Les Miserables and Me

The idea for this editorial developed as Les Misérables is my favorite musical, and yet I have never done a piece on this show. I wanted to do something more than just say why I love the plot, music and lyrics; I wanted to think of a new way to discuss the show and my relationship with it. The premise of this editorial is thinking of words to describe the show: joy, magical, family, and redemption. Let me explore with you what they mean to me within Les Misérables.

At the top of the list is JOY. Joy is certainly not a word that people associate with Les Misérables because of the sad nature of the piece. However, there are many moments of joy spread throughout the musical. An early example is in Act One, when the main character, Jean Valjean, is freed from prison after nineteen years for stealing bread for his sister’s hungry son. He is given his yellow ticket to freedom and they have granted him parole; he feels a sense of joy and can now start over.Additionally, joy is a feeling we can all relate to with our favorite musical. If you are having a bad day or just need a boost, a person can queue up their number one musical, pop in their earbuds and feel better. I do not have to listen to the entire score, but hearing just one of my favorites (“On My Own”, “One Day More” and “In My Life”) brings me the happy feeling I love when I think about the musical. From the time I was young, this show has brought me joy, and in the fifteen years since I first heard it, that feeling has not diminished.

The second word that Les Misérables brings to mind is magical. The story might not have any magic in it per se, but how the staging, music and lyrics work together to create the story is magical to me—especially since many audience members can find one aspect of it that they can relate to, be it the redemption of Jean Valjean or the social justice plot. Furthermore, the characters in the show may be flawed, but that makes them even more magical to me. They are not perfect: they embrace their flaws, and it makes them human. The music by Claude–Michel Schönberg and the lyrics by Alain Boublil also create an experience that is like no other. A specific magical moment in Les Misérables is at the end of the show when the spirits of Fantine and Eponine take Jean Valjean to heaven.

Family is the third word that comes to my mind. Intertwined throughout the show, Les Misérables is a tale about family and I will always love that it is about a blended family (with Jean Valjean adopting Cosette after her mother dies). The students of the revolution are friends but treat each other like brothers and sisters. Les Mis is ultimately not just about the family you are given; it becomes about the family you make for yourself. To further illustrate this, Cosette finds Marius and they hopefully start a family of their own. On a personal note, I have enjoyed seeing high school and professional productions of the show. Likewise, a copy of the Original Broadway Cast recording is on all of my family members’ iPods (including family sing-alongs on our way down to the Jersey Shore.)

Finally, redemption. Les Misérables carries a message of redemption and redeeming oneself in the eyes of society. I have always thought this was a clever way to construct the musical, as the redemption arc is prevalent in the novel. In both the musical and novel,  Jean Valjean steals the Bishop’s silver and when the police come, the Bishop lies, saying this sliver was a gift. Jean Valjean must use the silver to “become an honest man”, for he has “bought his soul for God”. Valjean vows to redeem himself (“Valjean’s Soliloquy” / “What Have I Done?). In the eyes of society and in my eyes, he succeeds.  

I hope you enjoyed this piece. If this is one of your favorite musicals as well, let me know.   

(Photo by Michael Le Poer Trench/Bob Marshak)