Les Misérables known in English as “The Terrible” is a musical portrayal of the French Revolution. It is a musical tragedy, which served as a major powerhouse competitor for Andrew Lloyd Weber musicals in the early eighties and nineties. When first debuting on Broadway in 1987 it traveled a long hard road to compete with musicals of the decade. However, in time many well-known performers were proud to associate themselves with this wonderful work of art.
The musical play begins with its lead character named Jean Valjean. Jean Valjean was released on parole after 19 years on the chain gang. In this initial scene the audience can almost immediately feel the tonality of the play with the constant reference to the number 24601. 24601 were the prison number that became Jean Valjean’s identity for 19 years. The dark and dreary ambiance set the tone for the first song of the libretto, “Look Down. The lyrics to look down coincide with the chain gang, overseen by brutal wanders, working in the hot sun. It is this series of songs in Act one that take the audience through many turns of feelings and emotions. These emotional songs are used to portray poor men and women working in low class factories, women selling their bodies and more importantly a class of people struggling to scrape by. The most vivid songs used to identify the various themes of poverty and prostitution are Lovely Ladies, A Heart Full of Love, and Master of The House. Moreover, it is a song titled Do You Hear the People Sing? That prepares the audience for the ending of Act one. Most if not all of Act one uses song, tonality, character, pitch and tone to depict the various themes of the play while the story is beginning to unravel.
Throughout the second and final act the musical content within the play acts as a story of it’s own through theme and variation. Each separate song represents a feeling and or mood and is enhanced as it is varied throughout the act. Like the first act, the songs are used to portray poverty, suffering, hardships, and even death. However, unlike the first act, there is also a theme of love and happiness. Closure is brought about with a sense of warmth and this is often heard through the display of the tempo. When the times were tough the tempo decreased and was often slow and morbid like. When happy times were brought about, the tempo increased to a song and dance farewell. The final song of the musical really brings the whole story together. The loose ends are tied and the audience’s hearts are left captivated and moved.
This musical would not be complete without the dramatization of the performers. It is each individual performer that brings song into the story. Each of the eight main characters represents, in a sense, their own theme and motivation towards the story. Without these characters the notes and chords wouldn’t bring about any music. It would merely be song without feelings or words. Each of them sings to sing to us in their own different way and exemplify their role within the story. Together these two important ideas make this play an excellent musical.
My personal reaction to this musical was surprisingly a good one. When my girlfriend first told me that we were going to see a Broadway play I wasn’t initially excited. However, after just about 30 minutes into the opening act I was beginning to recognize and comprehend musical terms that we had discussed in class. I then decided to be open minded and take notice of not only musical but also theatrical happenings of the story. It was amazing to be able to hear the tempo change, the timbre (tone color), and also identify the theme and variation. It was often difficult to understand the opera like approach to the play but all you needed was a good ear and total concentration. I found that I actually enjoyed Les Miserables and I wouldn’t be too quick to say no to another one.
Filed Under: Art, Film and Music, French History, French Revolution
Jean Valjean, imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread in late eighteenth century France, escapes years later and, after accepting the hospitality of a charitable bishop, absconds with the latter’s silver. Under another identity, Valjean emerges as a village mayor who saves from the police a prostitute struggling to support her daughter Cosette. Pursued by the indefatigable Inspector Javert, Valjean confesses his true identity only when it appears that another man will go to prison in his place.
Valjean escapes again and assumes the care of the now-orphaned Cosette. When Cosette grows up to fall in love with Marius de Pontmercy, a young political activist who has drawn the pursuit of the same Javert, Valjean saves Marius’ life by carrying the wounded dissident through the sewers of Paris to safety. Valjean must endure yet more rigors, however, before his goodness is acknowledged.
This long novel teems with minor characters and digressions, some of them captivating. No reader of the book will forget Gavroche, the Parisian street boy who lives by his wits, or Hugo’s recapitulation of the Battle of Waterloo, though it is mere background to one relationship in the story.
While abounding in the farfetched coincidences and melodramatic scenes that nineteenth century readers relished more than their modern counterparts do, this 1862 novel avoids the sentimentality of its age. Furthermore, Hugo’s firm authorial presence, his talent for making history live, his sympathy for the downtrodden, and, above all, his conviction of the capacity of human goodness to triumph against great obstacles will continue to endear him to new generations of readers. The relentless Javert, the noble Marius, the sweetly devoted Cosette, and the impregnable Valjean remain as fascinating as ever.
Norman Denny’s translation for Penguin Books is an eminently readable modern English version of the novel.
Brombert, Victor. The Romantic Prison: The French Tradition. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1978. Points out that in Les Misérables the most important reference to hell is its embodiment in the sewers of Paris, through which Jean Valjean carries Marius as the final part of his quest—through death to resurrection.
Brombert, Victor. Victor Hugo and the Visionary Novel. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984. The most sophisticated study of Hugo’s fiction to date. Notes Hugo’s use of digressive patterns and impersonal, realistic narration. Draws on a wealth of French criticism.
Grant, Richard B. The Perilous Quest: Image, Myth, and Prophecy in the Narratives of Victor Hugo. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1968. An exhaustive study of Hugo’s use of image, myth, and prophecy. Notes—among other images and uses of myth—the Christological references to Jean Valjean, who finds redemption in saving others.
Houston, John Porter. Victor Hugo. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1988. Indispensable starting guide to the works—drama, poetry, and novels—and life of Victor Hugo.
Wellek, René. A History of Modern Criticism: 1750-1950. Vol. 2. The Romantic Age. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1955. Analysis of Hugo’s literary theory and its relation to other writers of European romantic works. Discusses Hugo’s careful placement of discursive essays throughout the novel.