I love Les Misérables. It truly is one of my all-time favorite musicals, and the film is at the very top of my list. My watching the film led to me getting into the book, and the novel is now what I would consider among the greatest works of literature ever published. A heartwrenching story mingled with complex and engaging characters, Les Mis represents the themes of struggle that exist even in today’s society, and Victor Hugo tackles these issues with a stunning vengeance.
Unfortunately, however, Les Mis is one of those novels that expands over a rather lengthy page count—depending on the edition, a copy of this whopping novel can range anywhere from 1000 to 1500 pages. In contrast, the average stage musical clocks in at around two and a half hours, which isn’t a problem if you’re adapting, say, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to the stage, but with a lengthy story like Les Mis, you’re looking at a narrative with a lengthy cast of characters, many settings and events, and the central conflict spanning across a few decades. As a result, it stands to reason that a stage adaptation will be forced to cut down on some roles and eliminate certain arcs entirely. This is entirely understandable and, in certain cases, even welcome.
But what happens when one of the characters whose arc is stripped to the bare minimum also happens to be one of the main protagonists of the source material?
Cosette has gotten a lot of trouble from the musical’s fandom over the past thirty years. Some claim she’s a boring and uninteresting role. Others throw her to the wolves because they think Marius should have gone with Eponine instead. (Oh, Eponine… Maybe I’ll devote a piece to how the musical handled you someday, too.) And, with probably the most fair of these protests, there are those who bemoan the fact that the musical treats Cosette as a mere instrument to push the plot forward, not her own dynamic character with thoughts, emotions, and a change of heart. All of these complaints are neatly wrapped in a little bow imprinted with the words: Why is Cosette the poster child for the show if she doesn’t even do anything?!
These arguments all frustrate me, not because they’re necessarily wrong, but because they actually stress just how much Cosette got the short end of the stick in the transition from page to stage. After all, if you look at the stage musical on its own, Cosette doesn’t have much meat to her role. She shows up as a kid, looks sad, shows up later as an adult, falls in love during the next scene, and then isn’t seen again until late in the second act. It may sound like I’m oversimplifying her role, but truly think about it for a moment. What does she really do? What is her personality like? We catch a small glimpse of her curious nature when she confronts Jean Valjean about his past in “In My Life,” and we know about the kinds of daydreams she uses to cope with her abuse in “Castle on a Cloud,” but other than that, she just kind of...falls in love with Marius and gets married. And cries when her adoptive father dies. That’s it.
If Cosette played a minor role in the novel, I would be more forgiving of her part having been stripped down so much in an adaptation, but the problem is that Cosette Fauchelevent is one of the central characters in the novel. We meet her when she’s two years old, and we, in detail, watch her bloom into the firecracker young lady she is by the end of the book. The father/daughter relationship she shares with Valjean is repeatedly pointed out by Hugo as a crucial point of development for the two characters, and it is under Valjean’s gentle love and care that Cosette is truly allowed to flourish. In the book, the reader follows Cosette through her education, and after leaving school, the then-teenage girl begins to notice how she’s developing into a woman and takes a special interest in her looks, keeping up with all the latest trends and begging her father to buy her fashionable clothes. She’s healed and moved beyond her past childhood abuse, and now she’s molded into a confident adult who walks with an air of importance. It is in this state that she catches the interest of Marius, and he eventually musters up the courage to court Cosette in secret over the course of several months, a romance that inevitably leads Valjean to getting involved at the barricade when he learns that his daughter loves one of the boys there.
Yes, I understand that the musical can’t possibly include everything from the book, but it’s a shame that Cosette ended up being so stripped away when there’s much more to build off of in the source material than the musical would have you believe, and I do think there are some things the musical could have done to give Cosette more meat.
For starters, the Cosette and Valjean relationship needed more focus. Thankfully, their dynamic still comes away from the show appearing as the evident central arc, but there are sadly many points where their interactions seem rushed and just told to us instead of allowing us to truly feel their development. We get a good sense of how adopting Cosette led to Valjean changing into a better man, but we don’t get to understand how having a warm, loving family positively impacted Cosette’s emotional development.
The other thing I feel the musical missed out on was giving Cosette her own big solo number. And no, I don’t mean “Castle on a Cloud.” I mean something more along the lines of “On My Own,” which actually began as a second Fantine song in the original French production before being retooled into a flashy number for Eponine. If I could have my way, I would probably go back in time and manage to convince the creative team to give the song to Cosette, but make it about something that’s relevant to her story. Maybe they could have taken the general theme of Cosette’s loneliness and curiosity in “In My Life” and sprouted up a whole song about it. Maybe they could have given Cosette the song as a counterpoint to the barricade scenes, allowing the audience to see how she reacts to the news that her beau has gone to the barricades...and worrying about where her father has seemingly disappeared off to, too. There are options!
Les Mis is a beautiful show, but there will always be a part of me that’s sad about how much potential was lost in adapting Cosette’s character. She is one of the main characters of the narrative, and she deserves better than being treated as the “vanilla love interest” or a mere vehicle for the lead protagonist’s arc. I’ll continue to keep my fingers crossed that the BBC miniseries coming up will give the character some much-needed depth!
(Photo: Les Misérables UK Tour)