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date: 27 February 2017

Les Misérables: From Epic Novel to Epic Musical

Abstract and Keywords

One of Britain’s most profitable musical exports, Les Misérables has captivated audiences worldwide with its mix of stirring spectacle and high emotion. Critical response has, however, been deeply divided. Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s ‘megamusical’ has often been accused of trivializing the mammoth nineteenth-century novel by Victor Hugo on which it is based, reducing Hugo’s epic of social injustice to populist sentimentalism. To challenge the cliché of the inferiority of adaptations and the bias towards ‘high art’ that such criticism generates, this essay specifies the relationship between Hugo’s global bestseller and the world’s longest-running musical. This connection has received much less scholarly attention than the fame of each work would suggest. By exploring their affiliation within the contexts of both Hugo’s Romanticism and the libretto’s collaborative development from Paris to London, a revealing likeness is identified that clearly underpins the success of the ‘show of shows’.

Keywords: adaptation, Alain Boublil, Cameron Mackintosh, Claude-Michel Schönberg, Herbert Kretzmer, Les Misérables, megamusical, Robert Hossein, Victor Hugo

By 1978, when Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg began reworking Victor Hugo’s epic novel Les Misérables for musical theatre, the story of the convict Jean Valjean and his journey towards redemption in post-Revolutionary France was already one of Western literature’s most adapted works. After the immense success of its international publication in 1862, the renown of Les Misérables had been enhanced thanks to a wide range of adaptations in print, on stage, across the airwaves, and on screen, extending from the Americas to the Far East.1 Although Schönberg himself has noted that Puccini abandoned his own operatic treatment of Les Misérables because Hugo’s novel was too vast,2 he and Boublil were certainly not the first to set the text to music, with versions having appeared in the United States and Italy before either artist was even born.3 Yet no single adaptation has perhaps done more to popularize Hugo’s bestseller than the work that is today universally known as Les Miz. The London production that opened on 8 October 1985 has become the epicentre of an international phenomenon as the world’s longest-running musical.4 Garnering over 140 major theatre awards and playing across nearly 350 cities in forty-four countries, the show has been seen in person by more than seventy million people.5 Those oft-cited figures potentially do not account for the yet broader audiences that have experienced Les Misérables: various album recordings and filmed concerts have sold by the millions, while the 2002 School Edition and the 2012 Hollywood film version have both extended the musical’s reach into popular culture. For Boublil and Schönberg, this success maintains Hugo’s legacy: ‘[O]ur musical of Les Misérables is now following in the footsteps of Victor Hugo’s novel; embraced by different nations in different languages all over the world.’6

One inheritance they might have preferred to do without was the hostile critical response that Hugo’s epic initially received. When France’s Goncourt brothers proclaimed that ‘a man of genius had written a novel intended for the cabinets de lecture (i.e., the uneducated people who visited the reading rooms)’7 their observation had been meant as a criticism rather than a prediction of the novel’s mass popularity. Like many (p. 382) French critics, they saw Les Misérables as a return to outdated Romantic tastes. Idealism and contrived characterization threatened to devalue the contemporary investment in realist poise and literary craftsmanship.8 Such objections made little difference: the global market was instantly swept up in the very same sentimentalism that had irked so many commentators. Over 120 years later, the musical’s London debut uncannily soured the same cultural tastes that privilege supposed artistic integrity over popular sentiment. In London The Times derided the show’s ‘push-button emotionalism’ and The Guardian labelled it ‘middlebrow entertainment rather than great art’. Ironically, however, Hugo’s novel had by now accumulated greater artistic credit thanks to its enduring status, leading several critics to declare that the show trivialized its source and ‘emasculated Hugo’s Olympian perspective’, as The Observer claimed.9 Benedict Nightingale for the New York Times numbered among the few who could anticipate the fervour of the paying audiences, as if aware of the lessons that history offers through such changes of fortune. He articulates the public experience when remembering that first night: ‘I was transported as I’ve seldom been in a career in which I reckon I’ve reviewed some 12,000 shows: transported into a world of beggary and heroism, evil and self-sacrifice.’10 A mass marketing machine—not dissimilar from the one launched by Hugo and his publisher—would capitalize on such sensations. For all of the musical’s achievements, the ability to unsettle critics but to bring audiences together makes it recognizably Hugolian in character.

This telling line of continuity between page and stage rests upon a shared aesthetic character and universal appeal. In this chapter, we trace that line through an analysis of the novel’s transfer to the stage so as to explore its relationship with Hugo’s text as one of correspondence rather than equivalence. To borrow Linda Hutcheon’s influential theory of how adaptations work, we see Boublil and Schönberg’s musical not as ‘a copy in any mode of reproduction, mechanical or otherwise’, but as ‘repetition without replication, bringing together the comfort of ritual and recognition with the delight of surprise and novelty’.11 Scholarly attention to the relationship between the musical and its literary source has been limited, arguably owing to two unhelpful if persistent critical discourses: the qualitative distinction between high and popular culture on the one hand, and the tendency to consider adaptations as secondary products to their sources on the other.12

Thankfully, some insightful investigations have been carried out, in spite of the general suspicion. In The Megamusical (2006), Jessica Sternfeld included a chapter on Les Misérables that richly detailed its production history and carefully analysed the score. Elsewhere, in a chapter from his co-authored study Adapting Nineteenth-Century France (2013), Andrew Watts returned Hugo to the discussion by exploring how the novel and its musical adaptation each borrow from different theatrical sources for melodramatic effect. Notwithstanding these respective lenses on the commercial musical and literary adaptation, our essay sharpens the focus that both approaches afford. We further scrutinize the English libretto’s collaborative development in order to create a clearer aesthetic and cultural portrait of what has become one of Britain’s most beloved musical exports. Such scrutiny will be strengthened by recapping two contexts that tend to be underplayed but that have important roles: first and foremost, the epic character of Hugo’s (p. 383) novel, which reflects both the author’s Romantic world view and his literary diversity, and which for that reason cannot be conceptualized solely through models of adaptation or simply labelled with vague clichés of ‘greatness’; and second, the French version of Les Misérables that Boublil and Schönberg recorded as a concept album and staged in Paris some five years before the English musical, itself constituting a significant prototype for their worldwide hit.

