I remember the summer that I first wept through Les Misérables by Victor Hugo, which then quickly became one of my most favourite novels. The beauty of the depiction of humans at their best and their worst made the book so relevant and resonant. Like Tolstoy’s War & Peace (another favourite), the book spoke about themes that were universal and still hold significance – unfortunately.
I always knew there was an enormous ‘fandom’ for the musical. The truth is I have never warmed to musicals – they seemed too quirky and whimsical to be actually taken seriously, and I just couldn’t wrap my head around to the fact that a book about social issues can actually be made into a musical. Then the musical came right next door to me (okay, not really) to the Dubai Opera. I was intrigued mainly because I just needed any excuse to revisit the Opera, given that my experience of one is very limited.
It turned out to be one of the most memorable evenings, albeit spent weeping through the musical. I am not an expert on the versions of this musical, so I can’t remark on how this compares, but to me, this was a poignant experience. And yes, as I was afraid it would, it didn’t reduce a favorite book to a gimmick. Maybe now, I might even try other musicals.
Les Misérables is set in 19th century France and is the story of an escaped convict, Jean Valjean, who tries to rebuild his life. Yet his attempt is thwarted as he is haunted and tracked by inspector Javert, who firmly believes that man is not capable of change.
Les Misérables has a message that’s timeless and the musical effectively denotes this without real dialogues but with music – unlike what I had assumed, this was powerful. For instance – ‘I dreamed a dream’ could send shivers down your spine through the actress’ powerful rendition and you could feel passionately about the war of young love (almost selfish) vs. the love for the greater good in ‘Red and the Black’.
The musical, like the book, speaks very strongly about the human condition. While the play created a sense of place and time, yet there was no second that I felt that this was not the contemporary truth as well. There was no sense of escape.
(Source: Emirates Woman)
Through Jean Valjean & Fantine, the dying young girl whose daughter Jean adopts as his own, the musical depicts how the downtrodden always remain downtrodden because societal structures that promote class system rarely allow them to rise above their circumstances – every attempt to rise is crushed violently so as to maintain the status quo. It’s also a depiction of the human capacity for cruelty to other humans – exploitation of the weakest.
Through Enjolras, the student revolutionary fighting for the those on the edges of the society, the story depicts the idealism of youth. Enjolras is what we all aspire to be – passionate, dynamic and a believer above all – contrary to the contemporary cynicism. The questions that arose in my mind because of Enjolras were these: Is the defeat of Enjolras and his student revolution a remark on how youth’s idealism is incongruent with realism? Or is it just a reinforcement of the fact that strong faith and belief in rightfulness should thrive in the face of hopelessness – that it’s the youth’s responsibility to not put blinders on the suffering of others and the ugliness of the society? Maybe it’s both.
(Source: Gulf News)
The musical is a depiction of humans at their lowest ebb, a portrait of misery. Yet, somehow even through misery, there’s hope entwined. There’s a message of redemption and the possibility of rising above circumstances with a new beginning. Ultimately, what you take away is not the cruelty but the human capacity for kindness and acceptance, with love triumphing all odds. Understandably, there was a heart-felt standing applause at the end. Like me, the rest of the audience was touched.
The most memorable performances for me were from John Owen-Jones as Jean Valjean and Hayden Tee as Javert – their raw depiction of the conflicts within the characters was awe-inspiring. Finally, the set was a visual delight. I am a newbie to plays and live performances. I have only seen plays screened live from London, but never been a part of the audience. This was a first for me, so I can only judge from my relative inexperience. The set was remarkably immersive, dynamic and alive with the music and the sound effects adding to the realism. During the barricade scenes, I felt that I was actually there. It was particularly horrifying to hear and see the massacre – a bit too realistic. It was nearly cinematic in its scope!
The core message of Victor Hugo intertwined beautifully with the music, set and the actors to create a very visceral experience. Les Misérables, the musical, conveys something deep about humanity that makes it a necessary watch.