Sad, beautiful stories
In my opinion, Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables is one of the most beautiful stories that has ever been written…and I have read a whole lot of stories. The original English translations of the title are “the miserable ones” and “those who are to be pitied”. The original novel in its 1,500-page unabridged format is not for the casual reader, but the stories intertwined within the novel are captivating and powerful. The stage adaptation that took Broadway by storm in 1987, continues to delight audiences as it tours around the world. This past weekend, the touring company was in New Orleans and it just so happens that my best friend, my daughter and I all received tickets for Christmas.
If you saw the 2012 film version of the musical, you were introduced to the music, the story, and the fact that Hugh Jackman is the most versatile actor in Hollywood and you were likely shocked that Russell Crowe can sing. Like some people I know, you were probably not happy with the ending. Spoiler: The majority of the people die. No matter their age, social position or accomplishment, they don’t have a “happily ever after” ending. It’s definitely not a Disney musical.
So why do people like me still spend their pretty pennies to see the “miserable ones”? Why is this show one of the top grossing Broadway shows of all time? The title even tells you that it isn’t going to end well! For one, the music is amazing. I’d pay just to go hear the score, but the vocals were impressive as well. The main reason is because of the story. The story of Jean Val Jean, released from prison after serving 5 years for stealing bread to feed his sister’s starving family and another 14 years for trying to escape, is captivating. Through many twists and turns Val Jean is shown redemption and redeems a child from a deplorable situation.
Hugo wrote his novel based on events that were taking place in Paris on 1832. Hugo was an eye witness to a small insurrection in Paris, 43 years prior to the French Revolution that made world history books. A friend to the poor and downtrodden, General Jean Maximillien LeMarque died in June 1789 and crowds gathered in the streets to accompany his hearse as it traveled to its burial place. The youth accompanying the hearse had a political agenda and wanted their voices heard. They built barricades and fought for change in their country, knowing that LeMarque’s death would change their world.
Hugo wrote Les Miserables to demonstrate the plight of the poor and social injustices within the world as he knew it. 157 years later, the stories still demand to be told. The stories of the poor. The stories of the law. The stories of the redeemed. The stories of the ones seeking to change their circumstances. The stories of the children. The stories of the parents who sacrifice. Of Les Miserables Hugo wrote, “So long as ignorance and misery remains on earth, books like this cannot be useless.” Hugo’s characters and their struggles are timeless.
I don’t know when the musical phenomena that is Les Miserables will be within my reasonably accepted driving distance for entertainment, but I will see it again. However, I will likely never get my husband to the theatre to see the stage production. He did see the Jackman/Crowe film and does agree that the film has a strong message, but to him, it’s “so depressing” and he does not understand why I insist on seeing it every time it comes near. Years ago when I had tickets and a friend who had planned to attend fell ill, I just knew Mark would go with me. Instead, he arranged a “cultural experience” for the German exchange student who was staying with some friends. Thankfully, she had read the book and the city of New Orleans is always a cultural experience, even for me!
I know it’s sad. I know the ending is never going to change. I’m still going to see it again. I’m still going to listen to the soundtrack. I’m still going to watch the movie occasionally and read the novel once a year. Why? Because I want to always be aware of those who need compassion.
Weekly columnist. Feature Writer.