Les Misérables has become part of our cultural fabric

Mega-musical has been overhauled for a modern audience

Ostensibly Les Misérables is an 1862 novel by Victor Hugo a mega-musical and now a film. But really it’s more than any of those artistic mediums — it’s a part of our cultural fabric.

Even those who are not regular consumers of “the arts” know of Les Misérables . The name “Valjean” for example is synonymous with human struggle and injustice and if you play the song “I Dreamed a Dream” people who have never seen the musical will likely recognize Claude-Michel Schönberg ’s music.

Mega-producer Cameron Mackintosh turned the spotlight on Les Misérables when he turned the original French musical into an English-language version that opened in London in 1985 and arrived on Broadway in 1987. More than 25 years later — and after being seen by some 60 million people worldwide — Les Misérables is touring the United States and Canada once again with a new staging.

By way of a brief Les Mis refresher the story’s protagonist is Jean Valjean a peasant who spends 19 years in jail for stealing a loaf of bread. He breaks his parole soon after his release causing a ruthless policeman Javert to pursue him relentlessly.

Valjean turns his life around and becomes a wealthy factory owner and mayor known for his acts of kindness. Among those acts of kindness is his adoption of Cosette the illegitimate daughter of one his former factory workers Fantine who dies of consumption.

Hugo actually based Valjean and his arch enemy Javert on the same real-life person: Eugène François Vidocq a Parisian criminal who became the world’s first private detective and founded the French police department.

“The story is all about the duality of man” says Michael O’Donnell the production’s resident director. “Who are we? Can Valjean actually go from convict and potential murderer to father and mayor?”

Add to the cast of characters a student revolutionary Marius and Éponine the feisty daughter of the Thénardiers who also raised (and mistreated) Cosette in her earliest years. In what turns out to be a tragic love triangle Éponine and Cosette both love Marius.

O’Donnell attributes the lasting impact of Les Misérables to the fact that “there is something for everybody to relate to.”

“It answers so many existential questions along the way” he says. “To watch a character onstage try to figure out the truest part of his soul you can’t help but think of yourself.”

He also points to the story’s unpredictable nature. “There is nothing typical about the story. There is a leading man who doesn’t end up with a leading lady. There is a student rebellion where everyone dies except one but the show still ends on such a heroic note.”

O’Donnell who is in charge of “keeping up the integrity of everything artistic” says this 25th anniversary production has a much quicker pace than the original. “It has definitely been given a good overhaul to fit into the tableau of musical theatre today” he explains. “Contemporary audiences are much less happy to sit back and listen to a pretty song so the directors have given a great drive and passion to this show.”

The most extraordinary new thing according to O’Donnell is the use of projections as backdrops throughout the production. Many of the projections are actually paintings by Hugo himself.

Peter Lockyer who plays Valjean in this production previously played Marius for six years on Broadway. One of his most notable memories is when Les Misérables went to China — the first large-scale western production to do so. “There were overtones of Tiananmen Square in the show. We were greeted with a passionate response” he says. “That’s the wonderful thing about artistic metaphor: It can reach subtle artistic truth without bruising anybody’s ego.”

Lockyer who estimates he has been in nearly 3000 performances of Les Mis so far attributes the success of the show to the fact that “it’s just that good.”

“If anybody were to be tired of this show it would be me and I’m not” he says. “If you have seen the show before you will be blown away again and will remember why you loved it so much in the first place. If you haven’t this is the show to see to introduce you to musical theatre.”

Two ideals: Éponine versus Cosette in a tragic love triangle

Les Misérables is a show built around character foils from Jean Valjean versus Inspector Javert to Madame Thénardier versus Fantine. But perhaps the most poignant of opposites are Cosette and Éponine which has stirred some debate among fans who root for one or the other.

Cosette is the illegitimate daughter of Fantine one of Valjean’s factory workers who is driven to prostitution. Fantine sends money to a pair of crooked innkeepers the Thénardiers to look after Cosette as she is unable to do so herself.

Éponine is the eldest daughter of Monsieur and Madame Thénardier. While the Thénardiers pamper and spoil their own daughter they abuse and starve Cosette. Despite her mistreatment Cosette retains her pure heart.

The tables turn however when Valjean pays off the Thénardiers to claim Cosette and raise her as his own after Fantine dies. Educated at a convent Cosette grows into a beautiful and privileged young woman.

Éponine meanwhile ends up a street urchin as her parents lose their inn and are driven into poverty. She resorts to begging and participating in her father’s criminal schemes just to rub a few cents together.

Both women are love in with the same man Marius though Marius is unaware of Éponine’s love for him and looks on her as a friend.

Les Misérables resident director Michael O’Donnell says this isn’t your “typical” love triangle — Marius has to choose between two ideals.

“Cosette represents purity of heart” says O’Donnell describing her as sheltered highly intelligent and wanting love to happen. Éponine by contrast is “more than streetwise” and knows her dreams of love will forever be fulfilled.

O’Donnell says ultimately Éponine’s undoing is when she recognizes Cosette as the girl she grew up with. “It is the first time she feels shame. She never recovers from it. She admits she loves a man who will never love her and she goes on the path of foregone conclusion” he adds.

Cosette may get the love of the man but O’Donnell says that invariably audiences respond more to Éponine. “We know her so much better…. She does so many extraordinary things — being in love with someone she can never have making personal sacrifices having to survive on the street. More people can relate to unrequited love than the true love Cosette has found” he adds.