Whenever I am asked about my favorite musical, I usually answer with one of three options: RENT, Sweeney Todd or Les Miserables.
And since I’ve defended two of those already…I believe it’s time I bear my soul and explain my love of this French melodrama.
Now, if you’ve heard me in the real world, you know how much I love the French Bad Boys of poetry and prose and Victor Hugo was one of them. Hugo may be more famous for The Hunchback of Notre Dame and a bunch of poetry about being sad but my introduction to Vic Hugo was in Les Miserables and I met the corpus first as a screenplay not even as a book. I didn’t read the book until college when I took the most me class humanly possible: The French Revolution and Literature. The book is…well, we’ll discuss the plot and then discuss the book/musical (yes, I know there are differences but I’m not here to discuss those yet).
The plot happens in three parts essentially. First part is about Jean Valjean who did a bad and is in jail for a really really long time where he is tormented by his not-boyfriend Javert who has a particular hard-on for Valjean even though he sees literally hundreds of prisons all the damn time. Valjean is released from prison and he tries to rejoin human society, he does another bad because R E A S O N S and is forgiven by Jesus himself, I mean a very kindly priest.
Second part focuses on Fantine who is a poor innocent waif who has a daughter who is the mascot of the whole damn production, Cosette and Fantine has lots of problems. She works in a factory and everyone is mean to her because R E A S O N S and eventually due to women being awful she is fired from her job and has to become a prostitute where she then dies really quickly after singing the best song in the musical. We shift to her daughter, Cosette, who is raised by the awful Thenardier family who are actually just kind of fun but still awful but fun. Valjean feels responsible for Fantine’s death because…plot and he goes to raise Cosette which means taking her away from the Thenardier family. They sing another great song and time moves forward.
Valjean and Cosette are doing pretty okay, we meet Marius the most useless f*ckboy who has ideas of grandeur about revolution even though he’s rich and the useless lamp Eponine who loves him even though he does not seem interested in her at all. Marius and his friends plan to do a very small French Revolution in the streets even though they are all rich for some reason and things go horribly wrong. The actual mascot character Gavroche is shot and killed and it’s all bad and lots of people die in this part of the musical/book.
More sadness, more complaining, more ennui and Marius and Cosette decide they truly are in love and plan to run away together even though Valjean is like “Nah, fam, we gotta bounce outta France.” and more plot happens to get them to be in love. Valjean accepts that his daughter is no longer a child, the breeding pair go off and the music swells and curtain falls.
With that description, I’m sure you can see why as a book this doesn’t work. The novel is entirely too long and is boring because Hugo isn’t the strongest writer on his own. He needs an editor to tell him “Maybe don’t spend 50 pages on this.” But as a musical, it works very well. There’s a vague goal, a ton of characters and there’s someone for everyone to root for. If you’re awful, you probably enjoy “Master of the House” a little too much (I know I do). If you think you’re going to save the world by doing absolutely nothing you probably sing a little too loudly to “Red and Black” and if you’re like me and are incredibly melodramatic and have F E E L I N G S you probably have belted out “I Dreamed a Dream” or “On My Own” a little too loudly while shower crying.
The musical was penned in the 70s and it showed. There’s a lot of focus on the revolution part and that part, I will say, ages the least well. Mostly because the revolution is not lead by any of the people who actually stand to be hurt by increased industrialization and gentrification, it’s mostly rich white boys who are bored and have some vague ideas about what it is to be right and free.
The romance also ages terribly. Cosette and Marius get no time together so it just doesn’t feel like they belong together all despite the flowery language or many songs dedicated to their love. But most musicals have a hard time talking about romance in a way that makes any sense.
So I’ve said a lot of negative things…isn’t this supposed to be a defense of a work?
Upon the maybe 200th listen to the very very good London Symphony Orchestra’s version of Les Mis I am reminded of all the reasons I love this musical. Namely, Javert. Now, he has no arc as a character. He starts with a hard-on for Valjean and dies that way but to see someone so shaken to his core by another is powerful. There’s a reason “Stars” and “Javert’s Soliloquy/Suicide” get the most play on my mp3 player. The idea that one person can shake another so much that they see no other point in their morals than death is powerful. It’s dangerous, but power.
I may have poked fun at Fantine but her songs are amazing and heartbreaking. “I Dreamed a Dream” makes me think of every romance I’ve ever had and even though I have never found myself removed of my hair and in a gutter after being sold into prostitution, I feel her pain. And as someone with a strained history with men “Lovely Ladies” is a great if not blunt way to explain how sometimes men see women as just another purchasable good or service.
I may hate the Thenardiers are people but their song is raunchy, hilarious and so vulgar, I won’t how and why we read this in high school. And even though I dislike how Eponine is written, I feel every drop of emotion in “On My Own”.
The music helps the themes of justice, love and honestly, the biggest theme of consequences to actions. One thing that is glossed over in the book is how Marius and his friends suffer after their failed rebellion. In the musical we get “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables” which is tragic and the staging helps sell that pain. His friends are gone, their ideas were fatal and their dreams are dashed. Now Marius sits alone and miserable and wounded surrounded by shattered glass, empty chairs and empty tables as he mourns his friends and his cause.
I’ll pause here to talk about the movie musical starring mostly Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe and it’s um…a mess? Again, many of the things that make the musical work on the stage do not work in film and the only nice thing I have to say is the thing everyone says which is Anne Hathaway as Fantine is inspired and amazing so I will not praise her more for it, she’s been praised enough. It isn’t the worst movie musical but it’s mostly just flat. Many of the actors they chose for the production cannot sing and thus songs that are meant to carry a ton of emotion mostly sound like they’re being extruded through a pasta machine while under torture. It just doesn’t work as a narrative film. As a stage musical where time and space are all condensed and strange, it’s easy to ignore when logic seems to exit stage left pursued by a bear.
But when the music swells through my headphones in the early morning hours of my commute, I cannot help but feel something. I cannot help but sing along when “Red and Black” plays. I cannot help but laugh at the places where language is quite fun like the little rhyme scheme before “Red and Black” starts:
I am agog!
I am aghast!
Is Marius in love at last?
I’ve never heard him ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’
You talk of battles to be won
And here he comes like Don Juan
It’s better than an opera!
It’s a fun musical filled with mostly misguided people. Valjean as Christ allegory is heavy handed but emotional. Javert as a bitter ex-boyfriend who is on a revenge mission to prove the fact that one a criminal always a criminal works. Cosette as innocent waif works and Gavroche as the best damn character with the most bravery works. It all works on stage and depending on the cast, it can be damn near inspiring.
Does it have its flaws? Of course it does but no matter what, when I find myself faced with a song from this storied musical, I join the ranks, I join the chorus and I sing along.
That’s why I still love Les Mis.