Ah, here it is…next to perhaps Phantom of the Opera, the most beloved and popular musical of its era, and the one that the theater snobs have the most exaggerated disdain for. It is, obviously, based on Victor Hugo’s labyrinthine novel of the human condition, a novel that seemed completely unadaptable into a musical before this show came along.
The novel had a vast amount of plot, as grandiose epic novels of that era were wont to do (look at some of Dickens’ work), and some people blame the musical for not encapsulating every single element of it. But it’s extremely impressive just how much of the story they did manage to fit in, even with the advantage of its three hour running time. And to be honest, the musical actually improves in some ways on the plot of the novel—Hugo used a lot of typical dramatic devices of the period, many of which seem implausible and contrived to modern readers, and the musical’s plot is actually in many ways much more rational and believable.
The thing that carries the show, of course, is the score. Because there is so much plot to cover, the sung dialogue sections in between the formal songs can get a little bit melodically repetitious…in particular, the harsher, more staccato variation of the theme that eventually becomes “Empty Chairs At Empty Tables” does get run into the ground somewhat.
But all of the full-on songs are wonderful. The ballads feature some of the most rhapsodic melodies in musical theater, and many of them…”I Dreamed a Dream”, “Stars”, “On My Own”, “A Little Fall of Rain”, “Bring Him Home”, “Empty Chairs At Empty Tables”…penetrated the mainstream consciousness in a way few showtunes were doing at the time, essentially becoming ‘hits’ even if they never charted. For more martial music, we have two of the most stirring numbers in musical history—the indelible anthem “Do You Hear the People Sing?” and the magnificent ensemble finale to Act I, “One Day More”, which closes the first act on more tension and anticipation than any other first act finale I know of.
The music is equally stunning when the score turns toward dark, glowering Rock music in its more disturbing moments, such as on “Look Down”, “At the End of the Day” or “Dog Eats Dog”. Such moments have an impact that is absolutely staggering, haunting the listener with the darkness and misery of these people’s lives. These songs are more than just gorgeous Pop tunes…they make these characters and their feelings unmistakably real, and give this show a dramatic weight few other musicals can match. The show can be something of a draining experience in the theater because of this, but you really feel that you’re watching a monumental epic of the human condition, which is exactly the experience brought on by reading Hugo’s original novel, so I’d call that a definite success.
The show does have a few flaws, however. The key characters of Marius and Cossette are never as interesting as they should be…Cossette’s music, in particular, while still extremely pretty, lacks the emotional weight of the other characters’ material. The result of this is that Cossette comes across more as a thing for the others characters to fight for than a character in her own right. Still, even the weaker music in the score is of a high order…Cossette’s “Castle On a Cloud”, “In My Life”, and “A Heart Full of Love” are still quite lovely as music, and even the oft-dismissed comedy number “Master of the House” has an irresistibly catchy melody.
The main objection its detractors have, outside of quibbling about its failure to tell the entire plot of the novel in three hours, is its extreme and completely unashamed emotionalism. Let’s face it, the musical’s title literally means “The miserable ones”…it is both monumentally depressing and full of unbelievably intense emotions. The next musical by this team, Miss Saigon, for all its sorrow, was essentially one tragic story: Les Miserables is at least a half-dozen tragic stories that all intersect at their saddest point. Because of this, I’ve heard some of the more emotionally repressed theater snobs accuse it of being “emotionally manipulative”, although frankly you could levy the same accusation at the original novel, whose place in classical culture is so secure that no-one with intellectual pretentions would dare criticize it.
Moreover, Les Miserables is heavily influenced by classical Opera, to the point of being explicitly modeled after it. It’s not an Opera, but that’s mostly because of the way it’s sung…with belted Pop chest tones rather than the Classical vocal techniques that are the defining feature of Opera. Otherwise, it imitates the style almost perfectly, making it the most truly ‘operatic’ of Broadway’s ‘Pop Operas’. Yes, it is written in a structure unlike the old-fashioned opera model, with unstructured arioso surrounding the set pieces rather than recitative, but there are several famous operas that use that exact same structure, particularly Wagner’s Meistersinger and Verdi’s Otello. And Opera is designed by definition to use exactly the kind of over-the-top emotionalism seen in this show. Hugo has a natural affinity for opera…two of Verdi’s operas, including the legendary Rigoletto, are based on his work…so the decision to make this show as Opera-like as possible seems to have been a sound one.
This is easily one of the greatest musicals of the Eighties, and indeed of all time, and its naysayers will no doubt go the way of the similar naysayers who dismissed Verdi and Puccini for the same reasons, and gradually disappear into the mists of history as the show’s classic status is cemented with time.