Appropriately enough, I was in Paris, France when I first heard of the musical version of Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserables. It was 1991 and I was chaperoning some of my Mom’s high school French students on an international trip. A few of the others students on the tour were from the New York area and were big fans of the Broadway production that had opened in 1987. That was the year I graduated high school and entered the near poverty level existence of a college student. I barely had time to think about musicals, let along travel to New York City to see them. That’s my excuse for why Les Miserables was not on my radar.
What I did have at college, was an experience similar to the students in Les Miserables. No, we weren’t at the point of taking up arms against the government, but we did debate big issues and take action. We fought for and won divestment from apartheid in South Africa for the college’s investments. We fasted in solidarity with students in the Tiananmen Square Democracy movement and struggled with the after effects of its collapse. We protested against the first Gulf War organizing the largest anti-war marches Portland had seen since the Vietnam era. We knew we were small microbes in a huge pond, but we struggled and pushed against the sharpening wheel of life’s experiences anyway. Some students graduated with business degrees, we left school with the knowledge that we could make a difference if we worked together and that was powerful.
The high school students proudly wore their Les Miserables t-shirts to nearly every tour we took in Paris. They would sing the songs together before meals, after meals, on the bus, sometimes at 2AM. To say I was a bit annoyed as an understatement.
It was Bastille Day, July 14, 1991 when I first heard the complete original Broadway cast recording (they didn’t think to bring a copy with them, but someone managed to find a recording at a store in Paris). The soundtrack to the musical should have been their hello. I wasn’t impressed with the complexity of the songs, but I was immediately taken with the emotion in their delivery.
Upon returning to The States, I caught the first touring production of Les Miserables I could. Alas, it took a few years. I had relocated to Los Angeles where I saw it at the Ahmanson. The wait was worth it, the production value amazed (like it should) and the performances were moving (as I knew they would be) and I became a bigger fan. I bought the double-CD set, which is still on my desk, and I know I kept the program, but alas I can’t find it right now.
That seems like another life ago.
The first signs that a movie version of the Les Miserables musical might be made seems like a lifetime ago too. Alan Parker (The Commitments) was initially tapped to develop the film in 1988. It even made it into development around 1991 with TriStar producing. But after that it languished in Development Hell. The idea stayed on the back burner until the 2010 Les Miserables 25th Anniversary Concert where Cameron Mackintosh said that fires were once again lit for the film version.
The movie stars a mix of stage and film actors (with a few like Hugh Jackman straddling both universes) and is directed by Tom Hooper, who directed the marvelous The King’s Speech. I’m not going to go into all the marvelous details of the production that have been winging their way around the internet to help promote the film, but I will admit to being more and more excited every time I read or hear another tidbit. I’ve been watching the 25th concert, listening to the CD, diving into the world of Jean Valjean one more time.
These days, I am more Thenardier than Enjolras, a part of the dominant paradigm I once struggled to shift. I don’t feel bad about it. Had Enjolras survived the revolution the same thing would have happened to him too. I still know that a group of people united for a good cause can make a difference, which gives me some hope. I also know that’s not the lesson of Les Miserables. Instead it’s more about struggle and redemption.
So off I go to see Les Miserables at a press screening tonight. I’m embargoed from telling you what I really feel about the movie until a few days before it hits theaters near you on Christmas. But I expect my obsession to be renewed. I promise to return with a full review when I’m allowed.
Is Les Miserables a film you’ve been looking forward too?