Like many people nowadays, my primary familiarity with the story of Les Miserables comes from the Schönberg/Boublil musical. I did read Victor Hugo’s original novel back in high school, but it’s been quite a few years, and re-reading a 1400+ page book is a little daunting. In any case, the original is an extraordinary and memorable epic tale, and the adaptation is an extraordinary and moving translation to the stage.
The central character is Jean Valjean, a man imprisoned for nearly two decades for a minor crime, which he only committed in a desperate attempt to feed his starving family. He is a bitter and angry man, perhaps with good reason. But a chance encounter with a kindly bishop sets him on a different path. He takes on a new name and identity and begins to live a life of compassionate service. Along the way, he helps a dying woman named Fantine and promises to look after her child Cosette. His foil is the police inspector Javert, driven by his rigid sense of justice to find Valjean and see him punished for breaking his parole.
This is an extremely bare bones summary, leaving out the countless other characters and plot-lines, the lengthy digressions Hugo was prone to undertake (Valjean doesn’t even show up for the first few chapters, it’s just the bishop and his good Christian antics! There’s an entire section about Napoleon and the Battle of Waterloo that just barely connects to the rest of the story! There’s the Thenardiers! The student uprising in Paris! etc. etc. etc.) But the story is at its essence an exploration of morality, of a man struggling to follow the Christian ideal in a world full of misery and injustice and chaos. Victor Hugo and this novel especially were quite beloved by the people of France, so the idea of adapting it into a kind of pop/rock opera was not exactly safe.
It was a long work in progress. The original version of the musical was considerably different from the one we know today. It began with Valjean already living incognito as the factory owner and mayor, assuming the audience was familiar enough with the novel that they wouldn’t need the entire story explained to them. But as the concept made its way to a producer in England (Cameron Mackinctosh), he was intrigued enough to pursue a translation into English with a reworking and expansion of the original (Herbert Kretzmer was ultimately brought in to translate the lyrics). There was lot of exposition and emotion that needed to be conveyed, entirely through song. Even with a successful producer like Mackintosh, it was still a risky venture.
But obviously it paid off. Les Miserables is one of the most successful musicals in history, and its near-universal appeal is evident through the fact that it’s been translated into 22 different languages. The music is memorable and meticulously crafted, with an adroit use of recurring themes for particular characters and/or circumstances. The lyrics, which often need to convey a great deal of information, are an impressive feat of poetry and storytelling.
And the adaptive changes, though they might infuriate purists, are generally sensible. They tighten up the narrative flow and highlight the significant points so the story can move along quickly. It’s nearly three hours, true, but consider that it covers decades of Valjean’s life in that time, and seldom does it feel rushed or choppy. The student revolution is painted in a more optimistic tone than in the novel, but that’s largely because we’re seeing it from the students’ naive, over-idealistic perspective. It’s not long before we get a brutal look at just how hopeless their cause was.
Each major character is given the chance to be seen in a sympathetic light. Javert’s unforgiving rigidity is balanced by the beauty of “Stars,” which lets us understand his worldview even if we don’t agree with it. Eponine, a pathetic neglected girl whose life has no significance in the grand scheme of history, becomes infinitely relatable and real through her song of unrequited love, “On My Own.” I couldn’t name my favorite songs because I’d never be able to choose. I could say that I don’t really enjoy “Master of the House” because it’s filthy and repulsive, but then, that’s quite appropriate for the morally repugnant Thenardier and his wife.
Then there is “One Day More,” a brilliant first-act finale that combines a multitude of melodies, each character singing their part individually and then together in a transcendent blend. It’s basically the essence of what musical theater is all about, and I can’t get enough of it. I’ve probably watched twenty versions of it on Youtube. It’s the kind of exhilaration that I assume sports fans feel when their team does the thing with the ball and they all start screaming.
The story is called “the miserable people” and it’s not an exaggeration. We have a bitter thief, a joyless policeman, a woman abandoned by the father of her child and forced to prostitution, that same child neglected and abused by her foster parents, scenes of massacre and degradation and despair. So why in the world do I enjoy it so much? Why do I consider it, not only not depressing, but actually uplifting? (Why did I, um, write this insanely ambitious retelling of the Star Wars saga to the tune of Les Miserables? Because I’m a little crazy, but that’s not the point.) Because we already know that the world is full of misery. That’s nothing new. It’s not that the story portrays misery, but that it portrays a way out of it.
Valjean begins as a man full of hate and resentment. The play ends with him finding perfect peace. And it’s not because his circumstances get better. He has spent that time doggedly pursued by Javert, fearing for his own safety and more for the safety of his adoptive daughter. But through it all he is determined to show kindness to others, to follow his conscience and to never fall back into the despair he once knew. And in this new life, whatever its difficulties, he has found joy. The song originally used to rouse the students to fight, “Do You Hear the People Sing?” is reprised to represent a different kind of fight, not at the barricades, but in our own hearts. “Will you join in our crusade? Who will be strong and stand with me?” Maybe I’m easily manipulated by music, but that’s a cause I’d be glad to stand with. By the end of it, I always end up singing along at the top of my lungs. Well, except at live performances. I’m not quite that crazy.