How miserable is Les Miserables?
Updated: Aug 9, 2020
I first saw the musical Les Miserables nearly 20 years ago when it first came to town. I was blown away by its staging and story. Curiously, my wife, who was with me, hated it. How was that possible? As with any other piece of art, it is subjective, and some people like it and some just don't. I saw it again last week and here is what I've come to realize.
This is now one of my favorite stage shows of all time. Trying to understand it from her viewpoint is hard, but here goes. (I will not address the 2012 film version, which has been panned by many critics for reasons unrelated to the stage version.)
Why would you want to watch a play about misery? Or read the 655,000 word 1862 novel by Victor Hugo, deemed one of the longest novels ever written? Almost all of the key characters die in the course of the show, many with sappy, melodramatic songs that end as they do. How can you get behind a show in which most of the characters suffer and die? What's the point?
The most important point of the entire story happens near the very beginning, while theater-goers are still settling in to their seats. The hero, Jean Valjean, imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread, is captured again and charged with stealing from a kindly bishop who was housing him. Rather than incriminating Valjean, the bishop covers from him and gives him valuable silver candlesticks along with the challenge to make himself a better man.
This random act of kindness sets the entire story on a path which returns again and again to more noble acts of sacrifice. In many cases, the noble acts are met with terrible results, such as when the main character Fantine sacrifices her hair, her body and her life for her daughter, only to be beaten up and die. But that sacrifice does go on to inspire good things later on.
The idealistic students, led by Enroljas, begin a blockade to bring attention to the squalor of the city. When the city fails to rally to their side, they are all killed, but their actions we hope go on to inspire future citizens to stand up for justice.
I suppose in this day and age when selfishness is taken as a given, seeing noble and selfless acts, if only fictional, gives me hope. The only truly selfish people in the show are played as despicable clowns.
A man raises an orphan as his own after giving her dying mother a pledge, a girl helps her crush get together with another woman, and a little boy dies for a cause he barely understands. Sad and tragic- sure. Inspiring? Absolutely. I walked out of that show feeling good about mankind again. Even if everybody died, you can still watch their "ghosts" singing together again in the rousing finale.
If you're tired of reading nasty posts on the internet every day, take a break and go see this show when it comes again. (Or, if you must, the 2012 movie isn't THAT bad)