The opening notes of your first live musical stay with you forever. And few are better than the iconic chords of the Prologue to Les Misérables. As soon as they came crashing out of the orchestra pit amid the applause of the audience, I knew I was in for something special. It is not hard to understand why this show is the longest running in the world, nor why it has been translated into 21 languages. I do not cry easily at films or books or shows, but on my first trip to see Les Mis, I fully expected to shed a few tears. That expectation was met within Act One alone. Act Two seized me by the heartstrings and led me to cry almost continuously for the hour, leaving me intensely grateful I had chosen waterproof mascara. I have since seen it a second time and felt the same emotion.
This emotion is a shared experience. It takes a heart of stone to resist the beauty and sadness of Les Misérables. An interaction at my second trip on the opening night at the Sondheim (the best 18th birthday celebration I could have thought of) affirmed this for me. The man sat next to me bore all the marks of someone who would resist showing emotion: three-piece suit, rather intimidating size and posture. Roll on Act Two, and he cries audibly as much as I do.
The success and emotional impact of the show is not solely thanks to the story or the beautiful music, but rather the marriage of the two. The repeated melodies lend a cohesiveness to the play and are employed not for mere effect but to reveal deeper meanings about the connections between characters or events. The motif of ‘On My Own’ calls to the sacrifices made for love. The rhythmic symmetry between ‘Valjean’s Soliloquy’ and ‘Javert’s Suicide’ reflects two remarkably similar men reaching a breaking point in their life. The compositions and the storytelling are entwined to the extent that the instrumentals alone can tell the story (it only takes the melody of ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’ for something to mysteriously get in my eye). This union between orchestration and plot first drew me to the musical; it called to two of my greatest passions: writing and music. This show inspired me to learn to sing and led me to discover many more now cherished musicals.
Even being a Les Mis fan before watching the show could not have prepared me for the wonder of seeing it live. The pacing, the staging and the live singing created such electricity that I felt it was the first time it had ever been performed. I was utterly alone – it was so immediate it must have been just for me – but simultaneously felt a sense of community among the audience. I could hear them sniffling. I could feel them hold their breath. They felt and reacted as I did.
I knew actors stood on the stage before me, that they do this night after night. I knew the gunshots are played through the speakers, the blood is fake, no one is actually dying on stage. That is the magic of theatre. You know all this, and yet it feels so real. It moves you as if it is real.
My first Valjean – and my forever favourite – was Killian Donnelly. He carried the role magnificently throughout but transcended all expectations at ‘Bring Him Home’. The pressure of this iconic song must weigh heavily on any actor who plays Valjean, but Donnelly’s interpretation was remarkable because of how he seemed to fall away. It was not about proving a particular vocal ability or giving a traditional ‘show-stopping’ performance. It was not about him. He remained sat on the barricade and hardly moved. His angelic, light head voice ventured into a stronger chest only when the phrasing called for it. The resulting rendition did absolute justice to the composition and led you to feel in your very soul the rise and fall of the melody. Valjean’s tenderness and selflessness rang through the auditorium, one of those rare but magical moments when the actor completely vanishes and leaves only the character and the music. Never before had a singer moved me to tears solely with their voice, nor have any since. It is a performance I will never forget.
Despite being one of the saddest sagas ever written, Les Misérables is ultimately a story of hope. It drags you through every emotion, but you leave the theatre ultimately uplifted. The reprise of ‘Do You Hear the People Sing’ builds and brings you with it. It fills you with anticipation of a brighter future “when tomorrow comes”. The themes suffused through the piece speak as strongly to people now as they did when Victor Hugo first published the novel in 1862. The fight for a better world is shown directly in the revolt and indirectly through actions of other characters, as when Bishop Myriel extends the candlesticks to Valjean; his own small action to change the world for the better. The redemptive power of love reveals itself in the central character arc of Valjean, but also through the relationship between Eponine and Marius, and Enjolras and Grantaire (the latter somehow put across perfectly in a singular verse of ‘Drink With Me’ and a brief moment in ‘The Final Battle’). I believe these universal themes are what sets Les Mis apart and have gifted it its success.
With the current state of society and world politics, Les Misérables feels as relevant as ever and increasingly more important. If enough of the millions of people to have seen it took it to heart and lived by its messages, I wonder what we could achieve.
Have something to say about one of our articles? Send in a Letter to the Editors by filling out the Google Form below!: https://forms.gle/ExkphSLQ6C9F2zcf9