Our intention is to tease out the similarities and differences between the novel and the musical in order to clarify the ways in which the latter at once mirrors the former while projecting its own individual identity. Given that the show’s length equals the time it takes most people to read less than 5 per cent of Hugo’s text, this is hardly surprising, but such extensive abbreviation need not be understood in strictly reductive terms. The comparatively short runs of the many stage plays based on the book, beginning with that of Hugo’s son Charles in 1863, indeed suggest that the musical form draws far greater verve from the novel than any strictly theatrical production has done. The novel’s spiritual and sentimental tones necessarily become simpler and more forceful in a sung-through musical that is played out on a theatrical stage. The musical echoes Hugo but understands that his narrative range and depth could not merely be recited if it were to succeed as a modern opera.

Hugo and His Adaptors

Both the literary form and narrative content of Les Misérables have travelled across different generations, cultures, and media by fascinating audiences and adaptors alike. Hugo’s sensory descriptions generate an obvious interest for the visual and performing arts. In famous scenes such as Jean Valjean’s flight through the sewers, Hugo displays an imagination that is ‘both impressionistic and cinematic’ in its attention to light and shifting viewpoints.13 At the same time, he relies on what has been called his ‘highly developed auditory sensitivity’:14 music is everywhere in the novel, from Fantine’s maternal lullaby to Gavroche’s rebellious songs, while the narrative frequently calls upon sound, noticeable for example when Inspector Javert traverses eerily silent streets to happen upon the invisible but audibly mighty swell of the Seine beneath him.15 This narrative style is made to serve a story that is both sweeping in its scope as a work of historical fiction and universal in its nature as an allegory of human suffering. The co-dependency between good and evil and the reality of social injustice are broad themes with general relevance, just as the novel’s primal emotions such as love and despair can be universally experienced. Hugo saw the fates of all living things—irrespective of their grandeur or depravity—as entwined individual threads, knotting together into a twisting whole that at once tightens and unravels. Such a viewpoint is articulated in the novel’s opening part through Bishop Myriel: he contemplates a universe in which everything is connected by a mysterious divine power that is infinite in its reach and transcendent in its effects (I.i.14).16 Hugo’s brief prologue—a single unfolding sentence that concisely illustrates (p. 384) his ever-expanding but always connected thought processes—talks not of the future of France but of every living soul.17 The plight of the misérables is that of the world entire, in which an individual descent into wretchedness can still find deliverance through altruism and humanity. Invoking such a belief, Hugo foresees that his novel will be constrained neither by national nor temporal borders in its universal and timeless appeal.

In short, he had fashioned Les Misérables to be a classic in the vein of such greats as Homer, Milton, and Dante, whose works themselves reverberate through his writing.18 He offers a poetic vision of modernity rather than an academic musing on it, knowing that basic principles rather than political intricacies would capture a global popular imagination. The 1832 Paris insurrection is therefore positioned as the direct result of poverty rather than specifically within the complicated ideological debates of the July Monarchy.19 Furthermore, Hugo drew on the contemporary styles of historical and urban novels from writers such as Sir Walter Scott and his friend Honoré de Balzac, lending his work a modern attitude that would engage and entertain readers in an age when they were becoming increasingly accustomed to the thrills of narrative fiction. His own literary credentials allowed his imagination to thrive when writing the novel.20 As both a highly successful playwright and the most celebrated French poet of the century, Hugo was fully qualified to excite and entice his readers with his combination of melodramatic plotting and epic dimensions—already seen three decades earlier in his hugely popular novel Notre-Dame de Paris (1831). Crucial to this emotional and literary scale were the characters themselves, who quickly entered into the public consciousness. ‘By making them the means—and not the ends—for the transmission of a larger message,’ as Isabel Roche has observed,21 and with Hugo’s encouragement of illustrators such as Gustave Brion for popular editions, figures like Valjean and Cosette struck an instant connection as emblems of Hugo’s argument in favour of compassion and spirit over self-interest and desolation.

These various characteristics all facilitated Les Misérables’ rebirth as a lyrical drama in the hands of Boublil and Schönberg. The challenge of translating Hugo’s sprawling 1,500-page novel into a stage musical was considerable—all the more so when we consider that Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist, the musical of which (Lionel Bart’s Oliver!) inspired Boublil during its 1978 London revival by reminding him of Hugo’s characters, is only one-third as long. But musical theatre, as much as Hugo’s writing, motivated the two Frenchmen. As a librettist, Boublil had been attracted to the medium’s potential since he had seen West Side Story in 1959 in Paris. The New York premiere of Jesus Christ Superstar twelve years later convinced him that ‘an all-sung musical with an historical theme, mixing the tradition of Italian opera with contemporary musical and literary styles’, had enormous artistic potential.22 Convincing the composer Schönberg of this interest, he produced La Révolution française in Paris in 1973: a rock opera whose subject created a precedent for their next collaboration. Importantly, the three musicals that had so enthused Boublil were themselves adaptations of monumental works—Dickens’s social fiction, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and the Bible itself. They each demonstrated that well-known tales could find new life within the musical genre, and each conveyed themes found in Les Misérables, including social unrest, star-crossed lovers, (p. 385) and salvation. One other show may also have had its part to play, even if it has yet to figure in the orthodox narrative of the musical’s creation. Intriguingly, in the autumn of the same year that Boublil and Schönberg began their project, a big-budget spectacle of Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris was being staged (with orchestral music) at the same Parisian venue—and under the guidance of the same director, Robert Hossein—where the coursing four-note arpeggios that recur throughout Les Misérables would be played live for the first time. In hindsight, adapting Les Misérables seems an almost predetermined choice.

Where Hugo had taken the best part of two decades to write his novel, Boublil and Schönberg would need only two years to create their musical. The poet Jean-Marc Natel helped Boublil with the libretto, while the English composer John Cameron recorded the original concept album in London in early 1980.23 However, the result was not the show with which the vast majority of audiences are familiar today, but the original French iteration that premiered at the 4,500-seat Palais des Sports on 17 September 1980. The album had sold over a quarter of a million copies and helped to finance a sell-out run of over 100 performances, which were seen by nearly half a million people before the engagement came to an end.24 Though Hossein’s heavily stylized production has yet to be given even partial consideration in the history of Les Misérables, it will not be our concern here. It seems that none of the British collaborators who would eventually bring the musical to London had seen Hossein’s staging, since their contact with the material was through the 1980 album alone.

