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February 05, 2014

The Magic In the Musical: How 'Les Miz' Fosters Interest in Hugo's Original Story

les misJust recently, I had the opportunity to see the musical ‘Les Misérables’ (frequently shortened to ‘Les Miz’) which happens to be one of the most popular as well as the longest running musical in the world. When you look at top sights to see in London or New York, ‘Les Miz’ is definitely up there with the best of them and is considered a show not to be missed. But, I have to admit, I initially had my doubts about whether or not ‘Les Miz’ was indeed worth it – after all, tickets to a musical don’t run cheap and my expectations when it comes to renditions of my favorite books run high. I arrived at the last minute and managed to get a pretty decent second balcony seat. But as I settled in, I realized, with disgruntled alarm, that I was seated directly in the midst of a large group of young teenagers apparently on a school trip to the theatre. I grumbled to myself thinking that the performance would surely be dotted with giggles and unwanted loud commentary by the kids sitting around me. But it was too late, I already had the seat, the lights were dimming, and the show was about to begin – I would simply have to deal with it. As the first score started, an uncanny hush fell over the entire theatre and for the duration of the two and a half hour show, not a peep was heard from anyone beyond the occasional: “Bravo!” or “That was so good!” during the applause after a particularly emotional scene. The power to capture the imagination of such a wide variety of theatre goers is partially due to Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s incredible score, but in the midst of it all I couldn’t help but see that Victor Hugo’s marvelous book Les Misérables – upon which the musical is based – is the heart and soul of this show’s success. In ‘Les Miz’, Hugo’s tale translates so seamlessly and wonderfully to the stage that it’s difficult to imagine it receiving any sort of bad reception. However, creating a musical based off of one of the works of a literary great comes with a whole set of problems of its own – no matter how wonderful the original tale is or how soul rapturing the music may be. When ‘Les Miz’ first opened back in 1985 in London, many critics were aflame with bookish ire at the liberties the musical seemed to take with Hugo’s original story. It is doubtful that anyone back then would have foreseen the huge success ‘Les Miz’ would become or the global impact it would have. It’s fortunate that producer Cameron Mackintosh didn’t simply give up – because, given some of the scathing commentary by the critics, this seemed inevitable. But he didn’t, and here ‘Les Miz’ is today, nearly thirty years later, still packing the theatres and still arresting the fancies of people of all ages, walks of life, and mindsets. While it is true that the musical maintains the general ideas and concepts of Les Misérables, but deviates somewhat in character development and story line, it’s impossible not to see the benefits the show has – even with its shortcomings. Sadly, in current times the devotion to classic literature is simply not as rampant as it used to be and many people go their entire lives without having ever even picked up a copy of Hugo’s Les Misérables, much less other large classic works. By having musicals, movies, and even other art mediums like our Les Misérables and Les Misérables – Valjean’s Choice posters available to help bring alive images and ideas from Hugo’s story, something is achieved which the novel wouldn’t be able to accomplish on its own; Hugo’s gut-wrenching and emotional historic epic is shared with a wider variety of people, albeit in an at times condensed and slightly different form. If we demand that film and musical versions of books not be created unless they are pure and exact copies of the original script, and if we refuse to accept these other art forms as viable representations of a far greater work, then people lose the opportunity to learn about stories, tales, and concepts that were previously unknown to them. I bet quite a few people in that theatre with me that night hadn’t known much about Victor Hugo or may not even have been aware that the musical is based on his book, but they learned about it just by opening their programs. And you never know, perhaps there were some who left after that fantastic show and thought to themselves that they really should pick up and read Les Misérables – after all, if the story is wonderful onstage, then it surely must be amazing in writing! And so, in rapt attention along with twenty or so junior-high students, I watched the performance of ‘Les Miz’, cried a few times, and couldn’t help but shout “Bravo!” along with the thirteen-year old girl next to me. The likelihood of any of them having read that novel was low, but I could appreciate that now they knew at least a portion of Victor Hugo’s brilliant story.