Les Miserables is often viewed as a tale of poverty, injustice, civil strife, love despite the odds and lives snuffed out before their prime. Certainly Musical Theatre West’s production, playing through April 26 at the Carpenter Center, contains all that, but open your mind to another reading as well.
First off, Victor Hugo’s novel on which the musical is based concerns the Paris Uprising of 1832, not the French Revolution, which began more than four decades prior. Both, however, were not simply about overthrowing one power-hungry group of people for another. For those who were living through these violent periods, their emotional and spiritual lives experienced upheaval as surely as did their physical being. The struggle against tyranny necessarily unleashes a questioning of fundamental relationships, particularly human to human and individual to God.
The novelist’s own religious journey plays out on stage. As a young man, Hugo was an adherent of Church authority, later became a lapsed Catholic and eventually turned downright hostile of Rome and its emissaries. He dabbled in séances, eventually adopting Rationalist Deism, which sees Jesus as a great philosopher and reformer but not a god.
In Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schoenberg’s musical, God and matters of the spirit are there at every turn. Hugo’s foray into Spiritism, for example, is evidenced in the ghosts of the downed revolutionaries and angel-clad Fantine (Cassandra Murphy) and Eponine (Emily Martin), who escort Jean Valjean (Michael Hunsaker) heavenward, dressed as a beggar at the end like he was at the start of the play.
On the turn-the-other-cheek end of the spectrum is the Bishop of Digne’s response to Valjean’s thievery after an evening of hospitality. The bishop tells police that not only were the silver plates Valjean’s to keep but that he had forgotten to take the candleholders. This kindness prompts Valjean to aid a prostitute, raise her daughter Cosette (Madison Claire Parks), save Cosette’s beau and spare the life of his tormentor, Inspector Javert (Davis Gaines). At the other extreme of faith and its practice or lack thereof is Thenardier (Norman Large), who, while robbing the dead of their trinkets, proclaims, “And God in His Heaven/He don’t interfere/’Cause he’s dead as the stiffs at my feet.”
Between these poles, other spiritual struggles are put to song. One of the most poignant is Fantine’s “I Dreamed a Dream.” On her deathbed, she recalls a time “when hope was high and life worth living,” when she believed that “God would be forgiving.” Now “the tigers come at night/as they tear your hope apart.” Valjean also despairs of “this never-ending road to Calvary.”
In Act One, Inspector Javert is confident in his pursuit of Valjean for skipping parole after serving 19 years of hard labor for stealing a little bread. Javert is a moral absolutist who dismisses Valjean as “a fugitive running/fallen from God.” Javert is nothing but single-minded determination cast in a magical blue light with a backdrop of stars. A few scenes later, Cosette in a white, fairy-princess gown pines of love’s confusion under the same lighting, kudos to Paul Black for this design choice. “So many things unclear/So many things unknown,” she sings in stark contrast to Javert’s steel-cold resolve.
In Act Two, however, after Valjean spares him a bullet, Javert is far from certain. In one of the most powerful scenes, Javert delivers his soliloquy: “And must I now begin to doubt/Who never doubted all these years?/…And does he know/That granting me my life today/This man has killed me even so.” Like Hugo, he casts off his faith, plunging into the Seine, wavy lighting and his slowly undulating arms indicating his descent.
Javert’s model for authority has been the unflinching vengefulness of the Old Testament. His God would not have shown him such compassion, so, he reasons, Javert must be the devil. Unable to logically reconcile a caring demon, he commits the Church’s one unpardonable sin—suicide. Ironically, far more damning than Valjean’s offense of stealing a loaf of bread.
Musical Theatre West has long wanted to produce Les Miserables. Don’t miss your chance to see it. Go for the fine acting and musical score, the emotional highs and lows, and the set and lighting choices. But also consider Hugo’s struggle—and that of each one of us—to answer the question, Are we only here to secure our daily bread, or is there something more?
Les Miserables continues at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center through Sunday, April 26. Performances are generally Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm. A Thursday performance on April 23 will take place at 8pm, two Saturday matinees will be at 2pm on April 18 and 25, and two Sunday evening performances will be at 7pm on April 19 and 26. Tickets start at $20. Tickets may be purchased online at musical.org or by calling (562) 856-1999 ext. 4. The Carpenter Performing Arts Center is located at 6200 E. Atherton St.