That album contains all the underpinnings of what would become Les Miz, marking a major development in the musical’s backstory. Rereading Hugo, Boublil and Schönberg closely detailed the main character interactions and emotional responses. Much as the novel’s title would eventually be compressed into the musical’s colloquial nickname, they dismissed the numerous detours within Hugo’s text, straightening out its twists and turns for the sake of brevity and focus. Large swathes of the narrative were jettisoned while the essential features of its plot, characters, themes, and imagery were retained. The novel’s lengthy digressions, which constitute well over a quarter of the book—on subjects ranging from the Battle of Waterloo to Restoration salons to King Louis-Philippe, French slang, convent life, and the history of the Paris sewer system—had to go. Likewise, for a story in which the technique of narrative coincidence was exaggerated rather than concealed so as to highlight the connectivity in which Hugo believed, less credible details of the plot needed to be skipped, such as Thénardier’s improbable ties to Marius through his father on the battlefield of Waterloo.

Having distilled the text, the duo began drafting the necessary lyrics and musical signatures to find a counterpart for Hugo’s voice. Just as Hugo had merged classic styles with contemporary modes, Boublil and Schönberg mixed the soaring stringed overtures and intimate poignancy of traditional opera with the modern pulse of popular music, including rock and even echoes of disco. In keeping with an operatic style, there was no dialogue and all songs were held together by recitative and orchestral bridges, showcasing the mindsets of individual characters and at key dramatic moments drawing them together into ensemble pieces. The score recalled Beethoven’s choral writing and Verdi’s (p. 386) dramatic intensity, as well as elements of the stage musicals that had inspired the French pair. Most conspicuously, the ensemble ‘Demain’ (‘Tomorrow’), which would be retitled ‘One Day More’ in English and become a signature anthem, echoed the ‘Tonight’ quintet from West Side Story (itself a play on the quartet ‘Bella figlia dell’amore’ from Verdi’s Rigoletto—which was based on Hugo’s 1832 play, Le Roi s’amuse). Each of the main characters, except for the deceased Fantine, contemplates the future in individual solos that reuse motifs from previous songs but that are sung in counterpoint, ranging back and forth from A major to C major, and building towards a rousing chorus. Located at the heart of the show, the unification and interaction of the different melodies perfectly exhibit Boublil and Schönberg’s dedication to channelling how Hugo understood individual experience as part of a sublime collective.

This famous track’s arpeggios were the first sounds that Cameron Mackintosh heard when he listened in November 1982 to the album, which started with the song ‘La Journée est finie’ (‘At the End of the Day’). Instantly enamoured, the British producer put together a collaborative team that became integral to how Boublil and Schönberg’s musical morphed from a French concept album into a worldwide phenomenon. From the start, all three were actively involved in shaping a fresh musical adaptation: much as Hugo’s original manuscript for his novel would considerably change between 1848 and 1861, so too did the musical undergo noticeable alteration. Mackintosh looked to the Royal Shakespeare Company for the experience and ingenuity necessary for a major adaptation of this kind, hiring Trevor Nunn and then John Caird as co-directors, and John Napier as set designer. In 1979, this team had been responsible for a successful theatrical adaptation of Dickens’s The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickelby, while Nunn had also directed the popular musical Cats (1981).

Following Boublil and Schönberg’s example, Nunn and Caird began by reading Hugo’s novel and drafting their own list of vital elements in order to identify what could be added to—and cut from—the French prototype. The contraction of narrative that had led to Boublil and Schönberg’s album was now being countered by a strategy of dilation. With the co-directors’ revised plotting in place, half of the original French version was reworked and 50 per cent more material was added over the next couple of years. Over three hours long, the result embraced a more thematically audacious interpretation that still displayed what Caird called a ‘heightened form of concentration’ in its abridgement and simplification of Hugo’s storyline.25 Acutely aware that a British audience would not be as familiar with the novel as the French, Nunn and Caird wanted more context for the musical’s story and its central characters, especially Valjean and Javert. Furthermore, they became convinced that the musical’s stirring potential to move an audience could be maximized only by stressing the theme of spirituality. They had initially veered towards a radical political tone, no doubt in tune with the political unrest in Britain since 1975 that resulted in the Thatcher government coming to power in 1979 and culminated in the Miners’ Strike of 1984. But they eventually decided that a notion of God was more important to the work’s meaning, believing that ‘Les Misérables is ultimately a piece about sacrifice’.26 Additions included new solos for the characters of Valjean and Javert—the prayer-like ‘Bring Him Home’ and the regal ‘Stars’—to communicate their respective beliefs in a forgiving and an avenging God, with Thénardier also (p. 387) receiving another solo in the form of ‘Dog Eats Dog’ to convey his depraved rejection of any religious morality. At the same time, ‘L’Air de la misère’ (‘The Look of Misery’), one of Fantine’s early songs that decried social inequality, was reframed into Eponine’s ‘On My Own’, shifting the focus on to unrequited love to give the character’s selflessness more substance. A new solo, ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’, was likewise developed for Marius to lend more insight into the grief of sacrifice, while the rock touches were softened to give the score a more timeless quality.

Fresh episodes were also inserted as revealing bookends to the musical’s narrative: a prologue to depict Valjean’s release from prison and his life-changing encounter with Myriel, condensing the novel’s opening sections and stressing the difference between Old and New Testament values; and the return of the fallen characters to accompany Valjean to ‘the Garden of the Lord’ in the climax, creatively building upon the novel’s intuition that the bishop’s spirit was with Valjean on his deathbed. Crucial to the emotional impact of these changes were Herbert Kretzmer’s lyrics. The poet James Fenton first worked on the libretto, but his lyrics proved too exacting, and he was replaced by Kretzmer, who employed idiomatic English to prioritize the audience’s immediate understanding over any poetic sophistication. ‘Any lyric that is self-regarding, by definition, is going to distract attention away from the narrative,’ he argued,27 leading to clear wording that aimed to compress Hugo’s world view into easily digestible ideas. Most relevant in light of the emphasis on religion would be the famous line ‘To love another person is to see the face of God’. In comparing the English libretto to Hugo’s novel, we thus see both imitation and innovation. Les Misérables is transformed into an epic stage spectacle, aided in no small part by Napier’s shifting sets and the famous hydraulic barricade.

A Duet Between Book and Libretto

Hugo’s narrative voice may at first appear absent, but his commentaries on the Parisian gamin and the construction of the 1848 June insurrection barricades undergird the portrayal of Gavroche’s character and of the students’ 1832 barricade. Hence, Gavroche’s cocky claim, ‘[I]t’s me who runs this town! | And my theatre never closes | And the curtain’s never down’28 captures the irrepressible spirit of ‘Paris Atomized’ (III.i). The higgledy-piggledy fortification fabricated on stage to protect the young revolutionaries taps into Hugo’s depiction of the 1848 Saint-Antoine barricade as having ‘something of the cloaca in this redoubt, and something of Olympus in this jumble. […] It was a garbage heap, and it was Sinai’ (pp. 1172–3).

