The story of Les Miserables stands as one of the most important and popular ever told. Whether we are talking about the novel by Victor Hugo, the musical created in the early 1980s by Claude-Michel Schonberg, Alain Boubill and Jean-Marc Natel or the various film adaptations….the most recent being the Academy Award-winning film starring a whos-who of modern movie greats such as Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Russell Crowe, Eddie Redmayne, Helena Bonham-Carter, Amanda Seyfried and Sacha Baron Cohen….Les Miserables has stood the test of time and is generally regarded as one of the best stories about the human condition and the power of faith and courage.
The original book is a work of historical fiction. It takes place in France in the two decades that preceded the June Rebellion in Paris that took place in 1832. Commenting on his book, author Victor Hugo took great pains to state that the issues addressed in Les Miserables were not unique to France nor were they unique to the characters he created and the real-life people many were based upon. To Hugo, the issue of how our individual moral compass directs us in times of great stress and hopelessness is universal in nature and, as such, his book could just as easily have been set during the American Revolution, the Russian Revolution or at any number of times throughout the course of British history.
If you have never read the book nor seen the musical or film, the short strokes of the story concern a man named Valjean. He was imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread and has now been released. But, he bears the mark of being an ex-convict and has limited future prospects, as a result. Throughout the story, he is hounded by a police officer named Javert. While there are many, many other things that happen in Les Miserables, the redemptive nature of how Valjean and Javert evolve over the course of the story is one of the most important reasons this story resonates so strongly on an emotional level. Intertwined with Valjean’s story arc, there are plotlines involving child labour, the role of women in society, the importance of family and of the bonds of Love that exist between family members, class distinctions and the politics of maintaining them and, of course, there is the growing organizational desire among the oppressed to overthrow the government and seek a fairer, more just way of living for all.
In the musical version of this story, there are several show-stopping songs. For example, there is I Dreamed a Dream, as sung by Fantine as she struggles to deal with the realities of her responsibilities to her child, Cossette, and the bleak future prospects they both have. Then we have the always entertaining, Master of the House, which showcases the complete lack of principles held by the Thenardiers, who own an inn and proceed to steal as much as they can from all who enter through their doors. The powerful song, One More Day, which ends Act #1, is sung from the individual points of view of many of the main characters as they stand at the eve of the rebellion. But, of all of the songs that helped to make Les Miserables such an enduring hit, none have had the global impact of the song, Do You Hear the People Sing?
Do You Hear The People Sing? is a song that is sung by those preparing to give their all for a cause they believe in. In the musical, those characters preparing to screw their courage and engage in an actual attempt to overthrow their government sang this song as they built their barricades and began to man them. There is a long tradition in warfare of hymns being sung prior to battle as a means of channeling nervous energy, as well as galvanizing the resolve of those prepared to give their lives for the cause they believe in. Do You Hear The People Sing? is a song of unity and common purpose and of Hope. It is sung in situations where the odds of victory are slim but the desire for freedom trumps the fear of defeat. All over the world there have been examples of this song being sung by real people fighting for freedom from tyranny and oppression. In fact, in the video links below, I will share with you two recent examples: one of which is by the people of Hong Kong, who sang the song as they sought to resist the threat to their autonomy posed by the Chinese government. The second example is a current one in which Ukrainian President Zelensky asked people around the world to use their voices to raise opposition to Russia’s war on his country. In response, many Broadway actors and local citizens gathered in New York to sing Do You Hear The People Sing? in order to let the Ukrainian people know that they weren’t alone in their time of struggle.
The history of human civilization is built on a fairly consistent cycle of oppression, rebellion, hopefulness and then, back into oppression again. The idea that justice and equality and freedom were worth believing in and fighting for is what inspired Victor Hugo to write his grand novel in the first place. I will close by quoting him as he speaks about the importance of Les Miserables in society and as a work of Art:
“So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine with human frailty; so long as the three problems of the age – the degradation of Man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night- are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.” Victor Hugo.
Les Miserables is an extraordinary book but, for my money, it is even a better musical. To see Les Miz performed on stage by passionate actors who can really sing is one of the best theatrical experiences one can have. The story will rouse your emotions in a way that few plays do. So, without further delay, here is one of the most inspirational songs of all-time, Do You Hear The People Sing? from Les MIserables. Enjoy.
The link to the video for the song, Do You Hear The People Sing? can be found here.
The link to the official website for Les Miserables, the musical can be found here.
The link to the video for the trailer to the movie adaptation of Les Miserables can be found here.
The link to the video of citizens of Hong Kong singing Do You Hear the People Sing? can be found here.
The link to the video of Broadway actors singing Do You Hear the People Sing? for the citizens of Ukraine can be found here.
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