“Who am I?” “What Have I Done?” “Who is this man, what sort of Devil is He?”

There is a spectacle more grand than the sea; it is heaven: there is a spectacle more grand than heaven; it is the inmost recesses of the soul.

To make the poem of the human conscience, were it only with reference to a single man, were it only in connection with the basest of men, would be to blend all epics into one superior and definitive epic.

–Hugo, Victor (2010-12-16). Les Misérables (English language), Book 7, Ch. 3 (p. 160). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.

That is why, almost any given day, you’ll hear someone in my home starting to sing, “Who am I”.

Indeed, many of the greatest songs are epics of the conscience, a story more compelling and universal than epics of love. “Long lay the world, in sin and error pining, till He appeared and the Soul felt its worth. The thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn! Fall on your knees!” “Why lies He in such mean estate, where ox and ass are sleeping? Good Christian, fear! For sinners, here, the Silent Word is sleeping! Nails, spear shall pierce Him through, the Cross be born for me, for you! Hail, hail, the Word made Flesh, the Babe, the Son of Mary.”

The greatest plays of Shakespeare all deal with characters’ battles of conscience, and his soliloquies are such epics of conscience as Hugo describes.

Why is the Requiem one of the most favored Commons of the Mass to be adapted by composers? Partly because Kings and Popes have commissioned settings for their funerals, of course, but also because of the mystery of sin and redemption that is so especially dealt with in the “Dies Irae,” not just in the grander terms of Christ’s sacrifice and the Last Things and the Final Judgement, but also, in the case of the individual soul.

To switch musicals, one of the things that struck me about seeing _Sunset Boulevard_ live was the scene before Betty’s final scene. Normally, the benefit of a musical is the ability to tell, through song, the things that a regular play or movie cannot tell about a character. Sometimes, the slightly fanciful setting allows for symbolism that a “straight up” story cannot tell (that is why most Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals are flashbacks or narratives introduced in the prologue: _Joseph_ is a school play; _Jesus Christ Superstar_ is told by Judas, from Hell; _Evita_ is narrated by Che; _Phantom of the Opera_ is Raoul’s reminiscence–and his version of the story; etc.) So, in _Sunset Boulevard_, after Norma has called Betty to confront her about her affair with Joe, and he tells her to “come over and see for yourself,” after Norma screams, “Shout at me, strike me! But say you don’t hate me: please, say you don’t hate me!” An instrumental of the theme song frantically plays as a storm rages, and Joe stands alone on the staircase, trying to decide which way to go, and each time lightning flashes, he sees a phantom of his conscience: his friend Artie whom he has betrayed and will betray even worse if he commits to a relationship with Betty; the loan sharks who await him if he leaves Norma; etc.

Indeed, _Jesus Christ Superstar_ is all about Judas’s conscience. _Evita_ is about Eva Peron’s conscience. The greatest musical dramas are all about conscience. In terms of the _Les Miserables_ versus _Phantom of the Opera_ debate, I think that is perhaps here _Les Miserables_ tops _Phantom_: it focuses more on the characters’ consciences. We see the conflictedness in Jean Valjean, in Javert, in Fantine, and to a lesser extent in Eponine, that Hugo himself expresses in his novel. In _Phantom_, while we do see something of Christine’s conflicted conscience, we do not see, except perhaps in a few lines of the finale, such an exploration of the Phantom’s soul–Gaston Leroux, often derided as a second-rate author, does engage in such explorations in the novel, though he does it from the outside.


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