Commemorating the moment as significant for the drama itself, Enjolras sings:

  • Here upon these stones
  • We will build our barricade,
  • In the heart of the city
  • We claim as our own. (libretto, 182)
(p. 388)

Les MisérablesFrom Epic Novel to Epic MusicalClick to view larger

Figure 15.1 The young revolutionaries raising the red flag over their street barricade in Les Misérables, Palace Theatre, 1985.

Photograph by Chris Davies. Courtesy of ArenaPal.

In these ways, the show allows glimpses of some digressions to be seen even when direct reference has been stripped away.

Whereas the novel enjoys an expansive rhythm, with long descriptive periods alternating with (sometimes equally long) periods of action and high drama, the musical moves quickly from one major episode to another. Pauses for reflection are key, as with Gavroche’s death, but these do not linger, as Sternfeld summarizes: ‘With constant underscoring during set changes, passages of time, and other transitions, the story moves perpetually. The revolving stage rolls new sets on and off and carries people with it. Things swing in and out of view; days and years fly by.’29 Different groups—the prisoners at Toulon, the poor in Montreuil-sur-Mer, M. Madeleine’s factory workers, the ‘whores’ in town, the drinkers at Thénardier’s inn, the Parisian beggars, the revolutionaries, the women of Paris after the battle—play the role of the chorus in counterpoint to solos, duets, trios, and so forth in order to create visual and auditory variety. Hugo’s work itself can be seen as operatic, because of his tendency to stage scenes with distinct voices that offset each other, but the musical greatly magnifies this tendency. The support for all of these occasions to feature and combine a range of voices in songs such as ‘Do You Hear the People Sing?’ and ‘A Heart Full of Love’ is, of course, the narrative thread that holds everything together.

Given such a pace and the need for tight exposition across a seventeen-year storyline, many characters from the novel disappear, and with them the backstories for several of (p. 389) those who remain. The opening book in part I (‘An Upright Man’) ostensibly devoted to Bishop Myriel, but also presenting some of the main themes of the text, completely vanishes, along with Fantine’s happier days in Paris (‘In the Year 1817’; I.iii). Her feckless lover, the ageing law student Tholomyès, is anonymously romanticized in ‘I Dreamed a Dream’:

  • He slept a summer by my side.
  • He filled my days
  • With endless wonder.
  • He took my childhood in his stride,
  • But he was gone when autumn came. (libretto, 168)

That he fits the profile of other verbose, materialistic, and self-centred bourgeois characters, who likewise disappear in the musical, cannot be deduced from the lyrics. The musical’s sights thereby shift from the whole class of antagonists represented (and defended) by Javert to the Inspector himself. Marius, for his part, arrives on the scene a ready-made rabble-rouser: his sad childhood; the tragic fate of his father, Colonel Pontmercy; the comic portrait of his well-meaning but ultraconservative grandfather, M. Gillenormand; his own struggles with poverty (III.ii–v)—all give way to an instantly heroic figure. And of Thénardier’s five children, only one, Eponine, is so identified here; Gavroche loses that marker and all the episodes linked to it in the text (as when he rescues his father from atop a prison wall in; and their sister Azelma and two nameless younger brothers are not even mentioned. As a result, Thénardier’s despicable behaviour as a father not just to Cosette but also to his own children lies fully on the shoulders of Eponine. When Gavroche first introduces her—‘That’s Eponine, she knows her way about’ (libretto, 175)—we are hard-pressed to guess that the line might echo textual allusions to her father offering her services to people he attempts to bilk. What results from both reducing the cast of characters and narrowing the behavioural range of those featured is the removal of some of the novel’s darker notes, found in its subplots and background scenes.

Of the five parts of Les Misérables, four bear the names of key protagonists: ‘Fantine’ (I), ‘Cosette’ (II), ‘Marius’ (III), and ‘Jean Valjean’ (V). There is no part dubbed ‘Javert’ or ‘Thénardier’—two characters whose presence looms large throughout the musical—but Javert has two books, ‘Javert’ (, which highlights his moral integrity and heroism, and ‘Javert Off the Track’ (V.iv), which is devoted to his demise; another book, ‘The Noxious Poor,’ (III.viii) depicts Thénardier at his most vicious. Despite the latter’s menace to Eponine, ‘You wait my girl, you’ll rue this night | I’ll make you scream. You’ll scream alright!’ (libretto, 181), when she prevents him and his bandits from attacking Valjean and Cosette’s house on the Rue Plumet, Thénardier is largely depicted as a comic figure on stage. This depiction arguably bears Boublil and Schönberg’s fingerprints in particular, given their familiarity with the comic actor Bourvil’s performance as Thénardier in Jean-Paul Le Chanois’s well-known 1958 French film. From his outlandish appearance, to Mme Thénardier’s satirical take on his song, ‘Master of the House’, to his (p. 390) ineptitude in ambushing Valjean and in blackmailing Marius, to his self-absorbed ‘triumph’ at the wedding party, Thénardier provides the production’s primary comic relief as a nemesis to Valjean far less threatening than Javert. This characterization, though exaggerated, accurately conveys the villain’s role in the novel as the quintessentially comic ‘duper duped.’ When the innkeeper is outfoxed by the ‘awful pauper’ (libretto, 401) who produces not just abundant banknotes but also a signed letter from Fantine entrusting Cosette to the bearer (a detail silently staged in the musical), it is but the prelude to a series of encounters—notably in the Gorbeau ambush (III.viii.20) and the Paris sewers (V.ii.8)—where Valjean gets the better of Thénardier. Even the climactic scene, when Thénardier tries to prove to Marius that his father-in-law is a robber and an assassin, only to reveal him as ‘a hero, … a saint’ (p. 1447), ‘the convict … transfigured into Christ’ (p. 1452), feeds into this portrayal of a clueless malefactor. Yet Thénardier’s textual afterlife as a ‘slave trader’ (p. 1451) reintroduces his malignant side, whereas the musical shows him as a comic foil right to the end.30 His deeper political significance as a shadow figure in the book for Hugo’s arch-enemy, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte (Napoleon III), is predictably elided for a twentieth-century audience.

