How to laugh at ‘Les Miz’
OK, I admit it: I went to see the “Les Miserables” stage show in January, and I laughed when Gavroche, the street urchin, was shot by the French soldiers at the barricade.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t find the gunning down of a kid comical. I laughed because the poor kid continued to sing, however haltingly, after being shot the first time. Although I had never seen the musical, I knew the second shot had to come, thus ending a promising singing career. So I laughed.
Don’t blame me; blame my age. My wanting to laugh makes me not so much a bad person as merely my father’s son.
You see, I grew up in the late ’50s and early ’60s, when comedy records were still being played on the radio. David Seville’s “The Witch Doctor” and Homer & Jethro’s “At the Flop” are the two that started it for me in 1958. By the time Ray Stevens rolled out “Ahab the Arab” in 1962, I was hooked. But the song that made me guffaw at Gavroche was, undoubtedly, one also released in 1962: Sonny Gianotta’s “The Last Blast of the Blasted Bugler.”
Because I can’t assume that all my readers are older than 55 and listened to the same music, I’ll supply some background. “Last Blast” was Gianotta’s “tribute” to “Gunga Din,” a 1939 movie starring Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Victor McLaglen. Sam Jaffe (later Dr. Zorba on the “Dr. Kildare” TV show) played Din, the Indian waterboy abused to no end by colonial British soldiers. Based on Rudyard Kipling’s 1892 poem of the same name, the screen version of “Gunga Din” took some poetic license.
Notably, in the poem Din saves just one Brit before being shot and killed himself. In the film, Din climbs to the top of a parapet and bugles an alarm to alert an entire British battalion to an ambush by Indian Thugees. In doing so, Din keeps playing even after being shot several times, a hero to – literally – his last gasp, finally plummeting from the parapet. But not before saving the troops, his abusers. In the end, the Brits regret having dissed Din, reciting the sobering last stanza of Kipling’s poem around the would-be bugler’s funeral pyre. Tragic and compelling? By all means.
Unless you have heard “Last Blast.”
“The legend of Gunga Din,” intones Gianotta, as narrator, at the start of the record. “Let us recreate that moment.”
And so the record does, going on for nearly 3 minutes as poor Din, shot multiple times, becomes progressively weaker and, thus, unable to blow his bugle very well. Words fail to describe the experience adequately, so I encourage you to go to YouTube and search for one of the many appearances of the recording. If you don’t laugh, I will be very surprised.
Indeed, the record proved so hilarious that it succeeded in making my father – a man entirely lacking in humor – remain along with me in the front seat of his black ’62 Rambler station wagon, listening to the song on the radio even after he had parked outside our house.
“This is hilarious,” Dad said, fighting for breath. “I … can’t ... stand … it. This … is the … funniest thing ... I … ever … heard.”
Finally, he exited the car and staggered into the house, still laughing. I was amazed. My dad never laughed. Here reduced to tears was the man who, when my siblings were very young, loaded them into the car, drove them to the gates of the local orphanage and told them to get out because he didn’t want kids who wouldn’t behave. The man who never even so much as smiled at any of the variety shows on TV. Unprecedented. John Glenn might have orbited Earth in 1962, but I will always remember it as “The Year Dad Laughed.”
And so, 51 years later, I continued the old family tradition of laughing at some poor sap being gunned down by the bad guys.
Laughing at “Les Miz”?
It’s a guy thing.