“It’s the story of one who turned from hating: a man who only learned to love when you were in his keeping.”
Of the many changes made to the theatre classic Les Misérables in its journey to the big screen, this line in particular was the one that I found the most poignant. Jean Valjean, on his deathbed, is explaining to his adopted daughter how much she means to him, and in this single line alone, we understand just how much that love shaped our protagonist during his quest for redemption and humanity. And Cosette, tearfully kissing her father’s hand, nods and assures Valjean that she understands, too.
In the theatre world, many--if not most--protagonists end up in a romance of some kind. Or, if they don’t end up in a romantic relationship, there are usually romantic undertones hinted at in the protagonist’s interactions with one or more other characters. Regardless of whether or not the romance is explicit, this romantic tension tends to be a central theme driving our protagonist, and the love for another person will either blossom into something beautiful, or shrivel away when the central character decides their particular romance is not healthy.
Now, I adore romance as much as the next person. After all, most of my favorite musicals are romance-driven, and it took me a few minutes to come up with musicals I know of that don’t include passionate love in the main character’s story. Romance as a genre is famous for its dramatics, for its passion, for its idealization; with a big, bombastic medium like the Broadway stage, romance being the most popular theme to explore is practically expected.
But despite all the love for romance and exploring relationships between fictional couples, I still find myself feeling drawn to Jean Valjean’s story. It’s fascinating that there is not a single moment where any sort of romance is even suggested in his interactions with other characters. Whether it’s compassionately promising a dying woman that he’ll raise her child, or arguing with an inspector over the possibility of being arrested, or being gifted a moment of life-changing compassion by a Bishop, Valjean experiences no flutterings of non-platonic feelings, nor does anyone in the show really find themselves seeking his affections in that way. Nothing about Jean Valjean as a character invites romantic expectations, and the narrative never treats this fact as something the audience should mourn.
So, it’s interesting that when Valjean finally finds what I would easily call the “love of his life,” this special person isn’t a romantic partner at all; instead, Valjean finds true love in the form of adopting a little girl, and this love goes on to shape the rest of the narrative moving forward, bringing Valjean face-to-face with other characters, forcing him to make difficult decisions, and giving him the final push he needs to complete his transformation into an honest man.
Consider this: In the first bulk of the show, Fantine becomes relevant to Valjean’s story because he promises to take care of her child. In the second bulk of the show, Marius and the Barricade Boys come into the picture because Marius falls in love with Cosette, thus creating a conflict that ultimately leads Valjean to the barricade to rescue Marius for Cosette’s sake. Interwoven throughout, the Thénardiers arrive because of the ongoing battle with Valjean over who should rightfully have Cosette after Fantine’s death. Apart from being chased by Inspector Javert and encountering the Bishop, Valjean finds that most of his interactions happen because of his ties to Cosette, and that most of the decisions he makes--from rescuing Marius to doubling down on escaping Javert--surround around ensuring that Cosette is happy and safe.
As the central character, Jean Valjean establishes that the most important love story in the whale-sized tale that is Les Misérables isn’t a romance at all. Yes, other characters experience romantic themes; Marius, Cosette, and Éponine are caught in a love triangle, and Fantine expresses sadness over Cosette’s biological father having left. But when it comes to the beating heart of the musical, the glue that holds all the disparate pieces together? The love story is ultimately a father/daughter story, one where the father will do anything for his beloved daughter, to the point where his entire being is transformed for the better. And Cosette, for her part, finds belonging and family after suffering a childhood of brutal abuse.
One could say that Jean Valjean’s story is a fairly aromantic one, and it’s the kind of story that aromantic people could benefit from seeing in theatre more. Romances are not the only deep and meaningful relationships we will encounter every day, and even those of us who are interested in pursuing romance in our own lives need reminders that we can find love and belonging in other kinds of dynamics, too. There’s a lot of beauty to be found in placing importance on familial relationships and friendships, and we all need to remember that we don’t only have to be validated through whether or not we have found a romantic partner.
Perhaps the tale of Jean Valjean and Cosette Fauchelevent serves to teach us that we can find meaning in our lives through unpredictable avenues, and that sometimes, the best love stories don’t have to be romantic in nature. If musical theatre could include more stories of people finding their soulmates through platonic means, then maybe a greater understanding for deep relationships in every aspect of our lives will grow in the theatre community.
(Photo credit Laurie Sparham)