One of the major perks of the way I live my life, with four hours in transit between home and my job daily, is that I listen to a lot of music. So today, I listened to one of my all time favorite Broadway musicals, Les Miserables.
Obviously, the novel on which the musical is based by Victor Hugo, like most French things, is hugely influenced by Catholicism. France is a culturally Catholic country, so their entire culture is skewed in that direction. But Les Mis goes beyond the surface of Catholic culture.
Les Mis is a deep examination of sin, redemption, forgiveness and God’s Love for the individual. That is the story Hugo wanted to tell, and Alain Boubil and Claude-Michel Schoenberg, who wrote the musical, enhanced that feeling by writing intensely spiritual lyrics and ethereal angelic melodies. They are also French. This is fully embodied in the main protagonist, Jean Valjean.
Valjean begins the tale as an embittered convict, just on parole and has had his first encounter with the implacable Javert. In a moment of desperation, he is taken in by a kindly bishop, who he takes advantage of and robs, taking the bishop’s silver place settings. When he is caught, the bishop covers for him, stating that the silver was a gift, and gives Valjean a set of candlesticks for good measure. But it is not a simple trade, as the bishop explains,
“Now remember this my brother. See in this some higher plan. You must use this precious silver to become an honest man. By the witness of the martyrs, b the passion and the blood, God has raised you out of darkness. I have bought your soul for God.”
Valjean is thrown by this action. This is the first time in over twenty years that he has experienced any kindness.
“Take an eye for an eye. Turn your heart into stone. This is all I have lived for. This is all I have known.”
But the new path is made clear by the bishop’s actions, by the bargain for Valjean’s soul.
“He told me that I have a soul. How does he know? What spirit comes to move my life? Is there another way to go?”
Valjean takes the redemption, and begins to live his penance. He sells the place setting, but keeps the candlesticks, and invests. He winds up in Mont-sur-Meil, owns a factory and becomes the mayor, all under an assumed name. While there, he takes a young, ill prostitute Fantine under his wing, to prevent her arrest by Javert. Fantine is forced to desperation because when she was young she gave birth to a daughter. The girl lives in an inn, and Fantine struggles to send bits of money to support her.
In a conversation with Javert, the disguised Valjean learns that the Inspector has “caught” a false Valjean. The real thing must then decide whether to reveal himself of let an innocent man pay for his crimes. It is his faith that convinces him to step forward.
“My soul belongs to God I know. I made that bargain long ago. He gave me hope when hope was gone. He gave me strength to journey on…”
Before Javert can arrest him, Valjean goes to the dying Fantine’s bedside. She gives Valjean her daughter, confident that he will take care of the girl and that her sins are now now forgiven.
“For God’s sake, please stay til I am sleeping. And tell Cosette I love her and I’ll see her when I wake.”
Javert comes and Valjean pleads for mercy, simply a few days to settle accounts with Cosette, Fantine’s daughter. Her Javert reveals his spiritual side.
“Dare you talk to me of crime and the price you have to pay? Every man is born in sin. Every man must choose his way.”
If Valjean is representing repentance and contrition, Javert is absolutism. There is right and there is wrong, and there is a choice. Valjean made his choices and must live with the consequences, regardless of how he feels.
The B plot comes into play now. All that stuff about the student revolution and Cosette falling in love with one of the students, and look, it’s a 3000 page epic turned into 3 hour long musical, a lot of stuff happens. But while living in Paris with Cosette, Javert and Valjean cross paths again, and again Javert is unflinching.
“He knows his way in the dark, but mine is the way of the Lord. Those who follow the path of the righteous shall have their reward. And if they fall as Lucifer fell, the flame, the sword…and so it has been for so it is written, on the doorways to paradise, that those who falter and those who fall must pay the price.”
On the eve of the revolutionary battle, Valjean and Cosette are preparing to flee and the whole chorus joins Valjean in a prayer for the next day.
“Tomorrow we’ll be far away, tomorrow is the judgement day. Tomorrow we’ll discover what our God in heaven has in store. One more dawn, one more day. One day more!”
Rather than leave, Valjean goes to the battle to protect Cosette’s lover Marius and encounters Javert there, who has been spying on the revolutionaries. In exchange for an act of heroism, Valjean is given Javert as a prisoner. He releases his old adversary and promises to turn himself in if he survives the battle. Javert flees, and the revolutionaries say their own prayer, though theirs is less religious, and more humanist.
“At the shrine of friendship never say die. Let the wine of friendship never run dry.”
While the others sleep, Valjean offers his own prayer for Marius especially, asking God to spare the man his Cosette loves even bargaining his own life for it.
“You can take, you can give. Let him rest, heaven blessed. If I die, let me die. Let him live. Bring him home.”
Both Valjean and Marius survive, though none of the others do. Valjean carries the young man home, and meets Javert again. Javert, tempered by the mercy Valjean showed him during the battle allows him to leave. This throws him into disarray and chaos. Javert’s absolutism fails him and he commits suicide.
“And my thoughts fly apart. Can this man be believed? Shall his sins be be forgiven? Will his crimes be reprieved? And must I know begin to doubt, who never doubt all those years. My heart is stone and still it trembles. The world I have known is lost in shadow.”
Marius and Cosette get married, and Valjean confesses the truth to Marius and goes into hiding. After discovering that Valjean was the one who saved his life, he and Cosette rush to his side. While alone, Valjean prays for them and as he realizes he’s dying, he writes Cosette a letter, while Fantine’s spirit joins him, assuring him salvation.
Fantine: Monsieur I bless your name. Monsieur lay down your burdens. You raised my child in love and soon you’ll be with God…come with me where chains will never bind you. All your grief at last at last behind you. Lord in heaven look down on him in mercy.
Valjean: Forgive me all my trespasses and take me to your glory.
Fantine and Eponine (I can’t believe I made it this far without talking about Eponine, but she’s a street urchin who was in love with Marius and died at the barricade in his arms and look, really? Do you not know who Eponine is?): Take my hand and lead me to salvation. Take my love for love is ever lasting. And remember, the truth that once was spoken. To love another person is to see the face of God.
As Valjean fades into the background the spirits of the dead revolutionaries step forward and sing of paradise.
“Do you hear the people sing, lost in the valley of the night? It is the music of a people who are climbing to the light. For the wretched of the earth, there is a flame that never dies. Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise.”
Then come my favorite verse in the entire show.
“They will live again in freedom in the garden of the Lord. They will walk behind the plowshare. They will put away the sword. The chain will be broken and all men will have their reward.”
I love that lyric. To me it sums it all up. This is a story about the overwhelming power of Grace in the lives of individuals. I use the music that stirs my heart to meditate and pray, and few pieces make me feel as close to God as Les Mis does.