Indeed, there's not a single major character in the show, from Jean Valjean on down, who isn't straining or scrambling toward some unseeable future. To tweens—terrified of the future even as they reach desperately for it—that sounds awfully familiar. The ABC student revolutionaries are understandable as perennial childhood favorites: young, passionate rebels willing to fight and die for their freedom! What could appeal more to a kid on the cusp of middle school, that most oppressive of human institutions? Perhaps only Éponine, the stage's most tragic third wheel, the patron saint of square-peg girls in love with their oblivious best friends the world over. Reports of kids weeping the first time they saw the show live are not uncommon, and it's usually the fault of “On My Own.”
It's thanks to Claude-Michel Schönberg’s walloping score that what hits viewers first is the show’s overwhelming emotional bigness. But it's that score working in tandem with Herbert Kretzmer’s aching libretto that's responsible for the production's wild popularity—and it may explain, too, why many of Les Misérables’ once-young fans still genuinely love the show long after other childhood fixations have settled into the realm of pure nostalgia. Once all the fatty bombast is chewed over, what’s left are the sturdy bones of the story and its characters—complex enough, deeply human enough, to sustain a relationship over decades or more.
I’ve now loved Les Misérables for nearly two-thirds of my life—far longer than I loved Gunther Gebel-Williams—and I (we?!) recently passed a strange milestone. As a kid, I never quite connected with the character of Fantine; she appeared early in the show and it was easy for me to forget her amid all that followed. But something snapped in me while I was watching a trailer for Hooper’s movie. In one clip, Hathaway-as-Fantine—who, in order to feed her daughter, has already become a prostitute and now has sold her hair—sings and weeps as her head is shorn. It’s a moment of raw intimacy the stage show could never quite accomplish. I might as well have been watching the scene for the first time.
After years of ambivalence, I was suddenly consumed by Fantine’s plight: the desperation of a young mother entering the pits of hell to save her child. At 28, I don’t have or particularly want a child of my own, but I’m theoretically closer to motherhood than I’ve ever been, closer to that heart-wrecking love, closer to that possibility of being willing to give up every last shard of my soul for another small human. That abrupt deluge of empathy convinced me of something I'd been loath to accept for a while: I am now a grown-up.
And in one way or another, “growing up” is what Les Misérables has always been about for me. At 11, my cultural tastes were pretty firmly in the kid-stuff camp: I had just torn through the Little House book series; I loved Avonlea and SNICK and the Peter, Paul & Mary tape my dad gave me for my birthday. My parents were careful about what movies my sister and I were allowed to watch, pausing even their PG-13 Blockbuster rentals when one of us scurried through the living room. It wasn’t some oppressive rule, but I was led to believe there was some vast divide between “kid stuff” and “grown-up stuff.”
So when I discovered Les Misérables it was as if I’d found a peephole into the future that lay beyond my childhood. I was doing a thing that adults did, watching this show about adults doing what adults have to do. And what I saw there was terrible and beautiful, filled with sadness and love and pain and hope—the world about to dawn, the night that ends at last.