Javert merits more complex treatment in the musical than Thénardier, in part influenced by Mackintosh’s memories of Charles Laughton’s famous performance as the Inspector in Richard Boleslawski’s 1935 Hollywood film.31 The Valjean/Javert rivalry is vocally implied in their respective tenor and baritone ranges, and the careful attention given to Javert reflects his role in the novel. Hugo makes it clear from the outset that the rigidly law-abiding Inspector, the offspring of a ‘fortune teller whose husband was in the galleys’, carries the germ of conflict within: ‘[H]e felt that he had a powerful foundation of rectitude, order, and honesty based on an irrepressible hatred for that gypsy race to which he belonged’ (p. 170). Javert’s origins had been so thoroughly repressed that he was fated to suffer a crisis of identity. The libretto has Javert disclosing this information directly to Valjean as they confront each other at Fantine’s deathbed: ‘I was born inside a gaol | I was born with scum like you, | I am from the gutter too’ (libretto, 172). The revelation enriches both Javert’s declaration just beforehand that ‘Every man is born in sin | Every man must choose his way’ (libretto, 172). Anyone condemned by the law, to his way of thinking, has chosen to do wrong, and for this reason, as he sings in his key solo, ‘Stars’:

  • Those who falter
  • And those who fall
  • Must pay
  • The price. (libretto, 177)

Hugo’s character applies this logic to himself early on, when he attempts to resign for having falsely denounced the town’s mayor, M. Madeleine, as Jean Valjean: ‘I have caught myself doing wrong. […] I must be sent away, broken, dismissed—that is just’ (p. 211). Though the scene is cut from the musical, Javert’s absolute identification with the forces of good in ‘Stars’ adumbrates his final ‘Soliloquy’, after the ex-convict saves (p. 391) his life on the barricades, by showing that his black-and-white world cannot tolerate any ambiguity.

Les MisérablesFrom Epic Novel to Epic MusicalClick to view larger

Figure 15.2 His sense of self ruined, Javert (played by Roger Allam) commits suicide, Palace Theatre, 1985.

Photograph by Michael Le Poer Trench. Courtesy of ArenaPal.

To the policeman’s mind, being spared by ‘[t]his desperate man that I have hunted’ (libretto, 188) suggests a superior form of justice that eludes his understanding:

  • Shall [Valjean’s] sins be forgiven?
  • Shall his crimes be reprieved?
  • And must I now begin to doubt,
  • Who never doubted all those years? (libretto, 188)

Condensing Hugo’s twelve-page chapter on Javert’s suicide into just forty-two lines, the lyrics lose the sweeping movement of his identity crisis, whereby he is forced to see Valjean ‘exalted’ and himself ‘degraded’ (p. 1323), unable to determine the right course of action. His protracted dilemma is only alluded to in the lines, ‘And my thoughts fly apart, | [ … ] |As I stare into the void | Of a world that cannot hold’ (libretto, 188). At the same time, these destructive centrifugal forces vividly figure, in just a few words, the ruined sense of self so thoroughly examined in the text32—and whose collapsing reality is further evoked by the twisting violin chords and the irregular tempo. This collapse is also expressed visually through the dramatic lighting effects on stage as he jumps from the bridge.

(p. 392) Though Jean Valjean’s identity is vastly more complicated than Javert’s, he succeeds where the other fails in reconciling all his potentially conflicting selves. His string of name changes in the novel—from 24601 to M. Madeleine, then Ultime Fauchelevant, and finally Urbain Fabre—are simplified on stage to just Madeleine, doubtless to avoid confusing the audience. Since the curtain rises on his release from the Toulon galleys by Javert, rather than on Bishop Myriel’s journey of faith and awakening political consciousness, we are immediately launched into the protagonist’s dark world. His bitterness—

  • Never forget the years, the waste.
  • Nor forgive them.
  • For what they’ve done.
  • They are the guilty—everyone. (libretto, 165)

—turns to astonishment when Myriel saves him from returning to prison, gives him the silver candlesticks he had stolen, and claims, ‘I have bought your soul for God!’ (libretto, 166). This challenge to Valjean’s vengeful mindset leads, in the musical, to his first soliloquy, ‘What Have I Done?’—reflections that do not appear explicitly in the book itself. Setting up the counterpoint to Javert’s later crisis through similar lyrics and melody, Valjean discovers in being forgiven and redeemed that ‘there’s another way to go. | [ … ] | And I stare into the void— | To the whirlpool of my sin’ (libretto, 167). But while both characters vow to ‘escape now from the world[,] | From the world of Jean Valjean’ (libretto, 167 and 188), Javert maintains, ‘There is nowhere I can go. | There is no way to go on …’ (libretto, 188), before plunging into the abyss of the Seine. Valjean, however, declares, ‘Another story must begin’ (libretto, 167). One man’s despair is musically confirmed as another’s hope.

Valjean’s transformation into the saintly Madeleine in turn allows a new narrative; Javert’s perceived dead end illustrates his lack of similarly (re)inventive imagination, a point that Hugo makes as well. In one of the novel’s most famous chapters, ‘A Tempest Within a Brain’ (I.vii.3), the ex-convict mayor undergoes an excruciating moral dilemma between two equally fraught actions: to denounce himself as Jean Valjean to save the innocent Champmathieu arrested in his place (but then to reduce his workers and the town to ruin) or to embrace his identity as M. Madeleine (but then to lose his soul). His rousing solo, ‘Who Am I?’ concisely captures his quandary: ‘If I speak, I am condemned. | If I stay silent, I am damned!’ (libretto, 171). When he answers his own question in both the book and the musical by informing the court in Arras, ‘I am Jean Valjean’, he demonstrates that the good Madeleine has become part of a richer, more totalizing identity. Subsequent dilemmas in the text—whereby Valjean must decide whether to stay hidden with Cosette in the Petit-Picpus convent or to allow her to experience the world outside; then later, whether to let Marius die on the barricades or to go to his rescue; and finally, whether to reveal his true identity to Marius at the expense of seeing Cosette—are bypassed on stage as heroic action replaces inner struggles. Valjean’s existential crisis is therefore resolved once and for (p. 393) all in Montreuil-sur-Mer, whereas his journey to sainthood in the novel follows a more recursive (and reflective) path, with much deeper evidence of martyrdom than the show itself conveys. When he prays ‘Bring Him Home’ on the barricade, enjoining God to spare Marius’s life, we see a kinder, gentler Valjean than the one that Hugo paints looking soon thereafter ‘with inexpressible hatred’ (p. 1291) at the unconscious young man in the sewer below. The labyrinthine trial of the sewer, like that of his night-time escape with Cosette through the city streets and, earlier yet, of unravelling his tortuous thoughts in the Champmathieu affair, figures the triumph of conscience in the novel. Conversely, in the musical it caps Valjean’s status as an action hero.

