe it. I believe hearts can be changed and are being changed for a better future.

Will you join in our crusade?

Who will be strong and stand with me?

Somewhere beyond the barricade

Is there a world you long to see?

This week, I’ve seen people join the crusade. I've seen so many who are choosing to stand up. Choosing to be an example for their kids. Choosing to do what’s right in the eyes of God. Please don't think for a second that I think the work is done and we can go back to regally scheduled programing. I know there’s no bandaid to heal our nation of racism hundreds of years in the making, but I think we are making progress. I believe people are beginning to see others in a different light. A little less "us verses them" and more just "us".

I’ve never seen a production of this song where I wasn’t moved. I’ve seen this show on Broadway, I’ve seen it performed by touring groups, and I’ve seen in high schools. In 2013, I directed this show and every time, I was moved to tears by this song. And do you know why? Not because I feel a kinship to nineteenth century French people. I’m moved to tears because the people deserved better. They deserve to be treated as people. What kind of person would I be if I felt so moved by high schoolers playing characters onstage, but didn’t have the same empathy for my fellow citizens who are asking for the same rights? Sometimes I think we like the idea of justice, but when things start to get messy or uncomfortable, we'd rather shut our doors and say it's someone else's problem. It takes strength to stand up to evil. It takes sacrifice, but were we stand on this issue says everything about our character.

So much of what I know, I’ve learned from musicals. And I could write for a year about what I’ve learned from Les Miserables. But, for now, it’s enough to say my privilege is undeserved and it’s my duty to serve others. People of color have every right to be angry, and it’s time to join with them for a better future. That's my prayer. That’s the world I long to see.



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