SPOILER ALERT: Footage of Hugh Jackman as Valjean and Anne Hathaway as Fantine filming the Finale of the new musical adaptation of Les Misérables
|Hugh Jackman as Valjean|
For a musical whose future once seemed bleak at best, the global impact that Les Misérables has since had is undeniable. Although several adaptations of Victor Hugo's classic novel had previously been produced, none ever came close to capturing that sacrosanct essence which empowers certain works of literature to move the hearts of nations. After being produced in thirty-eight countries and translated into twenty-one languages, it would be almost futile to argue that Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg's musical adaptation, however flawed it may be, had not succeeded in doing so.
More than twenty-five years ago, when the show was being developed, one common criticism of its creators was that musical theatre had no business imposing itself on revered works of classic literature. What they soon proved, however, was that their musical was able to serve Victor Hugo's story in ways that no other adaptation ever could.
Many of the pages in Hugo's massive novel are dedicated to exploring not only the detailed pasts of its characters but also their complex interior lives. When writers and directors are forced in adaptations to sum those pages up in a matter of minutes due to time constraints, having the characters express themselves through song is a surprisingly convenient tool to do the trick.
Fantine as played by Lea Salonga for the 25th Anniversary Concert)
Throughout the show's two acts, there are several soul-stirring soliloquies for most of the major characters. One of the earliest ones is "I Dreamed a Dream," which is sung by the despondent Fantine, a single mother who's been driven by unfortunate circumstances into a life of destitution, prostitution, and despair. Although she is only on stage in the musical for about fifteen minutes, it is her song which firmly establishes her spirit and leaves a profound and melancholic impression upon the face of the play.
Perhaps the most memorable and moving soliloquy in the show is Valjean's "Bring Him Home," sung in the middle of the second act during the last calm before the fateful storm at the Barricades. One might be surprised to learn, however, how late of an addition this show-stopping song was to the development of the musical.
An excerpt from a 20/20 piece on the New York opening of Les Misérables:
You can find the entire 20/20 piece on Les Misérables here.
Although "Bring Him Home" has become somewhat of a show tune standard in the last twenty-five years, it is important to remember how powerful and pivotal a moment it is in the thematic arc of the play - for while Valjean was ransomed into conversion by the merciful Bishop of Digne (to be played by Colm Wilkinson in the movie), it is nearly two decades later while on the barricades where his conversion is seemingly fulfilled. Jean Valjean is a character who throughout all his life had suffered greatly and sacrificed much to honor his promise "to become an honest man," but up until that point in the play he is still holding onto one last thing with covetous hands – his fatherly love for his adopted daughter Cossette (to be played by Amanda Seyfried in the film).
"There is such a thing as spiritual collapse. The thrust of a desperate certainty into a man cannot occur without the disruption of certain profound elements which are sometimes the man himself. Anguish, when it has reached this stage, becomes a panic-flight of all the powers of conscience. There are moral crises from which few of us emerge in our right mind, with our sense of duty still intact. When the limit of suffering is overpassed the most impregnable virtue is plunged in disarray."
Despite this perilous state of mind, Valjean ultimately chooses to go to the Barricades, risking not only his life if he is killed or his freedom if he is apprehended as an escaped convict, but also his entire life's happiness if young Marius should live and claim the beloved of both their hearts as his own. At night, as the rest of the insurrectionists are sleeping, Valjean clasps his hands in earnest prayer and asks for that which the selfish and ego-centric side of himself truly dreads.
|Russell Crowe as Javert|
It is important at this point to note that although the play is "all about God," as director Trevor Nunn had put it, his presence as well as his providence is not very apparent throughout most of it. Valjean's prayer for Marius' life, for instance, does not warrant a miraculous event by some unforeseen "deus ex machina" - instead, it is Valjean himself who carries Marius' wounded body to safety by way of the rank passages of the Paris sewer system.
