Theatre Review: Les Miserables

So I finally went to see Les Miserables live on stage.

Chances are, if you’re an English-speaking Westerner, you know what happens in Les Mis, but just in case: it’s a musical, set in France, that follows an ex-convict, Jean Valjean, as he tries to escape the life of poverty and crime which is the lot of freed prisoners, running from the ultra-dedicated police inspector Javert through a broken parole, a mayoralty, and perhaps most famously a failed revolution (the June Rebellion of 1832, to be precise).

I keep being asked if the production was everything I thought and hoped it would be (being a long-time fan of Les Mis). The answer is complicated, I think: I found it impossible to get away from the preconceptions of already knowing both the story and the music (which are one and the same thing) intimately, anticipating every note and comparing it to what I’ve heard and seen before. I suppose I wasn’t quite expecting to feel like that.

At the same time, though, I think knowing the story so well opened my eyes to what this particular production (at the Queen’s Theatre in London) is highlighting about the base “text”, as it were. Unlike most musicals, which, although a lot of fun, do tend to be rather one-note, Les Mis has a decent amount of depth and nuance to play with; and I think in particular the Queen’s Theatre version brought home to me just how religious the musical is. This is a story in which the answer to the question “Is my immortal soul worth more than the worldly wellbeing of hundreds of workers?” is “Yes”. The doomed June Rebellion forms the heart of the story in many ways – musically and structurally – but ultimately the musical is more interested in Jean Valjean’s arc of religious redemption than in the fate of the students on the barricades. There’s an overwhelming sense of futility to the efforts of the revolutionaries, their defiance becoming no more than an irrelevancy in the face of the grinding forces of poverty; and though their song (“Do You Hear the People Sing?”) is transmuted by the end into a rousing chorus of affirmation, it’s a specifically religious affirmation: “For the wretched of the earth/There is a flame that never dies/Even the darkest night must end and the sun will rise.” Ultimately, salvation for the people “here below” comes only after death, in the form of divine intervention; and all our human efforts are futile.

There’s more I’d like to write and think about here, which is remarkable in itself, that something I’ve known for so long can possibly offer up more meaning. At the moment, though, I’ve got WriMoing to do.

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