Review Summary: Tomorrow we'll see what our God in heaven has in store...
If you had asked me one year ago how my view of the world would of been without Les Miserables
... I really couldn't tell you. Even now, after all the years I gave it a glance and being damn glad I did, it's still possible to hold a strong glow of worship for this book. Epic in scope and dynamic in its realism, the whole 1,400+ page book is one that's impossible to put down once you begin with it. A cadenza of plots, involving poverty, revolution, suicide, redemption, crime, religion, and political disagreements sounds convoluted, and probably would never have worked in the year it was released. But Victor Hugo
made the whole thing work, and not only did he do it, he was well ahead of his time with his detailed visuals and his knowledge of history - Hugo knew how to make a captivating storyline: when the book's at its best, it manages to deliver some of the most memorable moments in literature. (Not to mention it was required on the agregation
for French literature) To put it frankly, my view of the world changed with Les Miserables.
Sure, that sounds ridiculous, but it's true. Watching the fall and rise of the main character Jean Valjean, the hopeless romance of Marius Pontmercy, the students manning the barricades, gave me a different outlook on how humanity really does suffer. It's right up there with novels such as War and Peace
, The Magic Mountain
, and A Tale of Two Cities
. Eventually this got a resurgence in popularity in the 20th century, movie after movie was made of it; to be fair, most of the movies were surprisingly good. However they just don't capture the book's magic, mostly because that's impossible. There were a few dry adaptations (including an anime series and sequel novels), but then a new player came on the board and knocked the game away: the musical. 25+ years later, it's still the most successful musical adaptation of a novel and the 3rd most produced in the world.
But the question still remains: is it as damn good as the media takes it for? Because, to be fair, many of the adaptations made out of it flat-out blew
. But the musical does, and far more accurately than one would expect. Top that off with memorable solos and a few catchy songs, and you've got Les Miserables: The Musical
Here's the plot in a nutshell - and it has to be, considering how immense in scope it is - former convict Jean Valjean (Colm Wilkinson) is released from parole after nineteen years for stealing a loaf of bread (and 3-4 times trying to escape). Due to his ticket of leave, he is denied regular work wages and is denied entry to an inn. A kind bishop (Ken Caswell) takes him in and shows him kindness. After this act, Valjean decides to become a better man: in doing so, he becomes mayor. A woman named Fantine (Patti LuPone) is bullied out of work in a factory and is almost arrested by Valjean's nemesis Javert (Roger Allam), and Valjean offers to care for her child. It unfolds into a story of love, revolution, death, and trials and tribulations. This is passing over many details, but if I told the whole story, it'd be longer than this review.
First off, there's no denying that Les Miserables
is, without a doubt, one of the most impressive displays of vocal talent you'd find. Sure, that's sort of a stretch considering all of the great musicals - like Jesus Christ Superstar, Music Man, Chicago, and Evita
- but it's true. Be it the ability to hold notes, the emotion, the surprisingly wide vocal ranges, or even the overall appeal of the lyrics, Les Miserables has some seriously good performances. Whether it be hearing the epic range between Michael Maguire and Micheal Ball in Red and Black
, the duet between Valjean and Javert in Confrontation
, or the ever-popular ballad I Dreamed a Dream
; each player has their own individual talent and emotion to display in their characters - and for a good majority of the time, it does it well.
The sad truth is, when you go further beyond singing, you need an actor to play that character. These actors do it well, but unfortunately fall flat in many cases. The opening couple of songs in the prologue contain very dry acting by Valjean and various citizens of Paris; At the End of the Day
features mediocre conversations between the factory workers and Fantine, and Lovely Ladies
does contain a catchy and dirty chorus, but everything else afterwards falls flat on its French-English ass. However, it improves as it finds its path on the road, eventually showing excellent characterization on the barricades in Act II, or the criminals in Attack on Rue Plumet
As damning as it can be, the musical makes up for it. The lyrics in themselves are top-notch in the emotion expressed in them (My heart is stone and still it trembles / the world I have known is lost in shadow
). Hearing all of Paris chant in the figurative and literal "One Day More", the saddening power ballads of Fantine and Eponine in "I Dreamed a Dream" and "On My Own" (respectively), and Marius mourning the loss of the revolutionaries in "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables"; the delivery is in particular impressive during its solos. Two songs in particular stand out: the solos Bring Him Home
and Javert's Suicide
(sung between Valjean and Javert respectively). One a prayer, the other an irreligious act. Each song shows their best vocal performances (with Colm reaching high notes so simply it's second nature) and their acting: how desperate and pleading both characters are, one praying for life, the other taking it away from himself; there is soul there.
One final triumph here is the backing score. The dynamic trumpets in Red and Black
, the heavy piano and violin in Confrontation
, and the harp in On My Own
that builds up as it goes, the backing score to the vocalists is dramatic and executed sharply. It is entirely possible for a whole audience to captivated on a single instrument in The Final Battle
; sure, the actors here are the lightning that strikes, but the band is the storm that causes it.
The bottom line is that Les Miserables is indeed an amazing musical, one that does the book justice, but how you view is quite honestly, depending on your taste. It's not perfect, by any means. It does have dry acting, a few unnecessary songs here and there, and there are some performances that don't run on all cylinders. But when it does, flashing its brilliance, it's a great triumph. Hugo's vision probably isn't full circle here, but considering how phenomenal the book is, the musical is surprisingly stellar. Once you're carried on the back of Jean Valjean through the Paris sewers, you'll be glad you made the trek.