Life & Liberty: Redemption and Pursuit


Victor Hugo's Les Misérables is 1,200 pages long, spanning 17 years and dozens of lives. Can it be compressed into a three-hour musical? More important, can its Romantic spirit survive time travel into a rock opera of the 1980s?

Not ideally, not without some violence to Hugo, but better than one might hope.

Conceived for the French stage by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, then adapted by the Royal Shakespeare Company of Britain, the musical Les Misérables was a huge hit in London, opened on Broadway with the largest advance in history—$11 million—and seems likely to run in perpetuity.

The novel already has a 126-year run. It sold out its first, 1862 edition of 7,000 copies in one day, has never been out of print, and has been adapted 25 times for the screen.

Modern critics dwell on its compassion for the poor, which was Hugo's impetus for writing it, but the true reason for its immortality is the power of the story: a drama of redemption and pursuit. Jean Valjean, the brutish convict, is redeemed by kindness and dedicates his life to good, becoming Monsieur Madeleine and adopting young Cosette in atonement for the indifference he once showed her mother. He is hunted relentlessly by Javert, the police inspector who denies the possibility of redemption and is finally shattered when Valjean has the chance to destroy him but instead shows mercy.

Despite the novel's digressive essays (on the battle of Waterloo, the sewers of Paris, etc.), Hugo's narrative method is the essence of suspense: place the characters in conflict, confront them with decisions. Javert tells "M. Madeleine" that the convict Valjean has been found and has confessed; will Madeleine keep silent and let an innocent man suffer in his place, or will he reveal himself and imperil his own life? The young girl Eponine loves Marius, the revolutionary, but he loves Cosette and asks Eponine to help him find her; will Eponine refuse to do it, destroying his happiness, or accede and doom her own? Les Misérables is at once epic and personal, a story of individual choices and destinies never dwarfed by the size of the canvas on which they figure.

How was that canvas cut to one evening in the theater? With the computer's help. Twentieth-century technology meets 19th-century values.

Computerized light cues and scene shifts now permit the theater a new complexity of design and a camera-like fluidity of action. In Les Misérables two revolving stages, one inside the other, spin the characters and the action from one location to another; two huge piles of rubble become the slums of Paris, then barricades on which idealistic students fight. After the battle, those barricades turn slowly to reveal bodies draped on them, a red cloak hanging like a river of blood. A stunning moment, one of many when the stage spectacle matches the story's power.

It can also diffuse and contradict that power. Although no major pieces of the novel's action have been sacrificed, some fly past, some take place simultaneously, and some are tucked into the "recitative" (like an opera, the musical is completely sung; recitative links the songs, and musical themes identify various characters). One cannot integrate, sometimes even follow, parts of the story without consulting the program synopsis (or the novel). More important, some of the story's emphases have been shifted, giving disproportionate focus to secondary characters at the expense of the story's core.

For example: That Valjean was jailed 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread is mentioned only in passing, and the bishop's candlesticks scene goes by so fast that only those who have read it fully grasp its power: Valjean steals the bishop's candlesticks, and when the police catch him the bishop declares that they were a gift. The bishop's act of forgiveness is the linchpin of the convict's redemption.

Another example: Javert gets fewer musical numbers and less dramatic focus than either Eponine or the Thenardiers, the venal innkeepers who brutalize young Cosette. Hugo described them as having "dwarf natures which easily become monstrous," yet in the musical's worst lapse they are made clowns, whose "Master of the House" number is more prominent than the bishop's candlesticks scene.

Changes for the American production, said its creators, aimed largely at strengthening Javert and highlighting his pursuit of Valjean because "the chase is the engine" of the story. (They hadn't known that before?) Having seen both the London and New York productions, I can attest that the latter does better by the chase, but still not enough. The heart of the musical is with the students on the barricades; with Fantine's (Cosette's mother's) sinking into prostitution and dying; with Eponine's yearning for Marius; and with the love between him and Cosette—the dullest part of both novel and musical, for Cosette is vapid, almost characterless, like many 19th-century heroines (Rostand's Roxanne, for instance).

Admittedly, Valjean's redemption and Javert's tortured struggle between humane impulses and absolute justice are difficult to dramatize and set to music because they involve complex moral questions. Admittedly, Hugo never made either man fully believable, though both are fascinating ideas for characters. Whether by default or design, the musical goes for the most easily accessible aspects of the novel, perhaps in the creators' belief that it had to in order to be successful. (Perhaps they were right.) The story is stripped to its most universal emotions. Libertarians and communists alike can feel pity for the poor and passion for justice because the musical neither asks nor allows us to think about how to act on either one.

One can criticize the musical's generalities, its elisions, its lack of intellectual content; but the brilliant staging, the music that pulses under and over the action (though hardly an equal for Hugo's magnificent prose style, which in effect it replaces), and finally the grandeur of Hugo's tale, which can be folded, spindled, and mutilated but not destroyed—all cast their spell. When the company marches forward singing "One Day More," when Valjean asks God to save Marius's life and "Bring Him Home," only granite hearts can fail to stir.

People love this musical; they weep, cheer, seem to experience a catharsis. The emotions in Les Misérables are of a kind contemporary theater and fiction refuse to touch (sometimes even to acknowledge) except with such ten-foot poles as irony, mockery, angst, even amusement. Unapologetically and openly, Les Misérables celebrates idealism, freedom, love of one's children, dedication to the good. On the brooding scenery, in the often murky light, everyone on stage is ablaze, whether with the agony of choice, the ecstasy of hope, or the pain of loss. For the audience, the experience is as exhilarating as unusual; how splendid, one feels, that things matter so much!

We were given a similar experience with the recent Cyrano de Bergerac, starring Derek Jacobi, and with Nicholas Nickelby—both also from the Royal Shakespeare Company; like Les Misérables, Nickelby was co-directed by Trevor Nunn and John Caird, men of enormous theatrical talent.

Their imaginations sparked by the theater's new technology, these men, and many of their colleagues, often look to the 19th century. When they look to the 20th, we get the empty dazzle of Starlight Express, whose actors whiz about on roller-skates, playing trains, or of Cats, whose actors pounce and crawl about as felines to T.S. Eliot's (heavy) light verse.

Les Misérables made me feel one thing it didn't intend: yearning for playwrights to give us the 20th-century equivalent of the vision and imagination of men like Hugo, Dickens, and Rostand. The past is a glorious place to visit, but not to live.

Kay Nolte Smith's first novel, The Watcher, won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America. Her fifth novel, Country of the Heart, has just been published by Villard Books.