I've always wanted to be a "critic at large" - a cultural gadfly who drops in on exhibits and concerts, then puts his impressions in the paper.

Today I'll play the role.Last week I was one of those Utahns lucky enough to spend the week's grocery money on tickets to "Les Miserables," the blockbuster musical touring America. And for $90, I got a pretty good education.

I learned that the world is divided into two types of people: those who've learned to never pronounce the final "s" in "Miserables," and those who haven't. I also learned I have a lot in common with Garcia Marquez, the Nobel novelist, who said, "I'm no intellectual, I'm a sentimentalist!"

I realized I'm a sentimentalist, too.

To begin with, Victor Hugo's romantic novel "Les Miserables" has fallen from grace in literary circles. It's seen as too lush, too maudlin. Yet those very qualities make it a major musical.

The plot, for instance, is sweet and direct. Hugo braids three simple stories together, "pigtail" fashion. The first features the hero, Jean Valjean, and his evolution from convict to man of conviction. Story "two" is the love interest between Val-jean's daughter Cosette and a young university student. The third story is the saga of the French peasants (the "miserable ones" of the title) and the popular revolution they spark.

As Hugo blends these stories, he tugs all the strings. I figure the three things in life that generate the most passion are religion, romance and patriotism. And Hugo pounds those buttons.

And in the stage production, the music matches the gushing, passionate tone of the novel.

They say Puccini - in his operas - hoisted singers aloft on billowing clouds of melody, then kept them there. Ditto for Claude-Michel Schonberg, composer of "Les Miserables." In fact, my guess is he's obsessed with Puccini. If you'll allow me to play music critic for a moment, I felt "Bring Him Home" - the show stopper - was an out-and-out burglary of Puccini. The plucked, broken chords in the strings (the pizzicato arpeggios) and the high, floating melody that sobs above and below the fifth are lifted directly from "The Humming Chorus" in "Madame Butterfly." And the fact Schonberg's latest show, "Miss Saigon," is based on that opera fuels my suspicions.

But such stuff is fodder for scholars, not newspaper sentimentalists. And I confess what impressed me most was how Schonberg can break your heart in five notes when it takes Andrew Lloyd Webber and Richard Rodgers a good dozen.

As the matinee I attended wound down, I began wondering about the differences between this show and popular Mormon musicals such as "Saturday's Warrior."

What separated them?

I decided it all had to do with optical illusions.

Years ago, when I first began writing songs, I had the impression I was just a step or two behind guys like Burt Bacharach and Hal David, creators of "I Say a Little Prayer" and "I'll Never Fall in Love Again."

I figured with a little work, I could catch them.

But here in the wide-open West, landmarks often appear closer than they are. And I came to realize I wasn't a step or two behind Bacharach, I was 10 miles off the pace, and he was pulling away.

That same distance exists between Mormon musicals and "Les Miz."

Mormon musicals are usually Victorian in nature. They're morality tales full of stock characters from central casting: the "blustery old man," the "wide-eyed youth," the "winsome maiden." In my opinion (and I realize this is a stiff uppercut) Mormon musicals have more in common with animated Disney features than serious musical theater.

They are kids' shows, pitched to adults. And until their creators can see the distance that exists between "Snow White" and Sond-heim's "Sweeney Todd," Mormon musicals will never get above quarter deck.

And who's to blame? Well, me for one. As a Deseret News critic, I've either failed to put my point across, or failed to make a case for it. In short, I've come up short. Much like them.