As with the older generation, the younger characters—Fantine, Marius, Eponine, Enjolras, Cosette, and Gavroche—are drawn in large strokes that capture essential aspects of Hugo’s work while avoiding many of its subtleties. Fantine’s degradation is far more graphic under Hugo’s pen: her sacrifices and inexhaustible dedication serve as examples to Valjean, who in the novel succeeds her not just as Cosette’s father but also as her mother. Yet the grotesque scene where Fantine begins to sell her few possessions and then her body parts on a rigged market reflects Hugo’s satire in this and other episodes of the exploitation of the have-nots by the haves. And when she laments regarding her customers, ‘Don’t they know | They’re making love to one already dead?’ (libretto, 169), she echoes his dystopian image of les misérables as the living dead.33 Her presence in the end at Valjean’s deathbed—replacing that of Myriel—both lends visual symmetry to the musical, given that Valjean was earlier at her side before she died, and signals her own salvation.

The plight of little Cosette at the Thénardiers’ inn, doomed to a form of slavery like her mother, is compressed on stage to references to domestic chores and enduring Mme Thénardier’s verbal and emotional abuse. Her ugliness, ‘anguish’ (p. 399), and potential fate in the book as either ‘an idiot or a demon’ (p. 400) give way to the simple pathos of a child dreaming of a better life, as had her mother, in ‘Castle on a Cloud’. We have only the slightest hint of Hugo’s lyrical passage describing her terror in the ‘sinister darkness’ (p. 389) of the woods at night when Valjean shows up with her at the inn remarking, ‘I found her wandering in the wood | This little child, I found her trembling in the shadows’ (libretto, 174). But we miss the miraculous overtones of their encounter, just as she is praying ‘Oh God!’ (p. 390), that marks her sense of the divine entering her life. Emerging fully formed as a lovely young woman in the next scene ten years later, Cosette reveals nothing of her education by Valjean in Paris, or of her flight from Javert with him to the convent, where her schooling continues, or of their long afternoons in the Luxembourg Gardens after they leave. Rather, her life appears to begin, as does Marius’s, the day their paths first cross. Her yearning for ‘a world that I long to see’ (libretto, 179) sets up the generational conflict with Valjean more fully discussed in the book as the process of a seventeen-year-old’s psychological self-discovery. Where she connects deeply with Marius through the prose poems he leaves on her garden bench before they hold their first conversation, the medium in the musical is not textual but human: Eponine brings them together at Cosette’s garden. After their duet, then trio with Eponine, followed by their joining the other main characters for ‘One Day More’ at the end of Act 1, Cosette (p. 394) disappears for most of the rest of the show, making room for the action-filled scenes on the barricade and in the sewers.

Cosette’s wait in the wings allows the production to focus more closely on Eponine, whose fall in life has accompanied the other’s rise. Spoiled by her mother in Montfermeil, she is now a street urchin in Paris who recoils when her memory is jogged during the ambush: ‘Cosette! How can it be[?] | We were children together | Look what’s become of me …’ (libretto, 177). The contrast in their fortunes is reinforced by Eponine’s less feminine persona and courageous deeds for love of Marius, much as in the novel. Her big solo, ‘On My Own’, expresses feelings not fully articulated in the text but easily guessed by Hugo’s reader—the dream of a love that can never be. Although Eponine dies in the book before Gavroche summons Valjean to the barricade, having her instead deliver Marius’s letter to Cosette’s father enhances her active, selfless character. But this sacrifice is not followed by the key scene in the novel when she takes a bullet meant for Marius. Rather, she is shot as she approaches the barricade on her way back from the Rue Plumet, dying in Marius’s arms, as she does in the novel, but without the same order of heroism. Spared the need to explain this new sacrifice, she can simply enjoy her first and last embrace from him, punctuated by a touching duet and Marius’s fraternal ‘Hush-a-bye’ (recalling Fantine’s maternal ‘Come to Me’). As the ‘first to fall’ she rallies the revolutionaries to ‘fight here in her name’ (libretto, 184), although the honour belongs to the destitute old bibliophile Mabeuf in the novel.

In many ways, then, the musical belongs to the young. It shifts Hugo’s intergenerational emphasis that runs from toddlers to the very old to a mere one-generation gap. Aside from the function of Jean Valjean’s gripping story in focusing and organizing the musical’s narrative, much of the appeal of the show adheres to the younger action figures: Eponine, Marius, Gavroche, Enjolras, and the other insurgents. Marius, for example, is not Hugo’s half-starved, daydreaming student but a firebrand co-equal with Enjolras, the group’s leader in Hugo’s text. Though he waxes poetic in ‘Red and Black’ about the ‘breathless delight’ (libretto, 178) of encountering Cosette, he is soon won over to his friends’ revolutionary frame of mind, joining in the stirring chorus. In the novel, he embraces their cause as a kind of suicide when he finds the house on the Rue Plumet closed and Cosette vanished—‘He wanted to die, the opportunity presented itself’ (p. 1118)—yet he enters the barricade with guns blazing, killing two Municipal Guards to defend his friends. This is the Marius largely presented on stage, a worthy successor in Cosette’s life to Jean Valjean, who like him shoots to kill on the barricade (whereas in the novel Valjean preserves as many lives as possible). By later agreeing that his father-in-law-to-be ‘must be gone’ (libretto, 189) in order to protect Cosette, he sets up the comic presence of both Thénardiers at their wedding, along with the revelation that it was Valjean who had saved Marius’s life on the barricades by carrying him through the sewers. Hugo’s own tragicomic ending to the novel, spread out over five or six months, is thus compressed into a single day during which the young couple is married and the forlorn Valjean dies after they rush to his side to offer (and receive) forgiveness.

The vigorous characters of Enjolras and the other ‘Friends of the ABC’—Grantaire, Combeferre, Courfeyrac, Joly, Feuilly, Prouvaire—likewise offset the tension between (p. 395) Valjean, Javert, and Thénardier, opening the scope of the musical to include, beyond Marius and Cosette’s love story, the political dimension so prominently displayed in the novel. In the absence of leaders willing to address the ‘hunger in the land’ (libretto, 167) lamented by the poor in Montreuil-sur-Mer and echoed ten years later by Parisians begging for ‘a crust of bread’, Enjolras wonders, ‘How long before the judgement day? | Before we cut the fat ones down to size?’34 Condensing the novel’s many images of starvation and of its corollary, the overstuffed bourgeois complacent in their comfort and indifferent to the suffering of others, the libretto cuts to the heart of Hugo’s argument against social inequality. As in the novel, the young men are determined to challenge the powers that be, leading immediately from the emphatic chorus of ‘Red and Black’—

