“Can you hear the people sing?”

One cold March night in the early nineties, I surprised my Mumsie on her birthday with tickets to see Les Miserables. I was a student at the time and didn’t have two cents to rub together, but I saved enough to buy two student tickets for seats in the gods of the Royal Alexandra Theatre here in Toronto. Our seats were on the very back row of the theatre and all the way up those many stairs, we joked about nosebleeds and vertigo. But it was worth the climb. Laid out below us were the mesmerizing sights and sounds of the theatre; the red velvet curtains, the ornate decor, the orchestra squeaking away as they warmed up beneath the stage. We were like kids in a candy store not knowing what to look at first, and that experience alone might have been enough to build a lasting memory.

But then the orchestra began the first trembling strains of the overture that, even now, I hear in my head-note for note. Those magnificent red velvet curtains went up, and Michael Burgess stepped out into a spotlight and began to sing. In that moment, nothing else existed, not the thought of the dreary, blowing cold of early March, not the stresses of student or personal life. In that moment, it was just us and the magic.

Over the next few years we went to see Michael in his role of Jean Valjean again and again and again, eventually finding ourselves at his last performance. It just as moving as the first time we’d seen him. We cheered ourselves hoarse as the curtain calls came and went and roses were thrown, and then we cried like fools not because of the performance itself (although we’d cried through each and every one) but because this time, we wanted it to never end.

It is one of my most treasured memories.

Wherever you are, Michael (and I hope you are in Grannieland with my Mumsie) rest assured, I can still hear the people sing…


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