Last month we went to see the touring version of the new London production of Les Misérables in Zürich. I saw the original New York production many years ago as a teenager, and vividly recall how deeply I was moved; it stirred me to my core in a way I could not explain, as all great theater experiences do. Now I would get to share it with my son, which was a special treat.
Having read the novel not long ago, this time I could see why many critics are dismissive of the theatrical spectacle that’s been made of it. Victor Hugo’s beautiful poetic language has been reduced to a series of banalities and cliches. The absurd coincidences, sentimentality, and insta-love of the plot have been retained, while leaving out all the rich descriptive passages and philosophical musings that give them a broader context. The story hurtles along at a furious pace, with major incidents and plotlines from the book given a throwaway line in a song, turned into a scenic effect, or omitted entirely.
There is also the irony of paying upward of $75 a ticket to see a show about the most downtrodden of society — one attempt to translate the term “les misérables” is “the wretched poor.” Do they benefit in any way from this blockbuster?
Yet the show still has a powerful impact. The music, while not terribly sophisticated and breaking no new musical ground, gives effective expression to the whole range of basic human emotions: fear, anger, hope, greed, lust, despair, longing, grief. No doubt this is why the musical is a worldwide sensation. And there is an earnestness and sincerity about it that makes it seem more than just one more flashy production. It might have been an illusion, but as I watched it seemed to me that the actors really believed in what they were doing, as the characters passionately fought for what they believed in.
In this compact, foreshortened form, a fundamental message comes across perhaps even more clearly than in the sprawling pages of the novel: that love and forgiveness are the most powerful forces in the world. Outwardly-driven revolutions, necessary though they may be at times, will not last. Legalism that fails to respect the laws of the human heart is hollow and empty. Revenge is a motive that cannot sustain life.
The hero of this story is a man who has every reason to hate and kill, but chooses to love and to let others live. It’s remarkable that this is the message which appeals to audiences all around the world, a world which seems ever more at war with itself.
The finale, a reprise of “Do You Hear the People Sing?” takes the lyrics the revolutionaries sang before their doomed encounter with authority, and transforms them in the light of another world, the world that Jean Valjean is now entering. After all the trials and pain of a life marred by imprisonment, he has emerged a free man. Beyond the barricades of anger and slavery, blood and darkness, which hold us in bondage in this material world, there is a future encapsulated in his final words — “To love another person is to see the face of God.”
It wasn’t this line that moved to me to tears, though, but the final chorus:
Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade
Is there a world you long to see?
Yes. Yes, there is. And as I look back over the years since my teenage self first encountered this song, I can be so astonished and grateful that I have found fellow warriors who want to fight for goodness and truth, a worldwide army that knows no barriers of nation, race, or creed. It hasn’t always been easy, as we’ve had to work through our own differences with each other, but the victories are real. And I will continue to trust in those, in the light we see with our inner eyes, in the tomorrow that is coming.
What is the song that moves your heart? And have you found others to sing it with you?