  • Red—the blood of angry men!
  • Black—the dark of ages past!
  • Red—a world about to dawn!
  • Black—the night that ends at last! (libretto, 178)

—to the even more electrifying ‘Do You Hear the People Sing?’ where the citizens of Paris take up the anthem. This ‘music of a people | Who will not be slaves again’ (libretto, 178) is the song of Jean Valjean, of Fantine, of little Cosette, of Eponine and Gavroche, all of whom have supplied concrete examples of the students’ more abstract sociopolitical principles. Their dream of ‘a new world to be won’ (libretto, 181)—of ‘a life about to start | When tomorrow comes’ (libretto, 178)—constitutes a reply to the dreams shared elsewhere by the individual characters within a wider context. In light of the exiled Hugo’s hidden call to action in Les Misérables against Napoleon III’s Second Empire,35 it is fitting that Enjolras’s utopian vision of a happier future in ‘What Horizon is Visible from the Top of the Barricade’ (V.i.5) provides key imagery for both the Act 1 finale, ‘One Day More’, and the two versions of ‘Do You Hear the People Sing?’, the second of which closes Act 2. If the novel ends with Jean Valjean’s death, the intimations of resurrection that accompany his passing recall Enjolras’s message: ‘Brothers, whoever dies here dies in the radiance of the future, and we are entering a grave illuminated by the dawn’ (p. 1191). That Valjean is joined by the spirits of the fallen revolutionaries in the final chorus demonstrates that the librettists fully understood the connection between these two narrative strands.


There is no doubt that Boublil and Schönberg’s musical is more overwhelming than it is subtle. The closing technique of brightening white light descending from the rafters on to the souls of the fallen is in use from the start: each time a character dies, the body is immersed in a blinding beam to signify a door opening into the beyond. (p. 396) The mysterious presence felt by Myriel in his garden—and that watches from the shadows as Valjean frets over revealing the truth to Marius (—is made much more tangible on stage; the ‘radiance’ that Enjolras beholds on the future’s horizon is taken to an extreme. While Hugo ends his novel with the image of Valjean’s headstone to signify both closure and the continuing march of time, the musical reunites the downtrodden in a defiant display of unity for a sentimentalized finish. Such is the nature of the chosen medium, which shapes the adaptation as much as the adaptors themselves: ‘[M]usical theatre welcomes big emotions but not always complicated or ambivalent ones.’36 The depth of Hugo’s grand visions can only be alluded to at best, but their emotional scale adapts into a thoroughly exuberant form that is less superficial than it is rhapsodic.

Whether personal taste accommodates the megamusical genre or not, the fact remains that Les Misérables has become the foremost example of this musical form by successfully intensifying the original novel’s melodrama. Mackintosh has frequently cited the instantaneous connection that the musical makes with audiences and the ‘often under-appreciated perception of the public’: ‘[They] see in Les Misérables what many a professional scribe could not.’37 At the same time, and implicitly countering the accusation that the musical trivializes its own social themes in favour of bathos: ‘No other play, in the history of theatre, has generated such social concern, or raised so much money for charity.’38 The musical’s emotional impact strengthens its bond with Hugo’s novel, which prompted even the French Emperor to bring philanthropy back into fashion, and which championed what would become much of the agenda for social welfare in France’s Third Republic. As the show evolves—running times cut back under three hours, updated staging, streamlined orchestration, and ever-changing star casts—much of its vitality continues to share the DNA of Hugo’s literary behemoth.


Behr, Edward. The Complete Book of ‘Les Misérables’. New York: Arcade, 1989.Find this resource:

Boublil, Alain, and Claude-Michel Schönberg. ‘Beyond Our Dreams.’ In ‘Les Misérables’: The Musical Phenomenon. Souvenir Programme, 2–3. London: Dewynters, 2013.Find this resource:

Brombert, Victor, Victor Hugo and the Visionary Novel (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984).Find this resource:

Cartmell, Deborah, and Imelda Whelehan, eds. Screen Adaptation: Impure Cinema. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2010.Find this resource:

(p. 399) Gopnik, Adam. ‘The Persistent Greatness of Les Misérables.’ New Yorker, 28 December 2012., accessed 9 May 2016.

Grossman, Kathryn M. Figuring Transcendence in ‘Les Misérables’: Hugo’s Romantic Sublime. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1994.Find this resource:

Grossman, Kathryn M. ‘Les Misérables’: Conversion, Revolution, Redemption. New York: Twayne, 1996.Find this resource:

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Hugo, Victor. Les Misérables. Translated by Lee Fahnstock and Norman MacAfee. New York: Signet Classics, 1987.Find this resource:

Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Adaptation, 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2012.Find this resource:

Kretzmer, Herbert. Libretto. Les Misérables. Original Cast Recording, 1985. Music by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg. CD. First Nights Records, Encore CD1, 1986.Find this resource:

Laster, Arnaud. Pleins feux sur Victor Hugo. Paris: Comédie-Française, 1981.Find this resource:

Mackintosh, Cameron. ‘Storming the Barricade.’ In ‘Les Misérables’: The Musical Phenomenon. Souvenir Programme, 24–25. London: Dewynters, 2013.Find this resource:

Nightingale, Benedict. ‘A Supremely Improbable Winner.’ In ‘Les Misérables’: The Musical Phenomenon. Souvenir Programme, 16–17. London: Dewynters, 2013.Find this resource:

Nightingale, Benedict, and Martyn Palmer. ‘Les Misérables’: From Stage to Screen. London: Carlton, 2013.Find this resource:

Porter, Laurence M. Victor Hugo. New York: Twayne, 1999.Find this resource:

Roche, Isabel. Character and Meaning in the Novels of Victor Hugo. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 2007.Find this resource:

Rose, Julie. ‘Victor Hugo.’ In Les Misérables. Translated by Julie Rose, xi–xiii. London: Vintage, 2008.Find this resource:

Sibalis, Michael. ‘Who Were Les Misérables?’ Fiction and Film for French Historians 3, no. 4 (2013)., accessed 21 May 2016.Find this resource:

Stephens, Bradley. Victor Hugo, Jean-Paul Sartre, and the Liability of Liberty. Oxford: Legenda, 2011.Find this resource:

Sternfeld, Jessica. The Megamusical. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006.Find this resource:

Vermette, Margaret. The Wonderful World of Boublil and Schönberg. London: Applause, 2006.Find this resource:

Watts, Andrew. ‘Les Misérables, Theatre, and the Anxiety of Excess.’ In Adapting Nineteenth-Century France: Literature in Film, Theatre, Television, Radio, and Print, by Kate Griffiths and Andrew Watts, 114–142. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2013. (p. 400) Find this resource:


(1.) See Kathryn M. Grossman and Bradley Stephens, eds., ‘Les Misérables’ and Its Afterlives: Between Page, Stage, and Screen (London: Routledge, 2016); for the musical’s importance to this legacy, see Stephens’s chapter ‘Les Misérables in the Twenty-First Century’, 191–204.

