Grantaire, put that bottle down.
(Les Miserables in Manila, 04/24/2016)
What everyone knows about Grantaire: he is almost always holding a wine bottle so it’s easier to pick him out from the rest of the Amis (and to show how drunk he is all the time). In the musical version, he and Gavroche interact a lot and have a very close and supportive relationship. There’s a weird internal logic to it even though it’s not book-compliant, and it’s the storyline that I reacted most strongly to because it was so surprising. (I’ve seen the anniversary concerts on DVD and listened to a bunch of different cast recordings, so there aren’t really a lot of surprises left for me.)
Grantaire’s main Thing is that he’s ~cynical, and thus lazy and patently unhelpful. Any time he speaks, he contributes a grand total of nothing to the conversation. He is also always super drunk, as the musical keeps emphasizing via visual and lyrical cues. He is basically THE WORST.
The big question is why Grantaire is there in the rebellion in the first place if he so strongly doesn’t believe in what they’re doing. In the book it’s because he has a deep, all-consuming adoration for Enjolras, but in the musical there isn’t any room to establish that. Instead, there’s a Grantaire/Gavroche friendship subplot that casts Grantaire in a softer, kinder light even though the rest of the time he’s an annoying drunk who maybe is sometimes funny. His obvious protectiveness of Gavroche gives him — and Gavroche—a little more depth when time constraints have forced them to be painted in broad flat strokes.
Grantaire’s verse in Drink With Me gives voice to the very real, very present fears that everyone else is dancing around. In a way it’s a bit of a reversal of the usual dynamic in their social group: here Grantaire is at his rawest and most vulnerable while the surrounding conversations flow with jokes and stories. In the concerts and recordings, he always sounds like he’s half talking to himself, finally sobered by the reality of death, and worse, death over nothing — and then one of the Amis clasps his shoulder in a gesture of comfort and assurance (notably Enjolras himself in the 25th anniversary concert). This was not the case in the show I got to see. 2016!Grantaire is — with all the bluster and abrasiveness of Cynical/Drunk Grantaire (“Here we go,” one of the students interjects in the scornful voice of someone who’s put up with his antics for far too long) — addressing his friends and directly reacting to the brave faces they’re trying to put on as they dredge up fond memories. He’s calling them out on their coping mechanisms. Understandably none of them take his outburst very well, given that Grantaire sounds like he’s mocking them as usual when the events of the day have left them taut with nerves and tension. As his friends are getting riled up, Grantaire ducks away from the spotlight and retreats to the right corner of the stage, bottle in hand. He’s sitting on the floor. He looks he’s drowning in his feelings. Gavroche immediately scrambles across the stage to give him a hug.
(I feel personally betrayed that this didn’t draw the rest of the Amis into a puppy pile of hugs. It seemed like the perfect opportunity for that.)
The twist — if you can call it that — in that scene is that Grantaire is perhaps the one who cares the most. The stakes are purely personal to him. There’s no higher purpose or bigger picture that drives him. The only thing he knows is that his best friends in the world are terrified that they’re going to die tomorrow and they’re going to get up and fight anyway, and it’s all too much for him. His fears in Drink With Me (that his friends are going to die) are reinforced by his uncompromising cynicism (that his friends are going to die for nothing), and in that moment he becomes completely transparent: The reason why he’s there with them in the cafe and at the barricade is because he cares so, so deeply about them even though he thinks their movement is futile.
When Gavroche dies, Grantaire’s the one who takes him into his arms and kneels over his dead body. It makes up for the underwhelming staging, where we don’t really get to see Gavroche pick his way around the other side of the barricade with bullets raining around him. When he finally climbs back up to the rebels’ side and promptly gets taken down, we only get to experience his death through Grantaire’s physical, palpable grief.
During the Final Battle, Grantaire, true to his useless cynical nature, does absolutely nothing to help the people fight. (In the book, I think he sleeps through the whole thing. So: the worst.) Once again his terribleness as a person is softened by Gavroche, whose death has left him stunned and staggering. And in the absolute stillness when everyone else in the barricade has stopped yelling and fighting, Grantaire crawls back over to where Gavroche is. He looks around. It hits him that all the people that have been keeping him here are gone, so he decides he might as well throw himself into the line of fire.
Because Grantaire’s Thing, as it turns out, isn’t that he’s drunk and cynical. Being drunk and cynical is a huge part of who he is (and he deserves every bit of scorn that he gets), but the driving force behind him, the reason he keeps showing up at the ABC Cafe in spite of his apparent lack of interest in the revolution, is because he values his friends above everything else. He genuinely likes hanging out with these people. His Thing is that he is driven by an all-consuming love for his friends, and losing them meant losing everything. He would rather die a meaningless death than wake up in a world without them.
What makes this so incredible is that all of this was happening in the sidelines. The student characters didn’t really have a lot of lines, so they had to rely on staging and action while bigger stories were unfolding at the foreground. And somehow they succeeded. Somehow they managed to take Grantaire’s defining trait (alcoholic/cynic) and dig out its softest parts. I never expected them to handle this one minor character with so much subtlety and thoughtfulness and understanding, and I feel so #blessed with the extra serving of suffering they slipped me with.
I also now kind of feel like Empty Chairs At Empty Tables should be Grantaire’s song. The ABC Cafe meant more to him than it ever did to Marius.