Based on the lengthy novel by Victor Hugo (reminder, the same man who wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame), and typically referred to by the shorthand Les Mis. The musical show premiered in 1985 starring Colm Wilkinson as Jean Valjean and celebrated its’ 25th anniversary in 2010. It is one of the longest running musicals on Broadway. Lea Salonga, who provided the singing voices for Disney’s Jasmine and Mulan, played Éponine and Fantine on Broadway. A movie version of the show was produced in 2012 directed by Tom Hooper, with an all-star cast. Hugh Jackman (Australia, X-Men, Greatest Showman) is Jean Valjean, Russell Crowe (Robin Hood) is Javert, Anne Hathaway (Princess Diaries, Becoming Jane) is Fantine, Amanda Seyfried (Mamma Mia) is adult Cosette, Eddie Redmayne (Fantastic Beasts) is Marius, Sacha Baron Cohen is Thénardier, Helena Bonham Carter (Bellatrix Lestrange), his wife. Daniel Huttlestone (Jack in Into the Woods) is Gavroche. Samantha Barks plays Éponine, which she played on the West End, and several of the extras have previously been on stage for this show.
The show begins in 1815, twenty-six years after the start of the French Revolution, we are informed at the beginning. Look Down builds as we get closer to see prisoners hauling a ship into dry dock; Jean Valjean is one of the truly depressed men. Javert is overseeing the work and calls for Prisoner 24601 and instructs him to life the heavy mast holding the flag.. Valjean’s parole has begun, but it does not mean he is free. The two men confront each other; Valejan’s main crime was stealing bread to save a dying child, then years were added on to his sentence for attempting to escape. Javert follows the letter of the law and believes that Valjean will never change. Valjean eventually ends up at a church, after being turned way for work due to being a convicted criminal and even beaten. The kindly priest (played by Colm Wilkinson; it’s wonderful to see him a part of the production) shows Valjean mercy, even after Valjean attempts to make off with the silver. The priest vouches for Valjean and gives him the remaining candlesticks; but know he has saved Valjean’s soul for God and the man should attempt to make a better life. Valjean looks to God and ponders what to do, finally declaring that Valjean is no more. (There are many soliloquies in the show; it is also a show that is primarily sung with few spoken lines.)
We jump eight years to 1823 and the poor are oppressed and struggling to survive. At the End of the Day, every day is the same as the before and they’re almost ready to give up. We see a factory full of female workers and the foreman is attempting to sweet-talk Fantine. But Fantine refuses him, which means he takes his bad mood out on the rest of the women. The others tease Fantine and discover a letter, begging her for more money for her dying child. They use it as an excuse to throw Fantine out, claiming her to be a slut. (They’re petty women who are horrible to a woman for no good reason). Valjean has become a successful man; the owner of the factory and the mayor. Javert has dropped by for a visit and that puts Valjean on edge and thus does nothing to prevent Fantine’s dismissal. There is something about Valjean that stirs a memory in Javert’s mind and it’s stirred more when he witnesses Valjean lift a heavy wagon off a man to save him.
Fantine is desperate for money and goes to the wharf to sell trinkets. But she ends up selling her hair (Anne Hathaway did cut her hair for this role) and a tooth. Once those are gone, she ends up turning to prostitution and becoming one of the Lovely Ladies. She’s so disheartened, she remarks to her first customer, “don’t it make a change/ to have a girl who won’t refuse?” After the man finishes and leaves, Fantine brokenly recalls I Dreamed a Dream (wow, can Anne sing; it’s also hard to sing while crying. This song was also made famous recently by Susan Boyle’s performance on “Britain’s Got Talent”). Fantine had fallen in love with Cosette’s father and thought it was forever, but it seems he left her once she was pregnant. And thus her dream was turned to shame. Later, Fantine attacks a rich man who tries to force her. Valjean is nearby, giving money to the poor and steps in on Fantine’s behalf when Javert investigates [this is apparently based on something that Victor Hugo did himself]. Valjean takes Fantine to a hospital and vows to bring her daughter.
Javert confesses to Valjean that he thought Valjean was the prisoner who broke parole years ago. And he filed a report. Turns out to be a false report; the true culprit was caught and Javert does not expect the honorable mayor to forgive him. Valjean tells Javert he was only doing his duty. But he wonders on his own, should he let this man take his place? Or should he confess who he is? Who Am I? He remembers the priest’s instructions; “If I speak, I am condemned/ if I stay silent, I am damned.” Valjean decides to go to the court and declare himself to be prisoner 2-4-6-0-1! Then he rushes to the hospital and comforts Fantine as she dies, hallucinating of Cosette. Javert confronts Valjean and Valjean begs the inspector to have mercy; let him see to the orphaned child and he will willingly return to prison. But Javert does not trust Valjean; in the dueling melodies his prejudice stems from being born inside a jail; “I was born with scum like you/ I am from the gutter two.” The men duel and Valjean jumps out a window to escape.
