Do you hear the people sing? If you were among the masses of Les Misérables fans who flocked to theaters this week you probably did, led by the likes of Hugh Jackman, Ann Hathaway and Russell Crowe. (Review: Jackman and Hathaway’s performances deserve props, while Sacha Baron Cohen’s tacky rendition of Master of the House should have been left out.)
The musical Les Misérables or “The Miserable,” takes place in France during the first several decades of the 1800s, a sweeping tale of patriotism, love and desperation, based on Victor Hugo’s famous novel and set to a sweeping musical score.
For the rare few who have managed to escape Les Misérables mania during the past several years, below is a brief summary.
The musical’s main character, Jean Valjean, is thrown in jail for nearly 20 years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed a starving child. When he is finally released, he vows never to steal again. Unable to find work because of his past, however, he finds himself desperate once again, stealing silver from a priest. Instead of throwing Valjean in jail, the priest shows mercy, telling him to keep the silver and use it to become an honest man.
Valjean becomes a nobleman and mayor, where he later meets Fantine, a woman forced out on the streets and driven to prostitution to support her child. Valjean promises to care for her child, Cosette, upon Fantine’s death, but he is hounded by the ruthless policeman Javert, intent on throwing Valjean into prison for breaking his parole.
As the plot hums into the mid-1830s, there are other characters who emerge along the way – the cheeky Gavroche, the rebel leader Enjolras, the pining Eponine, the noble young Marius who falls in love with Cosette – all who intertwine choruses in a perfect harmony of hope, passion and doubt.
From here the musical’s plot gets even more desperate. A failed revolution at the barricade. A display of unrequited love. A fatherly rescue. A merciless manhunt, and a solemn ending.
Yet amid the magnificent overtures and bridges of the musical score, it’s easy to miss the subtlety of the small messages and lessons of Les Misérables.
Some may think Les Misérables is a story of personal redemption, but it really isn’t. I believe it’s a story of how human lives intertwine and how triumph is only reached when we put other people ahead of ourselves.
When Jean Valjean confesses his past to Cosette in the final scene, he tells her of the stolen silver and his failed self-transformation, saying, “I only became a better man when you came into my care.”
In fact, the repeating messages sound remarkably familiar:
Look down, and show some mercy if you can.
Look down, look down, upon your fellow man.
To love another person is to see the face of God.
Watching the musical, I couldn’t help but wonder what 19th century author Victor Hugo would think of this version of his epic novel – a musical that has swept the world and landed these words in the laps of a modern 21st century audience.
There is a universal call to arms – to throw off injustice and make tomorrow the world you want to see.
Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Beyond the barricade,
Is there a world you long to see?
Then join in the fight that will give you the right to be free.
And to that extent, I have a feeling Hugo would simply look at us all and ask,
Well, “Do you hear the people sing?”