Here’s a confession- I’ve never been able to sit through this Musical until now, the start has always been depressing. I was introduced to it in 2001 after the University of Liverpool Drama Society awards. I’d been nominated for my one-man Shakespeare version of Mercutio’s soliloquy (ah, I see Queen Mab hath been with you, she is the Fairies midwife etc) The Mad Max-style Post-Apocalyptic version I had proposed to the Committee had been rejected for the second (and Last) time, so did Our Country’s Good and The Importance of Being Ernest instead. I then began reading the novel, but found it a really tough read. The utter bleakness has always coloured my perceptions, but the film version made me decide to get the dvd and give it another go. I’m so glad that I did.
‘Look down, look down; you’re here until you die’
Told across several decades in nineteenth Century France, it begins when Jean Valjean is paroled after 17 years of hard labour for stealing bread. ‘Look Down’ sets the bleak tone as Prisoners haul a ship into a dock, under the vigilant watch of the antagonistic Inspector Javert, whose relentless pursuit of Valjean forms the backbone of the story.
Travelling alone and unable to find work, Valjean is taken in by a Bishop, who feeds him. In desperation, he makes off with silver plates and candlesticks, only to be caught and taken back to the Bishop, who surprises him by saying they were gifts, but forgot two candlesticks. His soliloquy leads him to vow a new start.
Eight years later, in Montreuil in 1823, ‘At the End of the Day’ introduces the struggles of the populace as Javert arrives, meeting Valjean, who he does not recognise, but is now Mayor of the town.
Fantine is kicked onto the streets and goes through a harrowing ordeal, forced into prostitution at the docks. ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ is an incredible lament of sadness and anguish, a heart-breaking song. Valjean intervenes; promising to take care of her daughter as Javert finally recognises him.
‘Who am I?’ is a test of character as Valjean goes to court to prevent a miscarriage of justice, then confronts Javert, who is relentless and unforgiving, leaving Valjean no choice but to flee and find Cosette.
She sings ‘A Castle in the Clouds’ as she sweeps up under the baleful gaze of Madame Thenardier and her husband, who then opens the inn to the tune of ‘Master of the House’, a light-hearted scene as Valjean arrives and takes her away. ‘Suddenly’ is my favourite song as Valjean realises that he has something more to live for in looking after Cosette, even with Javert on his trail. ‘Stars’ is his mission statement- fixed, unbending and relentless.
Fast Forward another nine years to Paris in 1832, Gavroche is a cheeky little chappy, a street urchin running and singing through the streets to a reprise of ‘Look Down’, introducing the Students and Marius, who completely unnotices the massive crush Eponine has on him, made worse when he does notice Cosette, who is with Valjean and accosted by the Thenardiers. ‘Red and the Black’ kindles the fire of rebellion, while ‘In My Life’ is incredible as Cosette and Marius meet in the garden, Eponine witnessing their meeting.
‘On My Own’ is Eponine’s lament, walking in the rain, mulling over her unrequited love for Marius. Something I can empathise with, as Unrequited love is something I’ve been through. I mean, think about it, every time you open yourself up to someone, they just take the opportunity to shove a knife in your gut, rip your heart out, stomp and spit on it, then laugh in your face and walk off. Makes you wonder why you even bother. Anyway, ‘One Day More’ weaves together the individual strands as the cast prepares, each contributing to the overall build up.
The Funeral march is spectacular as ‘Do You Hear the People Sing’ sees the battle begin, the barricade built as Javert gets caught spying. Valjean lets him go. ‘Drink With Me’ is a lull in the fighting, but then Gavroche and Eponine are killed, along with the rest of the students. Valjean rescues Marius, confronted by Javert who lets him go, but freaks out and commits suicide for some ridiculous reason.
‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’ is another sad lament as Marius grieves for his friends, then returns home with Cosette. Valjean leaves as they get married, but learn he has hidden himself at a Convent.
‘The Epilogue’ begins with Valjean’s final prayer, as they arrive, a vision of Fantine comforting him as he makes his last confession.
Then the dawn breaks and a vision of all the fallen heroes join in a reprise of ‘Do You Hear the People Sing’ atop the barricade.
Les Miserables is a triumph of a film, a multifaceted, complex and ambitious adaptation of the stage play and novel. A anthemic, unrelenting rollercoaster, it has to watched in one go, no interruptions
Do you hear the people sing, say can you hear the distant drums, It is the Future that we bring when Tomorrow comes!
The Puppet version, starring Mr. Tiglet as Valjean and Skuur as Javert looks like it’ll be unveiled in August, just as soon as Tiggy gets things together. It’ll be a hoot and three quarters, Probably!