Read about NYC's best theatre and dance productions and watch video interviews with innovative artists
In our new series Theatre Lovers, we spotlight love stories centered around the performing arts
We're all missing the theatre right now, but it's not just the shows we long for. We're missing the inimitable experience of sharing live in-person entertainment with our loved ones. Seeing shows—whether with a partner, friend or family member—deepens our kinship and brings us closer. As a joyful reminder of how the performing arts connect us, TDF Stages is launching Theatre Lovers, a series of essays written by readers like you about how theatre has transformed their relationships. If you'd like to submit your Theatre Lovers story for consideration, please email TDF Stages.
Like many other musical theatre kids growing up in the '90s, I was a Les Misérables fanatic. I saw the original Broadway production at least 20 times thanks to the half-price tickets at the Times Square TKTS Booth, and I may have second-acted it once or twice. I had cast recordings of mountings in several languages. I even named my cats Cosette and Eponine.
Joe and I had only been dating a few weeks when I headed off to college in Boston to major in musical theatre. Since he hadn't yet seen my favorite musical, I handed him a copy of Victor Hugo's novel Les Misérables before I left New York City. We decided we were going to read it together—all 1,500 pages unabridged. We figured sharing this sweeping French epic would keep us close while we were apart, but discussing the book over the phone proved difficult. In those days, long-distance calls cost zillions and email was not ubiquitous. So we tracked our progress through old-fashioned letters.
I checked the mailbox in my dorm all day every day like a crazy person, and whenever a new letter arrived I rushed to my top bunk to tear it open and learn about the latest chapters he'd read. I remember how profoundly Joe was moved when the Bishop handed Jean Valjean the candlesticks of redemption. And I couldn't believe Joe devoured the endless tangents about Napoleon and the French sewer system, parts I admittedly just skimmed.
Above all, it was the love story that connected us. Yes, Marius and Cosette have a kind of silly teenage romance filled with giddy love-at-first-sight sighs. But Hugo's descriptions of love were rich and lush, and as a silly new couple ourselves, we adored it all.
In the musical, the two come together in a duet ("A Heart Full of Love") fairly quickly, but the novel spends hundreds of pages uniting the pair. There are anguished sightings from afar in Paris' Luxembourg Gardens, and a long letter that Marius leaves for Cosette to profess his love: "The heart becomes heroic through passion. It is no longer composed of anything but what is pure; it no longer rests upon anything but what is elevated and great… If no one loved, the sun would go out."
In 2002, I moved back to NYC and back to Joe. One November night, I headed to Times Square to meet him for a date. As I approached, I noticed he was pacing back and forth, talking nervously on his flip phone, but I didn't ask any questions.
We were strolling across 46th Street, heading to a diner on Eighth Avenue when Joe suddenly said, "Let's go this way," and we took a swift left. Before I could process what was happening, we were walking through the stage door of the Imperial Theatre where Les Misérables was playing.
He took my hand and led me onto the stage I knew so well, although not from this side of the footlights. There were the barricades in the wings and the revolving turntable beneath my feet. The audience was starting to stream in—it was about a quarter to 8. Before I could ask what was happening, a spotlight hit us.
Joe looked at me with big, starry eyes and started speaking. The words were familiar… was he—? Yes! He was reciting Marius' love letter from Les Misérables! I stood there stunned, partially because I was trying to absorb the moment, but also because I was wondering how the heck he memorized it all!
"Without you, my sun would go out," he finished, paraphrasing Hugo. He took a beat, then dropped to one knee. Maybe you saw that coming but strangely, I didn't. When I accepted his proposal, the audience applauded. Within seconds we were back on the street. We'd been shooed out—after all, they had a show to do.
At dinner, Joe explained that his high school buddy worked the spotlight at the Imperial and managed to get us those few minutes of stage time. I also learned that when I met Joe earlier in the evening, he actually wasn't talking to anyone on his phone—he was trying to rehearse his proposal without looking like a crazy person.
The following year, we exchanged wedding bands inscribed with "He" and "She," the words the couple frequently uttered in exaltation in the novel. The minister read a passage from Les Misérables, a speech delivered by Marius' grandfather to the lovers at their wedding. Our officiant did a fine job hamming up Hugo's spectacular response to the philosophers who insist we must moderate our joys: "Can you enchant each other too much? Can you be too much alive? Moderate your joys. Oh, balderdash!"
Les Misérables continued to play a role in our lives—beyond me finally taking Joe to see the Broadway show. He accepted that I would reenact Javert's suicide on every bridge ever (are you even a musical theatre person if you don't do that?). In Paris, we toured the sewer system—I have a photo of Joe carrying our three-year-old son over his shoulder like Jean Valjean hauling the wounded Marius through the sludge. When we visited the Luxembourg Gardens, I coyly sat on a bench and Joe pretended to see me for the first time.
In 2016, we got rush tickets to the most recent Broadway revival of Les Misérables, once again at the Imperial Theatre. Recalling how I'd spent so much of my youth in the last row of that venue, I smiled as our family of four sat in the orchestra in style. While the kids would have preferred Hamilton across the street, they were impressed by the show. They thought mom and dad's love story was pretty good, too.
Have a great tale for our Theatre Lovers series? Email your story to TDF Stages.
Top image: the author and her husband on vacation in Paris, the city where Les Misérables takes place.