Perhaps you love Tom Hooper’s film adaptation of Les Misérables. Maybe you’re really excited for the Broadway revival of the show — the second since the original production closed in 2003 — which celebrated its opening last week. Or maybe you are just the kind of person who gets a lot of joy from searching for YouTube clips of random people singing the first-act show-stopper, “I Dreamed a Dream.” If you fall into the last camp, congratulations! You are me. But that also means you may have discovered something pretty intriguing amid the videos of Anne Hathaway, Patti LuPone, and pitchy teenage girls: Aretha Franklin sang the song at Bill Clinton’s presidential inauguration in 1993.
Now, don’t get me wrong: “I Dreamed a Dream” is a great song. It’s gorgeous! And Aretha Franklin’s soulful voice really lifts the experience of hearing it to another plane. But, I have to ask: who thought a song in which a woman reminisces about the systemic sexism of 19th-century French culture, wrapped up in romantic disappointment and sexual shame, was a good pick for a presidential inauguration?
I can barely process the introduction delivered by Edward James Olmos (they picked some real A-list celebrities back in 1993 to celebrate the new administration, huh?), or the fact that his intro promises that she will “add her remarkable voice to the chorus of those who believe in the dream.” What dream would that be, exactly? The dream to not have a man take your virginity, get you pregnant, and leave you a penniless young woman forced to become a prostitute to support your child? Sure, I also believe in that dream — I don’t want any of those things to happen to me! — but I believe that the point of the song is that the dream dies. You know, like Fantine does two scenes after she sings it in the actual show.
I imagine that whoever decided Franklin should belt this one out for the new president is probably the kind of person who would pick “I Will Always Love You” or “Every Breath You Take” as their wedding song, not fully grasping that they’re about a breakup and stalking your ex-lover, respectively. I know, I know: listening to lyrics is tough sometimes, but one would think that lyrics like, “But the tigers come at night / With their voices soft as thunder / As they tear your hopes apart / And they turn your dream to shame” — or, even better, “I had a dream my life would be / So different from this hell I’m living / So different now, from what it seemed / Now life has killed the dream I dreamed” — might be a tip-off that this song is not particularly cheery and hopeful.
In their defense, they did change a few of those lyrics (sample edit: “Life will not kill the dreams I dream”), but the song still serves as great proof that sometimes musical theatre does not quite work out of context, because the context is so rooted within the song. Maybe we can get Christina Aguilera to sing “America” from West Side Story (only the positive lyrics, though!), or just stick with something nice, light, and progressive, such as nearly anything from Hair (except, I guess, “Sodomy” or “White Boys”).