Victor Hugo's novel was a written response to the age-old plight of the poor and downtrodden, but it was also written in the light that all men have been created by God for a divine destiny. However, with that sense of destiny muddied by the problems of poverty and pain, the question that Hugo's story leaves us with is: from where will the suffering lot of man find its relief?
Historically, the Church as a belief system as well as an organization wasn't having enough of an effect on the impoverished population of Paris. Many of the characters in Les Misérables have lost their faith in God, or at least in a god that is good. In the very opening of the show a convict sings while toiling in a chain gang "I've done no wrong, sweet Jesus hear my prayer!" To which his fellow convicts reply "Look down, look down – sweet Jesus doesn't care." Later on in the first act, the street urchin Gavroche mocks the poor's reliance on religion as a means to cope with the lyric, "We live off crumbs of humble piety; tough on the teeth but what the hell…"
Eddie Redmayne and Aaron Tveit filming the events surrounding "Do You Hear the People Sing?"
By the end of the first act, a new and rousing hope emerges in a secular student movement vowing to fight. Eager to inspire the people of Paris into an insurrection that would "cut the fat ones down to size," the otherworldly leader Enjorlas (to be played by Aaron Tveit) begins to prepare for a battle that, if won, would shepherd in a just new world.
At the same time, Marius' zeal for revolution has been replaced by a new devotion: his newfound love for Cosette, a girl he hardly knows. In the song, "In My Life" he sings to his pauper friend Éponine of his love, describing something akin to a religious awakening;
"In my life, she has burst like the music of angels, the light of the sun. And my life seems to stop as if something is over and something has scarcely begun. Éponine, you're the friend who has brought me here - thanks to you, I am one with the gods and heaven is near!"
Despite Marius' new joyful reason for living, Éponine, who loves Marius unrequitedly, is fixed in her unfortunate desolation. Although in most musical productions, Éponine is usually portrayed by an attractive actress with a few blotches of dirt applied over her make-up – in the novel she is written to be much more pathetic. A daughter of uncaring scoundrels, Éponine's potential for wholesome beauty had long been squandered, leaving her emaciated with a many missing teeth and psychological issues. In the musical, Marius is quite fond of her as a friend - but in the book, he actually wants little to do with her.
Played here by Samantha Barks for the 25th Anniversary concert, Barks will reprise the role of Éponine for the film adaptation.
Yet, the musical provides her with a beautiful song to give expression to her heartache. "On My Own" is a song in which Éponine challenges herself on her love for Marius, coming to the difficult conclusion that her imaginary relationship with him, however comforting, is not her reality. It is a sentiment that reflects how many characters in Les Misérables feel about the God they cannot bring themselves to continue believing in.
In the following scenes, the people of Paris are haunted by the deaths of the fallen students and their vanquished cause in which they had invested so much hope. In the song "Turning," a confounded group of grieving women puzzle over the new meaninglessness thrust upon their lives, singing: "Same old story, what's the use of tears? What's the use of praying if there's nobody who hears?"
These factors are what make the finale of the play so incredibly moving. After enduring countless claims of godlessness and meaninglessness by other characters, we finally come to Jean Valjean on his deathbed. After he reconciles with Cosette and Marius, we watch as he is beckoned gently away to paradise by the spirits of Fantine and Éponine, both of whom - though wretched in life - we see glorified in death. Even though the cynics in the audience may bristle at these images of paradisial reunions, it is a consummation devoutly to be wished by most audiences, and has been repeated to great effect in other modern works like Titanic, Lost, and The Tree of Life.
Ultimately, the story of Jean Valjean is that of a simple man who became a monster, who became an honest man, who became a saint. That's what Les Misérables seems to impart to us as the remedy to the ills in the world: for each and every one of us to strive to become saints. That is the "crusade" we are challenged by the cast to join at the end of the finale; at times when providence and purpose may seem all but absent in our lives, we must learn to love each other heroically, and by doing so, we might finally see the benevolent face of God.