After nineteen years in prison, Jean Valjean is released on parole. His desire to live a normal life is hampered by his status as a former prisoner; everywhere he goes he is shunned. When a kindly bishop provides him with food and shelter, Valjean repays him by stealing some silver dishes. He is arrested again, but the bishop saves him once more by claiming he gave those items to Valjean as a gift. After the police leave, the man of God implores Valjean to live an honest life, and the former convict agrees. Fast forward several years, and Valjean is the wealthy owner of a factory and mayor of a town. But his prosperity is always threatened by his past, for after his encounter with the bishop Valjean destroyed his identification papers and as a result he is in violation of his parole. No matter how much time passes, the policeman Javert is searching for him. In his factory, there is a woman named Fontine. When Valjean fails to intervene in a fight, she is fired and forced into prostitution. Valjean repents of his inaction when he learns that Fontine is dying, and promises to care for her daughter. He fetches the girl, named Cosette, and for many years they are happy together. But little girls eventually grow up, and when Cosette meets a young man named Marius in the streets of Paris, it is love at first sight. With war breaking out on the streets of Paris and Javert hot on the heels of Valjean, will anyone in this musical find happiness? (Hint: It's called Les Misérables, what do you think is going to happen?)
I'm trying to think about this musical as an entity standing alone, without the crutch of the book the or the various films that have been based on Victor Hugo's classic novel. The trouble with this is that when stripped bare of extraneous information, the plot has some serious problems. For example, what on earth is the barricade about? Who or what are those men rallying against? Why is Javert so dead-set on catching Valjean? The guy just stole some bread! Based purely on the musical's text, you'd never know - with so many characters and plot threads to sort out, it's hard to go in-depth about anything.
But nevermind. It's a beautiful show. The music is lovely, and many of the songs have become staples of the Broadway canon. I mean, who hasn't heard "Look Down", "I Dreamed a Dream", or "On My Own" performed by some aspiring songstress? Add in some dazzling special effects, and it's impossible to tear your eyes from the stage. I really liked the integration of digital and physical sets in this production. The digital screen usually held a cityscape or a fairly benign, flat image similar to a traditional set, and regular stage constructions were used for houses or the massive barricade. But every once in a while, some magical trick would bring the digital screen to life. For example, when Valjean is stumbling through the sewers, the background shifted to become a maze of dark tunnels for him to stumble through. With the lights of the stage dimmed to almost total darkness, it was beautifully effective.
I have to admit that my favorite moment of the evening came after the musical, as we were walking back to our car. Two ladies hurried by, and I caught this fragment of conversation:
Lady #1: I can't believe how sad that was!
Lady #2: I know! It seemed like before the wedding they were killing off EVERYBODY!
Lady #1: I had no idea it would be so tragic.
All I could think was, "Lady, the musical isn't called Sunshine, Lollypops and Rainbows. What did you think you were going to see?"