I never got the sex talk from my mother, but I did get the whore talk. I was 11. Not coincidentally, this was around the same time I fell in love with Les Misérables.
It was the 1995 10th anniversary “dream cast” concert of the Cameron Mackintosh musical that sucked me in. My hometown PBS station seemed to rebroadcast the performance weekly throughout the winter of fifth grade, and I spent hours genuflecting before the TV, memorizing every line, singing along, wishing despite my almost-total tone-deafness that I could be up on that stage. My 8-year-old sister, Sarah, followed me down the rabbit hole, and my parents encouraged us—they loved the show, too. Although I do wonder if my mother had second thoughts when she found herself explaining to her preadolescent daughter, “Well, honey, a ‘whore’ is, um, a lady who gets paid to, uh, keep men company.”
For years I figured the Les Mis thing was just another quirk of my childhood, like my unreasonable fear of The Berenstain Bears and the Bad Dream or my crush on Gunther Gebel-Williams. But a few months ago, when trailers for Tom Hooper’s upcoming film adaptation popped up online, my Twitter and Facebook feeds suddenly boiled over with all-caps reactions from real-life friends and Internet acquaintances, all in their mid-20s to early 30s, who had clearly been harboring similar fixations for decades.
Judging from a recent Vogue profile, even the stars of Hooper’s film are among our kind. Anne Hathaway, who plays the fallen grisette Fantine, first saw the musical at age 8, when her mother appeared in a touring production. “I just sat there sobbing,” she told Vogue. “I’ve been in love with the show ever since.” Amanda Seyfried and Eddie Redmayne, cast as Cosette and Marius, had similar tales. I might’ve brushed it off as prepackaged PR babble if it didn’t so eerily echo my own life.
As a matter of chronology, this all makes sense. Whatever you call the generation born along the Gen X/Millennial fault line, we were the first to have the chance to fall in love with Les Mis before we even reached puberty. The musical debuted in London in 1985 and exploded on Broadway soon after; touring companies criss-crossed the globe, and upon its 10th anniversary in 1995, the show declared itself, not inaccurately, “the musical that swept the world.” For a kid from a certain kind of PBS-pledging, middle-class family, early exposure to Les Mis was perhaps statistically inevitable.
But sheer ubiquity doesn’t account for the show’s stickiness. On paper, it’s decidedly un-kid-friendly: The sets are stark, the costumes drab, the source material a 1,500-page novel in which Victor Hugo details everything fetid and frightening about early-19th-century France. In Les Misérables, as in reality, the smallest humans bear the cruelest burdens of poverty and injustice and disease. The adult characters fare better, but not much. The show is buoyed by the unflagging refrain of “One Day More,” but the moments of triumph are only a salve, never a cure. “Lovely Ladies” and “Master of the House” are two bawdy bright spots, but the darkness is so dark.
What explains it, then? To untangle the roots of this painfully niche cultural phenomenon, I conducted a highly scientific email survey of friends and friends-of-friends who'd loved the show as kids and still love it now. When asked to explain their own early fixations, the secondary reasons given ranged from omnivorous theatre-geekery to early-onset Francophilia. But it became quite clear that what unites all of our childhood love of Les Misérables is the deep feelings of the show, and the feelings those feelings made us feel.
“I think what initially drew me to Les Mis was the extreme to which I and my friends just felt everything,” says Devon Maloney, a writer pal from the Internet. “It was no coincidence that my bedroom walls sported a gigantic Les Mis poster side by side with all my emo/pop-punk/Warped Tour memorabilia.”