Yesterday I reacquainted myself with Les Miserables, which is my favouritest musical ever ever ever. I’m afraid this was actually my fourth time seeing it, and I still found it utterly riveting and more than a little moving (I would like to clarify that during the song ‘A Little Fall of Rain’ I was actually wiping my eyes because I had some dust in them or possibly hayfever).
I was going with a friend of mine who had not previously seen the show, because I think it is important that everyone sees it at least once. It’s a musical on an epic scale and yet never sacrifices character or story for the sake of spectacle.
If it has one major fault, it is that perhaps the first act is a little rushed – an inevitable consequence of trying to compress twenty-seven years of history into something under two hours. Indeed, when first announced, the concept of adapting Victor Hugo’s novel of over a thousand pages into a musical was considered mildly insane. Much has been cut – the original novel is a sprawling historical epic. Several subsidiary plots and secondary characters have either been severely reduced or removed altogether.
What remains is the central story of Jean Valjean, a convict who is released after nineteen years on the chain gang for stealing a loaf of bread. He is released on parole and swiftly discovers that he has become an outcast – un misérable, looked down upon and maltreated wherever he goes. Homeless, unemployed and starving, he is taken in by the saintly Bishop Myriel. The embittered Valjean steals the Bishop’s silver and flees in the night, only to be arrested and returned to Myriel’s house, where the bishop claims to have made a gift of the silver. When the police are gone, Myriel tells Valjean that he has bought his soul for God, and therefore Valjean must renounce crime. Moved by the priest’s generosity and disgusted at what he has become, Valjean rebuilds his life, working his way up to become the respectable (and symbolically-named) Monsieur Madeleine, factory owner and mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer. One of the employees is a woman named Fantine, who is working to support her daughter Cosette. When the foreman discovers that she is an unmarried mother, he sacks her and she is reduced to selling her jewelery, her hair and eventually her body as a prostitute, during which time she becomes desperately ill. Valjean takes pity on her and, upon learning that he is partly responsible for her condition, vows to raise Cosette as his own daughter.
However, the dogged policeman Javert is also in Montreuil. Valjean rescues a man trapped beneath a cart, and Javert mentions that “Monsieur Madeleine’s” great strength reminds him of a convict he has been after for the past decade. He assures the mayor that he is not a suspect, for they have just arrested a man answering to Valjean’s description. Morally conflicted, Valjean goes to the man’s trial and reveals that he himself is the convict. He escapes Javert’s custody and goes to find Cosette, who is kept as a skivvy in an inn owned by the vile M. and Mme. Thenardier.
Meanwhile, conditions for the poor are growing worse, and by 1832 Paris stands on the verge of revolution. The paths of the characters are soon to once again intersect on the streets of the capital city.
This summary of the first act is brief and skips quite a significant amount due to a) the need to avoid spoilers, b) the fact that we’ll be here all night if I discuss everything and c) what am I, Wikipedia? Most notably, I think I’m selling the moral themes of the piece short. In the characters of Valjean and Javert, we’re presented with two Christian archetypes. Valjean is the forgiving, merciful New Testament Christian, Javert adheres to the smiting, vengeful eye-for-an-eye Old Testament. M. Thenardier, meanwhile, is a lapsed Christian without morals who, despite his all-round selfishness and horribleness, never really gets the smackdown he deserves.
Javert also embodies a belief common until the middle of the nineteenth century, that there was such a thing as a “criminal class”, the irredeemably felonious for whom rehabilitation would be a pointless exercise. This same spirit prompted we in Britain to send our convicts to Australia, where their corrupt genes would be removed from “respectable” society. Javert refuses to believe that Valjean is anything other than a monster. It’s quite revealing that he himself was “born inside a jail”, implying that there may be some measure of self-loathing to the character.
Also notable for understanding the historical context of the novel is the fact that France had been, relative to Britain, left behind by the Industrial Revolution. Widespread mechanisation had not caught on, and so in an attempt to keep up, wages for the workers were driven down so far that they were practically symbolic. Some chose to emigrate to Britain (no matter what the BNP and other racists might think, immigration is nothing new in Britain), but for many there was no choice but to metaphorically bend over and take it. This, coupled with the failure of the French Revolution and the fall of Mr Napoleon Senior, goes some way to explaining the state of the country in the nineteenth century.
This rather dry analysis probably does the show a disservice – it’s nothing like as pompous as me, and remains absorbing and entertaining throughout. I’ve had the songs stuck in my head now for more than 24 hours. The friend I went with expressed similar sentiments. So basically ignore everything I’ve just said, go and see it and judge for yourself. Yes.
Interesting (and slightly filthy) fact
Upon Victor Hugo’s death, the prostitutes of Paris paid their respects by going about their trade with black crepe draped over their genitals. Apparently he was regarded as a pretty good customer.