The music for Les Mis was written by Claude-Michel Schönberg, with lyrics by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel, later translated into English by Herbert Kretzmer. It's based on the book by Victor Hugo and features a large cast of characters, including an escaped convict, the policeman who chases him down, a group of French students planning revolution, and the neglected daughter of a sleazy innkeeper. It's a very dark show, with only four characters surviving at the end, but has absolutely beautiful music, including some songs that people have come to know even outside of the musical theater world.
I loved this show in high school and then got tired of it and stopped listening... but the musical theater revue I'm working on this month features several songs from the show in honor of its 25th anniversary, so the songs have been in my head and I was reminded once again of how gorgeous they are.
Here are a few of my favorites. All clips are taken from the 10th Anniversary Cast because that's the one I first fell in love with. Plus it's got a crazy awesome cast.
1. Work Song. This is the show's opening - possibly my favorite show opening ever. The show opens in a prison where the men are horribly mistreated and being disproportionately punished for their crimes (as the song explains, our protagonist has been imprisoned 20 years for stealing a loaf of bread). The powerful men's chorus carries so much despair, even when they're just singing "Ah-ah-ah-ah."
2. Stars. Easily one of my top 5 showtunes of all time, sung here by the marvelous Philip Quast. He plays Javert, the policeman who is so concerned with doing what is just that he gives no thought to what is right. He's the show's main antagonist, and this song showcases why he's such an interesting character - he believes that what he does, he does for God. This song is moving and beautiful and very, very sad, because there's no room for any grace in his life, and thus, no room for God.
3. A Little Fall of Rain. In this scene, neglected teenager Eponine has been fatally wounded trying to deliver a message to the man she loves (but doesn't love her back). They sing this song together as she dies. Eponine's character spends most of the show trying to hide her feelings and not show that she's in any pain, inside or outside, so this final cry of, "Don't you fret, I don't feel any pain" is rather heartbreaking.
I chose this version because Lea Salonga is my favorite Eponine... and although I dearly love Michael Ball as Marius, I can find no justification for the fact that he does a bizarre grin at the end of the number. It's so inappropriate. What was he thinking? Shame on you, Michael Ball, shame on you.
4. Bring Him Home. I'm not a huge Colm Wilkinson fan, but this is one of the few songs where I think he really nails it. In this song, Jean Valjean is singing about one of the students fighting the revolution - the man who hopes to marry Valjean's adopted daughter. In this song, Valjean begs God to bless this young man and to carry him through this battle alive. It's a beautiful song that always feels to me a bit like a lullaby. (You should also take note of the silly madlibs version found here.)
5. Do You Hear the People Sing? While not my #1 song from the show, I think it's a great one to use at the end of this spotlight, since the reprise of this song ends the show. It's sung by the students calling each other to stand in their revolution and fight to change France. I can only think of one or two other showtunes that have the power to truly inspire me, and this is one of them. Heard live, it can be an incredibly powerful moment. That can only be somewhat captured in a recording... but here goes.
And that's Les Misérables! Schönberg and Boublil did a few other musicals (including the very good Miss Saigon and the not very good Martin Guerre) but none of them have ever reached the level of popular interest Les Mis has. It has characters everyone can root for, an abundance of beautiful songs, and a story that ends oddly hopeful, given how many sad events happen during the course of the show. It was one of my favorites for several years and I'm glad to get the chance to be a part of some of these songs this year.
Will I ever do this feature again? No way of knowing. But it sure was fun to do it at least once.