An encore presentation of the musical Les Mis on PBS reminded me just how enduring Victor Hugo’s story is. The performances were stunning and the songs — by turns quiet and stormy, uplifting and heartrending. I love this musical. I’m not alone: To date, various productions have been seen by 70+ million people. Now that’s a lot of theater tickets!
What is there about this musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s sprawling, unruly novel that makes it so enormously popular? Why have millions of theater goers made it a global juggernaut? Here are a few ideas to stoke our own creative fires:
It sounds timeless themes: Hugo tackled big issues in his novel, Les Miserables, and the musical touches on many of them: love, hate, redemption, revenge, forgiveness — they’re all in the mix. Any story that’s strives to be big has to go big — it has to embrace universal chords that bind us all together — that make us flawed and human.
It entwines individuals and history: The story of Jean Valjean unfolds against the backdrop of a critical moment in 19th century France. Enmeshing these personal and political moments creates compelling theater because it makes the personal stories that unfold feel “bigger” and more dramatic while it makes the historical events that take place seem less grand and more personal.
It offers us a worthy villain: Javert, the policeman who hounds Jean Valjean is a worthy opponent. He’s relentless, yes, but he has a strong moral compass of his own. He may be benighted, but he’s not purely evil because he believes in the importance of upholding his moral code unflinchingly.
It provides comic relief: I haven’t read all of Hugo’s novel, so I don’t know whether humor is part of his repertoire. But the musical has several lighthearted moments provided by secondary characters who leaven an otherwise somber story line.
It captures emotional highs and lows: Throughout the show, there are enormous mood swings — from hopelessness to escape, from unrequited love to redemptive love. These constant emotional shifts give the story momentum, propelling it forward.
It elevates secondary characters: There’s a huge cast in Les Mis and many of the secondary characters are given hugely dramatic and emotional moments in the sun. They shine brightly, if briefly.
There’s so much to be learned from trying to figure out how and why a classic story why it pulls our heartstrings — and why it endures across time and space. Write on!
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