Meanwhile, at the inn where Fantine left her daughter, Cosette innocently dreams of a Castle on a Cloud and her mother loving her. Instead, she has the Thénardiers, who are crooks. They send her to the well in the woods alone, shower their own daughter in pretty things and love and work Cosette like a servant. They steal from their customers and lie to them, jokingly referring to the husband as Master of the House. Valjean discovers Cosette in the woods and negotiates with the Thénardiers what they want in exchange for him taking Cosette. They pretend to be sweet, but Valjean can see through their lies. Cosette is happy to leave with Valjean and falls asleep in the carriage. Valjean wonders how Suddenly his life changed [a new song for the movie]. They are still pursued by Javert and receive help at an abbey from the man that Valjean saved by lifting the wagon. Javert vows by the Stars [I adore Welsh opera singer Bryn Terfel singing this, check it out!] to catch Valjean, “and if you fall as Lucifer fell/ you fall in flame!/ And so it has been/ and so it is written/ on the doorway to Paradise/ that those who falter/ and those who fall/ must pay the price.”
We jump another nine years to 1832. The poor are still oppressed; a monarch is back in power. Led by young university students, they entreat the upper class to Look Down. We’re introduced to Gavroche, who leads a bunch of beggars (he’s the baby that was in the basket that the Thénardiers switched with a customer, proving they are horrible people!) The police run them off. One of the students Marius, spots a grown up Cosette and Valjean giving money to the poor and instantly falls in love with her [we see this so much]. The Thénardiers, accompanied by Éponine, their daughter, accost Valjean and Javert shows up again. Valjean keeps his face turned from Javert and quickly takes Cosette away at the first chance. Marius asks Éponine for help with Cosette and Éponine realizes who the young woman is. But she loves Marius and agrees to take him to Cosette.
The students (if one looks a little familiar, he plays young Harry in Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again) rally each other and the citizens of Paris to rise. “Red, the blood of angry men/ black, the dark of ages past” Meanwhile, Marius is lovesick and his view on Red and Black is a little different, “red, the color of desire/ black, the color of despair!” The leader of the student, Enjorlas urges Marius that the rebellion is a higher call and he is needed with the people. Éponine then takes Marius to Cosette. Several characters sing over each other, In My Life and A Heart Full of Love, proclaiming their love and their views. Valjean wants to protect Cosette and refuses to tell her about his past; Cosette loves Marius and Marius loves Cosette; Éponine unrequitedly loves Marius. The young lovers must part and Thénardier wants to rob Valjean, but Éponine screams to scare her father and gang away. Valjean fears Javert has found him, so takes Cosette away. She leaves a note for Marius, which Éponine takes. The young woman wanders the streets back to the students’ headquarters, in the rain, musing she is On My Own. “A world’s that full of happiness/ that I have never known!” Plots are converging, One Day More until the climax. Éponine disguises herself as a boy; Marius and Cosette pine for each other, but Marius decides to stand with the students; “one day to a new beginning/ raise the flag of freedom high!” Javert plans to put an end to the revolution. All sing “tomorrow we’ll discover/ what out God in heaven has in store/ one more dawn/ one more day/ one day more!”
The show breaks for intermission here. The rallying cry Do You Hear the People Sing?(and the most famous song from the musical; and probably of all musical history) brings us back as the revolutionaries take over the funeral procession of their hero, General LeMarc. “The blood of the martyrs/ will water the meadows of France!” Soldiers face off with them, and one nervously fires into the crowd, killing an old woman (sadly, this is how many confrontations have started throughout history, like the Boston Massacre in 1770). The students and their compatriots gather and build a barricade with whatever furniture they can find (two fun facts: that set is reused from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone‘s Diagon Alley, and the director of the film had four words of direction here: Build a Barricade. Action!). Javert has gone undercover with the revolutionaries, then volunteers to find out what the soldiers are planning. When he returns, he claims there will be no attack that night, but Gavroche recognizes him, so they tie him up. We get little pieces of Gavroche’s solo number Little People; beware of them because they’ve got some bite. The soldiers advance and shooting starts. Marius recklessly threatens to blow a keg of gunpowder, killing himself too, to keep the soldiers away. Éponine takes a bullet for Marius. Once the soldiers have retreated, Marius holds Éponine, promising her anything if she’ll live. She gives him Cosette’s note and peacefully dies in Marius’s arms; a Little Fall of Rain will hardly harm her now.
Marius sends a note to Cosette through Gavroche. Valjean takes it, warning the young boy to be careful, and finds out his daughter is in love. Valjean goes to the barricade to protect Marius; Gavroche vouching for him when the students don’t believe him. He then spies Javert and asks to deal with him. His wish is granted after he spots a sniper on the roof and protects the students. Valjean shows Javert mercy; the same mercy that was shown him by the priest. The students know that this may be their last night and pass around a bottle; Drink With Me. Marius dozes off and Valjean looks down on the young man, pleading with God, Bring Him Home. “He’s like the son I might have know/ if God had granted me a son…if I die/ let me die/ let him live.”
