Can a convict change? Can one incident transform a person completely? Les Misérables answers these – and answers them beautifully. A review.
Based on a Victor Hugo novel, this musical is set against the backdrop of the French Revolution. It is the second longest running West End musical since 1985.
Les Misérables is the story of Jean Valjean, a French peasant who serves 19 years in jail for stealing a loaf of bread for his sister’s starving child. Valjean is shunned by society and unable to find a job. He breaks parole and tries to steal silver from a bishop, who, in turn, treats him with mercy and tells him to become a better person. This act changes Valjean, who uses the silver to do well for himself and becomes a factory owner. He goes on to adopt Cosette, the daughter of Fantine, a single mother, pushed into prostitution. He joins the revolutionaries in a bid to save the life of Marius, who is in love with Cosette. Through all this, Valjean is relentlessly tracked by Javert, a policeman, who believes that a criminal like Valjean can never change or do good.
The musical stands out for doing justice to other smaller characters and their stories – namely Fantine’s travails as a single mother, Enjolras the rebel who leads the revolutionaries, Éponine the young girl who is in love with Marius, and, Javert the policeman who finds himself unable to accept the humane side of a criminal like Valjean. Javert is unable to decide if he should arrest Valjean for breaking parole, or let him go, given that his good deeds outnumber his bad ones. Torn between conscience and duty, he jumps off the bridge into the Seine river.
Some parts of the musical linger on in memory for their innovative presentation, such as: Javert jumping off a bridge to end his life, the portion depicting the revolutionaries fighting the oppressors, Valjean carrying Marius and walking through the sewers, and the song ‘A heart full of love’. The gloomy and dull lighting and the costumes add to the grim mood of the story.
The solo singing portions of the characters Valjean (‘Bring him home’) and Eponine (‘On my own’) are beautiful and stand out distinctly. ‘A heart full of love’ makes you smile and probably shed a tear as it juxtaposes Éponine’s love and that of Cosette and Marius.
Converting a work of classic French literature that runs into thousands of pages into a three-hour English musical, while retaining its essence and message is pretty tough. Les Misérables does that very well. What it does even better is to make us think of uncomfortable issues such as:Whether the law is meant only to punish or also to reform? Are we accepting of people whose lives differ from what we consider normal? Was Jean wrong in stealing bread for his sister’s starving child? Would everything have been different had someone understood his intentions and helped him earn bread instead?
Les Misérables played recently in Zurich, at Theater 11, from 11th to 23rd February 2020. And, it was a beautiful performance to behold.
Photo credits: Official images by Johan Persson and Micheal Le Poer Trench
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