I’M SURE WE ALL RECALL this stirring “reality television” moment from a 2009 episode of Britain’s Got Talent.
With a single song, Susan Boyle, a 47 year-old Scottish nobody, became an internationally famous somebody, prompting humorist Andy Borowitz to pen the headline “Talented, Ugly Person Baffles World.” But anyone who knows the musical version of Les Misérables, from which Boyle took her song, knows her overnight success was more a product of the right singer picking the right song at the right time. In the show, “I Dreamed A Dream” belongs to Fantine, a fired factory seamstress forced into prostitution as a last resort. Her final song is a remembrance of her youth, when her dreams for a beautiful life seemed achievable. Fantine’s “What a Life I Could Have Known,” and lyrics like it were obviously applicable to Boyle, a middle-aged woman with learning disabilities who, for most of her life, took care of an ailing mother. Her unselfishness and amazing turn in fortune (she is now a recording artist with three best-selling albums) fit the novel that preceded the musical.
For Fantine, though, things didn’t work out quite so well, as any fan of the musical — with music, lyrics, and libretto by Claude-Michel Schoenberg, Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel, and Herbert Kretzmer, respectively — can tell you. The musical in turn owes its success to Victor Hugo’s 150-year-old epic of poverty and its consequences. Les Misérables has not ceased to stir emotions all along that formidable span of time, most recently in Tom Hooper’s monumental new film adaptation — one of more than 20 cinematic renderings of Les Misérables to date.
Born in 1802, Victor Marie Hugo first won acclaim as a poet; the volumes Les Contemplations and La Legende des siécles being particular critical favorites. But outside of France, his novels Notre-Dame de Paris (1831) and Les Misérables (1862) were far better known and popularly acclaimed. Consisting of five volumes, with each divided into books, and subdivided into chapters for a total of 365 chapters resulting in 1900 pages in unabridged editions, Les Misérables is one of the longest novels ever written.
As imposing as that sounds, readers have had little difficulty in following the ups and downs of the Christ-like Jean Valjean, a man who, on being freed from a 19-year prison stretch for stealing a loaf of bread, rebuilds his life despite being hounded by one of literature’s most implacable and stubborn foils, police inspector Javert. These antagonists are the principles in a massive tapestry whose other characters include the seamstress Fantine (who goes to an early death), her daughter Cosette (whose image from the book’s first edition has become the blazon of the show), Cosette’s beloved the political firebrand Marius, the street urchin Eponine (who loves Marius unrequitedly), and a ton and a half of other fanciful figures. The story culminates in the Paris uprising of 1832 — a prequel of sorts to the Commune of 1871, the first working-class power grab of the Industrial Revolution....read more