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Reflections on "Les Miserables", the musical.

by

Stuart Fernie

 

 

This page was written principally as a response to questions I was asked by a student concerning the place of the musical version of "Les Miserables" in relation to other musicals, and why it had been so successful. I have always shied from attempting to discuss the musical as I know nothing about music, but I hope this ignorance will not prevent me from suggesting why it has succeeded in inspiring so many.

 

In my opinion the musical version of "Les Miserables" is the perfect union of material and medium.

First and foremost this is musical theatre and not a "show" as such. Music is used by the authors to tell Hugo's tale, and it is the story that remains the most important element in the musical version. This is no star or even character vehicle. It has integrity and is so well structured that each scene advances the plot or deepens our knowledge of the various characters involved. Many musicals have a few good scenes and songs, but seem to contain "padding" elsewhere. "Les Mis" appears carefully crafted throughout so that each scene remains memorable and of interest and importance.

 

In some shows the players/singers remain fairly static, but in "Les Mis" there is considerable movement - movement which is linked to the developing storyline. In other shows you may have quite spectacular and entertaining dance routines frequently built around relatively flimsy storylines. "Les Mis" appears to have struck the perfect balance between storyline and theatrical movement.

Above all, Hugo was a poet who wrote a book about society's ills, injustice, and the ways in which we (humanity) treat one another. He deals with a huge variety of themes, but to achieve his goal he tries to engage emotion, invite reflection and perhaps more than anything else, incite compassion and serve as inspiration.

Of all the film versions, really only the 1934 version with Harry Baur comes close to achieving Hugo's aims.

However, music is far and away the most effective means of communicating emotion and imparting the need for compassion and love. Music can make you feel in an instant what it might take many words to impart, and if the key to "Les Miserables" is emotion and compassion, surely the most effective means of expressing the story is in music.

This is, I think, why "Les Mis" has been so successful. The music and storyline complement one another perfectly to provide an adult and reflective entertainment which touches the hearts of its audience and which inspires them to think about their own lives.

I first saw the musical in September 1998 and I have seen it a further nine times (including five school parties). I have studied "Les Miserables" as part of the Higher and Advanced Higher course (in Scotland). Many of my pupils become genuinely involved in the story through a combination of a sense of injustice, the emotions, and above all the compassion it arouses. It is exactly because of these emotional responses that I think that music is the perfect medium for the recounting of Hugo's tale.

The musical creates atmosphere, informs the audience of the personalities, motivations and feelings of various characters, and can even remind the audience of past events through the repetition of various themes - all through a few bars of (very carefully crafted) music. Many find Hugo's rather verbose style difficult or unappealing, yet here they are immediately seduced by his storyline which has simply been adapted to a different (and perhaps more immediate and compelling) medium.

The musical is, indeed, a masterfully structured piece weaving artful songs and melodies with superbly crafted staging. But of course there would be no show without Hugo's original material, material which was so strong it inspired Boublil and Schonberg to produce their own version.

 

This musical has touched many people's lives. It has inspired many, and continues to affect those who have seen it, and for considerably longer than the duration of the show itself. It is an achievement of which Boublil, Schonberg, Sir Cameron Mackintosh and all those involved in its production and performance can be rightly proud. It is also a rendering of which I imagine Victor Hugo would heartily approve.

 

I recently saw the 25th anniversary touring version of the show and I can honestly say (much to my surprise) that I thought it was superior to the original!  This may simply be because I have seen it several times and therefore appreciated seeing something different, but I think not - several scenes are, in my opinion, improved (Javert's death, the sewers, the factory scenes, even the opening prologue sequence).  There appeared to be more colour and energy in this version, though there are a few problems to iron out - the time line is unclear, as is the geography, but overall the cast and the staging are superb.  John Owen-Jones just goes from strength to strength in the role of Valjean, Earl Carpenter is strong as Javert, Madalena Alberto was the most affecting Fantine I have seen, and although Gareth Gates doesn't have the power of some of his co-stars, his voice suited the role of Marius very well, and he made the part his own.  I should say that my view of the show is not shared by everyone - a friend who knows a great deal more about theatre than me thought the blocking and direction poor.  That said, as an ordinary punter who loves the show, I was delighted with what I saw.

Meeting "Valjean"

 

My thanks for taking the time to read this page. I hope you found it of some value. I would, of course, be delighted to discuss the content of this page further - I can be contacted at stuartfernie@yahoo.co.uk .

Stuart Fernie

 

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Due to technical problems (and my inability to cope with them), new material will be posted on My Blog. Please check for regular updates. These include various articles, discussions of "Dunkirk", "Dances With Wolves", “The Prisoner” (1967 TV series), “Inherit the Wind” (1960 film), a little Flash Fiction and some of my memoirs as a teacher in a small Highland school for some 35 years.