Come morning, this group are the only ones left; Paris did not rise. But they still face the soldiers. Gavroche starts the chorus of Do You Hear the People Sing and some more of Little People when he goes in front of the barricade to fetch more gunpowder. He is shot twice and the young men have to hold one of their own back from darting to get the boy. (In the show and book, Gavroche is Éponine’s younger brother, and even here, he was supposed to be aside from his parents passing him off to a random customer.) The soldiers have brought canons and the barricade is soon overrun; when the bullets run out, a few of the students, Enjorlas and Marius included, turn to sabers. Marius is hit and Valjean drags him off. The last few students are caught on the second floor of their former headquarters and are finally shot. Enjorlas hangs out the window, mimicking how he typically lies over the barricade in the stage show. We briefly see Javert walking by the dead lined up and pins his medal on Gavroche’s chest Valjean takes Marius through the sewer, running into Thénardier again and Javert is waiting at the end. But he lets Valjean through when the man pleads mercy for the young wounded man in his arms. And this mercy does not sit well with Javert; he cannot live in a thief’s debt. He has one last soliloquy and falls off a bridge into a turbulent river, committing suicide.
The women mourn the radicals and we briefly see Marius’s grandfather care for him. When he has more strength, Marius returns to the headquarters and struggles with the Empty Chairs at Empty Tables. “Oh my friends, my friends/ forgive me/ that I may live/ and you are gone/ there’s a grief/ that can’t be spoken/ there’s a pain/ that goes on and on…oh my friends, my friends/ don’t ask me/ what your sacrifice was for!” Cosette is waiting for him and echoes A Heart Full of Love. Valjean gives them his blessing to marry and tells Marius his history as a prisoner, but instructs him not to tell Cosette. He will move away. The couple happily marry. Until the Thénardiers show up as Beggars at the Feast. Monsieur Thénardier has one more card to play; he saw Valjean with a dead man on his back in the sewer and wants to cash in on the scandal. But he’s wearing a ring he pilfered from a body, Marius’s. Marius recognizes it, reclaims it and realizes that Valjean was the one who saved him. He demands Thénardier tell him where Valjean is, then drags Cosette from their reception to the church.
Valjean sees and hears Fantine as he sits his last hour. Marius reveals to Cosette that her father saved him and Valjean gives a letter, his last confession, to his daughter. Cosette begs Valjean to live and he promises to try, but peacefully passes to be in Fantine’s arms. He briefly sees the priest again as he passes to heaven, “remember, the truth that once was spoken/ to love another person/ is to see the face of God” where all those died join in the final Do You Hear the People Sing.
I knew the music to this show before I knew the story. I didn’t see a production of it until I was in high school and went with a group to Pittsburgh. I sobbed. A couple years later, my French class saw a performance put on by a performing arts high school in Pittsburgh, a former schoolmate had transferred to the school; and my French teacher also taught us the history of the French Revolution. There were some changes made to make it more appropriate for high school students. After I graduated college, the local theatre group performed the show and my parents and I went to see it; a friend was Jean Valjean. And about that time, my church choir did a cabaret performance and featured selections from Les Mis, I did On My Own. Then our pastor wanted us to “speak” the final chorus of Do You Hear the People Sing to go along with a sermon…we sang it, because that’s what we do. We all knew it; there was no way we were simply going to “say” it. And a helpful hint; not the best idea to watch this movie directly after logging off Facebook when it’s been depressing; at least have something lighthearted and fun standing by for afterwards.
As for my personal preferences and this show; since it’s so depressing, it’s not per say a favorite; I recognize that it is a wonderful show and those who perform it require stamina. I Dreamed a Dream is a powerful song, but I think I heard it so often after Susan Boyle that I get tired of it pretty easily. Though I commend Anne Hathaway for her performance in the movie. Castle on a Cloud was my favorite when I first heard the soundtrack with the London cast and I remember a friend of mine and I having fun miming Master of the House during free time. Stars is wonderful when performed by Bryn Terfel. I know there have been people who did not like Russell Crowe’s performance at all; I disagree. I’ve never like the role of Javert, mainly because he’s pompous. Russell brought some humanity to the role and brings a pensive quality to his performance of Stars. I like Eddie Redmayne in the role of Marius for the same reason; he brings humanity to the role.
When I first listened to the music for the show, I wanted to play Cosette. Now, I’d rather play Éponine. You also need a soprano who can hit the high notes at the end of A Heart Full of Love, so, kudos to Amanda Seyfried. While I am a soprano, not that high. On My Own is in a more comfortable range. One Day More is a showstopper, which is most likely why they chose it to perform at the 2013 Academy Awards. It was nominated for Best Picture, but did not win. It did win Best Musical at the Golden Globes. And who can ever forget Do You Hear the People Sing? I get goosebumps every time I hear a performance of it.
Red and Black is another song I like. Bring Him Home is known for being high in a man’s range; Hugh has commented he blames Colm Wilkinson. There is a beautiful rendition by the Piano Guys and it is one that brings tears to everyone’s eyes. Drink With Me, Fall of Rain, and certainly Empty Chairs at Empty Tables drowns everyone in tears.
Next Time: Another incredibly popular musical, Phantom of the Opera