As I mentioned earlier in the week, at least one of the Greenbelt sessions I reviewed for the Church Times was worthy of more than the 150 words I submitted to the editor. Nothing over the whole weekend provoked more interest on Twitter than the Les Mis Mass – admittedly, this may be because I live-tweeted it, I’ve yet to meet a single person who hasn’t been intrigued/horrified by the concept. Thus, it deserves a little more of an explanation than I was able to give at the time.
Anyone who has listened to sermons on a fairly regular basis over the last 8 months has almost certainly heard a sermon in which Jean Valjean and the plot of Victor Hugo’s novel has featured – I heard one (that was fairly decent) in Westminster Abbey the Sunday after Easter. This trend irritated me slightly, what with the novel having been published in 1862 and the musical nearly 3 decades old, these were not new themes, simply a Hollywood bandwagon to be jumped upon. However, the mass was different…
To be honest, I signed up to review it not really knowing what to expect. I went with an attitude of “well, I like Les Mis and I like communion, so what could go wrong?”, and only minutes before it began discovered a little more detail about the format. This was no Les Mis singalong, the mass was a thoughtful re-interpretation of the traditional sung eucharist, using tunes and themes familiar from the musical.
Les Mis is well-suited to such a setting. The themes of forgiveness, redemption and salvation sit well with the similar themes of the eucharist. If you’re a fan of a sung eucharistic setting, then you can’t do much better than the music of Boubil & Schönberg. (Well, with the exception of Bach, Mozart, Handel…) To be honest, I’m rather surprised that no one had thought of it sooner – but it took Transcendence (an alt.worship community based at York Minster) to develop the concept into what we experienced at Greenbelt.
And it was a popular one. When I arrived, ten minutes before it was due to start, the queue was 100′s of metres long – and the room was already stuffed with people. My fabulous Press Pass got me in past through the crowds (I don’t feel guilty about that, it’s exactly what it was intended for) and I secured a spot on the floor that was nearer the back than I might have liked. It was unfortunate that someone took the decision to ask the congregation to stand so that another 150 people could enter, as it meant that only the first couple of rows could see the screens with the rather crucial liturgy on them. [Greenbelt, don't over-rule your venue managers in such situations. The room was already packed and like a sauna - the event should have been in a larger venue. Rant over.]
Despite the crowds, the temperature, the fact that it was 9.30pm and I was existing on little sleep and low blood sugar levels, I was surprised at how quickly I found myself in a worshipful state of mind. That says a lot for the way in which the service was conducted. It was dramatic, but no more so than worship in a high church context. The singing didn’t feel that much different than singing a regular sung eucharist (in fact, at one point the regular sung responses were used), although sometimes the lyrics were a tight fit to the tunes and occasionally it wasn’t entirely clear what the congregation was meant to be doing (the obscured screens didn’t help). The team could possibly have done with a more confident vocalist leading the congregation, but singing skills aren’t always the most important aspect of leading a eucharistic service.
Les Mis Mass: celebrated. (Credit.)
For me, the fact that we sang familiar words to familiar tunes (tunes which have always had the ability to tug at my heartstrings) made it all the more meaningful, but I wasn’t entirely convinced by the meditation on a pipe cleaner man section. To be honest, given the amount of connection between the readings (Job 33:23-25 & Luke 18:9-17) and Hugo’s text, I’d have preferred something that linked them all together. But the idea of manipulating pipe cleaners is at least one to file for future reference. Oh, and the team missed a trick by not using baguettes as the bread element – baguette and vin rouge would have been genius!
However, there was one thing that destroyed the holiness of the experience for me and left me ranting. (In fact, I ranted so hard in the beer tent afterwards that I was barely coherent in my views on the service itself.) I had the misfortune of sitting adjacent to a group of student-types who appeared to have musical theatre inclinations – given away by the fact that one was wearing a Les Mis amateur production t-shirt, and that the group was singing along in harmony before the service had even started. Now, I am an ardent musical theatre fan and have been devoted to Les Mis since the age of 13, but I also know the difference between a singalong and an act of worship. Singing the liturgy lustily is fine; singing as if you’re on a West End stage is not. I finally lost my rag during the distribution of the elements. For some reason an instrumental version of Coldplay’s Fix You was playing and this group sang along, in not particularly great harmony. When they launched into a second verse, I’d had enough and quietly asked them if they realised that this was an act of worship, that people might be praying and could be disturbed by their noise – they agreed to stop. Seconds later, the band began singing along and one of the boys turned to me with a gleeful “see, they’re doing it now!” to which I felt the only valid response was: “yes, but they’re leading the service and you’re not, so shut up!”. Perfectly reasonable, surely? (I did exchange looks with fellow worshippers before intervening…)
Annoying MT fans excepted, it was an interesting experience and one I’d contemplate trying to replicate at some point. I really don’t think it lessens the meaning of the act of worship, and if it connects with new people then surely that’s a good thing? For ages, I’ve been plotting some form of musicals-inspired worship and now I think it might be doable. It has to be the right musical though, I suspect Grease would not work.