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Les Misérables: The Musical
by Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer
reviewed by Marco den Ouden

Dateline: 10/12/98

Money and investing are just a part of what makes for a rich life. But there are values that transcend money, essential elements without which all of the money in the world would still leave one a pauper. Such values as love, family, truth, justice, honour, and liberty. So in this article I depart from my usual subjects to recommend a celebration of life, a tour de force that has enthralled audiences around the world because it celebrates these values. I’m speaking of the hit musical, Les Misérables.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. When Les Misérables first hit the London stage in 1985 it was met with poor reviews from the critics and standing ovations from the audiences. Even in Vancouver a few years ago, the production was panned by theatre critics in the Vancouver Sun and the Georgia Straight as boring, clumsy and banal. One compared it to watching “gerbils on a treadmill”. The critics, unfortunately, are often out of touch with the people.

These reviewers are sadly ignorant of the reasons for the production’s great appeal, the reason why everyday folks reviewing it at Epinions.com give it an average five star rating with comments like that of the man whose wife “dragged” him to see it, who went expecting to “hate it” and who came away calling the music “fantastic”, the staging “brilliant” and “grateful that my wife knows what’s best for me”.  Another was persuaded by a friend to see it and “couldn’t believe that he “was going to pay almost $80 to see grown men and women jumping across the stage in song, when I could see the latest blockbuster at the movie theater for $8!” He came away “dumbfounded” saying “I enjoyed this show more than any movie or play I have ever seen”.

Many of the reviewers at Epinions are young people who saw the production on school outings. This younger generation which is easily bored was very much thrilled by what they had seen.

And the reason is the story and the characters, the magic of the Hugoesque world where values matter, where people are purposeful, where even struggle and tragedy end in hope and a celebration of the human spirit.

Norman Denny, in his introduction to his excellent translation of Victor Hugo’s novel, notes that the French term is not easily translatable into English. “Hugo’s ‘misérables’ are not merely the poor and the wretched, they are the outcasts, the underdogs, the rejected of society and the rebels against society.” The students at the barricades, for example, are idealistic middle class students, visionaries with a fateful vision. They are passionate men for whom ideals are worth fighting for. Some latter day commentators have compared them to the students at Tiananmen Square who one can imagine singing one of the most stirring songs in the musical:

Do you hear the people sing?
Singing the song of angry men?
It is the music of a people
Who will not be slaves again!

Hugo was a romanticist. He was concerned with portraying human values and creating larger than life characters embodying these values. The dramatic high points in Hugo’s novels always involve conflict between values and portentous choices.

In Les Misérables, the primary conflict is between Jean Valjean, an ex-convict who is trying hard to lead a good life based on compassion for his fellow man, and Inspector Javert, a rigid police inspector for whom law and authority are the essence of good. Because Valjean changes his name to avoid the stigma of his past, he has violated his parole. He has broken the law. To Javert, the fact that Valjean has become an honest and very successful businessman, indeed, even become the Mayor of his town, is just not good enough.

The values these men hold lead each to crisis points where crucial choices must be made. Javert tells the Mayor (who he does not recognize as the ex-convict) that they have arrested Jean Valjean. Three former fellow convicts and indeed, Javert himself, are convinced he is the man they knew from years ago even though the man denies it. The Mayor faces a choice. Does he let an innocent man rot in jail in his place or does he reveal who he is to save the man, destroying all he has achieved in his new identity?

Valjean later is put in a situation where he has the power to kill Javert but lets him go. This creates a crisis for Javert when he later has the power to arrest Valjean. Does he show mercy to the man who spared him and so betray his lifelong dedication to upholding the law? How can he live with himself if he shows mercy, yet how can he live with himself if he doesn’t?

That is the substance of high drama. That is the source of Hugo’s appeal.  And these dramatic moments are not lost in the translation of the novel to the musical stage. Great moral conflicts abound. Should Eponine help Marius, the man she loves, to find Cossette, the woman he loves, thus dooming her own chance for happiness or should she betray him? Should Marius fight with his friends on the barricades for the ideals they believe in or should he abandon them and try to find Cossette?

Such profound conflicts make for stirring songs. One of my favorites is Red and Black where Marius and Enjolras, the rebel leader, dramatize the conflict between fighting for one’s ideals of justice and freedom and following the longings of one’s heart. “Red – the blood of angry men” versus “Red – the colour of desire”.

Not only is the story grand and the music inspiring, the staging is brilliant. The musical uses a revolving stage that makes for a fast paced spectacular production. They allow effects that are usually only seen in movies.  In the powerful closing scene to the first act, the entire cast is marching in the background while Valjean and Cossette are at a small bench in the foreground.  As the cast marches, the set rotates so that Valjean and Cossette move across the stage. The marching cast does a lockstep that keeps them marching in place. The effect is astounding. It is the same as if a camera were panning across the foreground figures while remaining aimed at the background figures. But while this is visually stunning, what moves the audience is the song, "One Day More" as each character sings of the conflicts facing them. A veritable tour de force!

As for that reviewer whose name I won’t deign to mention who likens it to gerbils in a treadmill - Some gerbils! Some treadmill!

A review of the Broadway production by neo-romanticist novelist Kay Nolte Smith (Reason Magazine, February 1988) puts it much better than I can. Smith, a keen Hugophile, is not unaware of the musical’s limitations, after all, the book is over a thousand pages and the musical just three hours, yet she concludes:

“People love this musical; they weep, cheer, seem to experience a catharsis. The emotions in Les Misérables are of a kind contemporary theater and fiction refuse to touch (sometimes even to acknowledge) except with such ten foot poles as irony, mockery, angst, even amusement. Unapologetically and openly, Les Misérables celebrates idealism, freedom, love of one’s children, dedication to the good. On the brooding scenery, in the often murky light, everyone on stage is ablaze, whether with the agony of choice, the ecstasy of hope, or the pain of loss. For the audience, the experience is as exhilarating as unusual; how splendid, one feels, that things matter so much!”

The fact that this production, which brings tears to the eyes of the audience and people to their feet in standing ovations, only brings yawns to some of the intellectual snobs of the reviewing classes, says more about the souls of those critics than it does about the worth of Les Misérables.

The show visits Canada starting November 10th with stops in Vancouver and Saskatoon.  Be sure to arrive early enough to read the synopsis in the playbill as it makes the story easier to follow. And bring Kleenex. The show is unabashedly emotional and a three hanky special. 

The show is a triumphant spectacle rarely seen in the theatre. It is a celebration of the human spirit.   Although my wife and I have seen the show three times already, we can hardly wait to see it again. It really is that good.


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