This is an unusually good examination of Les Mis, the way it’s been received and reinterpreted, and the politics of the story and Hugo himself over his life. And also the intro alone is SO MUCH of what I want to yell at an enormous number of reviews.
What is usually elided in conversations about this show is that one of its defining characteristics is the foregrounding and embrace of an attempt at violent revolution by a group of students with guns. Their rebellion ends in bloody failure but the attempt is honored, not mocked. Forgotten in the tedious critiques of technical nit-picking and whining over the melodramatic plot and its Christian quest for forgiveness, there is a central political problem at the heart of the work which places one man’s quest for redemption against the crucial backdrop of a society under revolution.
Fans describe the story as a universal one of “eternal truths” and societal “archetypes”, but Jean Valjean’s problem is his relationship with a government that not only misuses and perverts its power, but facilitates and reproduces a society that is perversely stratified. Granting that Jean Valjean’s saint-like quest for personal salvation forms the redemptive core of the story, what if the global popularity of this work also echoes the perennial frustration with government’s interminable persecution of innocents and its obsessive zeal for crushing liberatory movements?
The perennial hostility of critics would then remind us more of the nervous murmurs and outright hostility of elites whenever the masses begin to congregate, build barricades, camp out and demand a better world. The tears of the audiences would not remind us that the “people” are easily conned into weeping over a melodramatic spectacle that apes the gospels, but perhaps allows a vicarious vision of rebelling against unjust rule while remaining true to desire and love.
Also, it talks about Louise Michel!
Go read the thing!