(2.) Claude-Michel Schönberg, quoted in Matthew Westwood, ‘Les Misérables Goes Beyond the Barricade’, The Australian, 28 June 2014,, accessed 4 July 2014.

(3.) These versions are noted by Andrew Watts in ‘Les Misérables, Theatre, and the Anxiety of Excess’, in Adapting Nineteenth-Century France: Literature in Film, Theatre, Television, Radio, and Print, ed. Kate Griffiths and Andrew Watts (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2013), 117–118.

(4.) Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera holds the record as Broadway’s longest-running musical and enjoys the highest worldwide gross receipts in history, but its London debut came a year after Les Miz.

(5.) Statistics are being continually updated at the musical’s official webpage:

(6.) Boublil and Schönberg, ‘Beyond Our Dreams’, in ‘Les Misérables’: The Musical Phenomenon, Souvenir Programme (London: Dewynters, 2013), 2–3.

(7.) Julie Rose, ‘Victor Hugo’, in Les Misérables, trans. Julie Rose (London: Vintage, 2008), xiii.

(8.) Kathryn M. Grossman, ‘Les Misérables’: Conversion, Revolution, Redemption (New York: Twayne, 1994), 16. For the novel’s critical reception, see 14–22.

(9.) Such reviews are comprehensively covered by Jessica Sternfeld in The Megamusical (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006), 185–188.

(10.) Benedict Nightingale, ‘A Supremely Improbable Winner’, in Les Misérables, Souvenir Programme (2013), 16–17.

(11.) Linda Hutcheon, A Theory of Adaptation, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2012), 173.

(12.) Literary adaptations are especially prone to these criticisms, through which recycled texts (not least on screen) become ‘impure’; see Deborah Cartmell and Imelda Whelehan, ‘Introduction’, in Carmell and Whelehan, eds., Screen Adaptation: Impure Cinema (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2010), 1–9. For more on how these discourses have been challenged, see Hutcheon, Theory of Adaptation, especially chapter 1 (1–32).

(13.) Laurence M. Porter, Victor Hugo (New York: Twayne, 1999), 29–30.

(14.) Arnaud Laster, Pleins feux sur Victor Hugo (Paris: Comédie-Française, 1981), 360. For a perceptive illustration of this ‘auditory sensitivity’, see Watts, ‘Les Misérables, 126–127.

(15.) Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, trans. Lee Fahnstock and Norman MacAfee (New York: Signet Classics, 1987), 1319–1320. Pages for citations from the novel will hereafter appear in the text, prefaced by pp. References to Hugo’s subdivisions of the novel into part, book, and chapter will appear in the text and notes in the form, e.g. I.i.1.

(16.) Late at night, Myriel sometimes walks in his garden alone to appreciate ‘creation’s universal radiance’: ‘moved in the darkness by the visible splendors of the constellations and the invisible splendor of God […] he felt something floating away from him, and something descending upon him; mysterious exchanges of the soul with the universe’ (I.i.13, pp. 54–55).

(17.) ‘So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation which, in the midst of civilization, artificially creates a hell on earth, and complicates with human fatality a destiny that is divine; so long as the three problems of the century—the degradation of man by the exploitation of his labor, the ruin of woman by starvation, and the atrophy of childhood by physical and spiritual night—are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a still broader point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, there should be a need for books such as this’ (Hugo, Les Misérables, p. xvii).

(18.) See Victor Brombert, Victor Hugo and the Visionary Novel (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984), chapter 4 (86–139).

(19.) See Michael Sibalis, ‘Who Were Les Misérables?’, Fiction and Film for French Historians, 3, no. 4 (2013),, accessed 21 May 2016.

(20.) For more on Hugo’s suitability for fiction, see Bradley Stephens, Victor Hugo, Jean-Paul Sartre, and the Liability of Liberty (Oxford: Legenda, 2011), 85–105.

(21.) Character and Meaning in the Novels of Victor Hugo (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 2007), 11.

(22.) Edward Behr, The Complete Book of ‘Les Misérables’ (New York: Arcade, 1989), 47.

(24.) See Benedict Nightingale and Martyn Palmer, ‘Les Misérables’: From Stage to Screen (London: Carlton, 2013), 6–11.

(25.) Quoted in Margaret Vermette, The Wonderful World of Boublil and Schönberg (London: Applause, 2006), 133.

(26.) Caird, quoted in Vermette, Boublil and Schönberg, 134.

(28.) Behr, Complete Book, 177. Page references from the libretto will hereafter appear in the text, prefaced by ‘libretto’.

(30.) The Thénardiers indeed reveal one of the most striking changes between the novel and the musical, especially since in Hugo’s text Madame Thénardier dies in prison. The musical’s reconfiguring of the Thénardiers makes narrative sense, however: their presence at the wedding banquet necessarily lifts the mood and provides some respite before the deathbed reconciliation between Valjean, Cosette, and Marius, in addition to serving as the catalyst for that denouement. Given the predominantly British character of the creative team, this reconfiguration may well also reflect a reaction to Thatcher’s contested 1987 idea that ‘there is no such thing as society’: the Conservative government’s insistence on individual responsibility and disregard for the underclass is unsettled by the persistence of the Thénardiers as an exploitative force.

(32.) See Kathryn M. Grossman, Figuring Transcendence in ‘Les Misérables’: Hugo’s Romantic Sublime (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1994), 88–95.

(33.) See Grossman, Figuring Transcendence, 35, 38, and 59–60.

(34.) These lines are missing from the libretto available in Behr’s volume. They are included in the inlay booklet for the original London cast recording (Kretzmer, not paginated), although they are attributed to Feuilly rather than Enjolras, reflecting ongoing changes in the production. See Herbert Kretzmer, Libretto, Les Misérables, original London cast, 1985, CD, First Night Records, Encore CD1, 1986.

(35.) See Grossman, Figuring Transcendence, 224–225 and 252–253.

(36.) Adam Gopnik, ‘The Persistent Greatness of Les Misérables’, New Yorker, 28 December 2012,, accessed 9 May 2016.

(37.) Cameron Mackintosh, ‘Storming the Barricade’, in Les Misérables, Souvenir Programme (2013), 24.