Billed as "the world's most popular musical," Les Miserables has been translated into numerous languages and has been performed in theaters all over the world. With music by Claude-Michel Schoenberg, book by Schoenberg and Alain Boublil, and lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer, adapted by Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel, the musical began life in 1980 in a Paris sports arena. In 1985, Cameron Mackintosh took over as producer in collaboration with London's Royal Shakespeare Company, thus beginning Les Miserables ' legacy as one of the most significant musical theater works of the late twentieth century.
Based on Victor Hugo's somber and sprawling novel, the musical Les Miserables brings to the stage the tale of Jean Valjean, a man who is determined to survive and to do good in the face of vengeful persecution. Freed from prison after serving hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread, Valjean initially reverts to his old ways, stealing from a Bishop who has tried to help him. But when the Bishop protects him from the law, Valjean decides to reform his ways, eventually becoming a successful factory owner. Valjean befriends one of his factory workers—a young woman named Fantine, who has been forced into prostitution to support her young daughter. After Fantine dies of tuberculosis, Valjean rescues her daughter Cosette from the money-hungry Thenardiers, with whom she has been living, and raises her as his own. Pursued by the sinister police inspector Javert, Valjean and Cosette eventually end up in Paris on the eve of the 1832 Student Uprising where Cosette meets Marius, a young student, and the young couple falls in love. To complicate matters even further, Eponine, the Thenardiers' daughter, is also in love with Marius. Eponine dies in the assault on the students' barricade, along with many of the young idealists. Marius is seriously injured and Valjean carries him to safety where he leaves him for Cosette and disappears. In an effort to stop the wedding of Cosette and Marius, the Thenardiers attempt to blackmail Marius by allegedly exposing the truth about Cosette's father, whom they say is a murderer. As a result of this malevolence, Marius learns that it was Valjean who saved him. Cosette and Marius seek out the dying Valjean and they find him moments before he is welcomed into the afterlife by Fantine, Eponine, and the chorus of students.
Many aspects of Hugo's novel provide the story with its universal appeal. Valjean represents the inherent good in every person, while Javert symbolizes the opposite. A single act of mercy on the part of a Bishop caused Valjean to radically alter his ways. The sacrificial deaths of Fantine, Eponine, and the students are among the most emotional moments in the show, without which Valjean's noble death at the end of the show would not have its dramatic impact. Taken as a whole, Les Miserables demonstrates the best and worst of humanity. In addition to the general theme of redemption, the show is filled with various subplots, each of which offers a moral lesson to the audience.
Schoenberg's music for Les Miserables is rich and romantic. Recurring melodies are used to enhance developments in the dramatic plot. For example, Valjean and Javert share much of the same music, thus demonstrating that they represent two sides of the same human condition. Among the most impressive songs in Les Miserables are Fantine's "I Dreamed a Dream," the inspiring choral number "Do You Hear the People Sing?" Eponine's "On My Own," Valjean's prayer for Marius "Bring Him Home," and Marius's grief-filled "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables."
John Napier's incredible sets add to the dramatic quality of the show. The barricade, the two parts of which are joined on stage to highly dramatic music, is an integral component of the show. The standard set with the rotating center unit allows for the innovative staging for which the musical is known.
Les Miserables opened in 1985 at the Royal Shakespeare Company's Barbican Theatre in London. It quickly transferred to the Palace Theatre in London's West End. The original London production starred Colm Wilkinson, Alun Armstrong, and Patti LuPone. The New York production opened in 1987, and featured Wilkinson, Terrence Mann, Frances Ruffelle, and Judy Kuhn. Les Miserables has since been produced worldwide and has been translated into many different languages.
Numerous recordings of the show exist. Among them are the original cast recordings from both London and New York and the complete symphonic recording (1988), featuring Gary Morris as Valjean performing with an international cast. The historic tenth anniversary concert from London's Royal Albert Hall has been released on both CD and video.
—William A. Everett
Behr, Edward. Les Miserables, History in the Making. London, Pavilion Books, 1996.
Everett, William A. "The Mega-Musical as Transcultural Phenomenon." In The New Europe at the Crossroads, edited by Ursula E. Beitter. Baltimore, Peter Lang, 1998.