I’ve always maintained that, compared with many of its peers, the musical Les Misérables is in a class of its own. Set in the aftermath of the French Revolution, the musical tells the tale of Jean Valjean, a condemned man who found grace and hope to lead a new life after experiencing a radical act of forgiveness, and his interactions with his persecutor Javert, who has “hunted [him] across the years” with the belief that “men like [Valjean] can never change.” Besides the sublime musicality of the tunes and the poetic majesty of the lyrics that were written to them, what has kept me enraptured with the musical has been the way the music and lyrics interact in different places to create so many layers of depth in meaning. Victor Hugo’s original book provided the profound message; Schönberg’s and Boublil’s musical used music to add multiple additional dimensions to the already profound plot. I’ve probably listened to the entire production at least thirty times through in my life; yet, even after so much familiarity with the songs and plot, each time I listen to it again, I am often struck anew with revelations of the genius of its composers, in terms of how they use the cadence of the music, and the repetition of motifs in different contexts to convey beauty and profound truths about matters such as grace, justice, and justification.
By way of illustration: just two weeks ago, I was walking around Martyr’s Park in Guangzhou, China, on my own. As I left the Museum of Chinese Revolutionary History, the words of the policeman Javert (completely unrelated to the exhibits I had just seen) happened to be ringing through my mind: “I have only known one other who can do what you have done – he’s a convict from the chain gang, he’s been ten years on the run… he has just been rearrested, and he comes to court today.” As the music in my mind progressed to the next stanza, in which the tune changes to have Javert triumphantly (and mistakenly) proclaim his certainty that the stranger he has found was indeed Valjean,
But of course he now denies it,
You’d expect that of a con.
But he couldn’t run forever, no-
Not even Jean Valjean!
Struck with amazement, I stopped in my tracks (literally). As I hummed Javert’s proclamations, my mind also subconsciously brought me to only the other places I could think of in the musical where this same tune shows up. A couple of songs earlier, Bamatabois, a rich bourgeois man, levels a fabricated accusation to Javert against Fantine, a poor prostitute:
Javert, would you believe it
I was crossing from the park,
When this prostitute attacked me,
You can see she left her mark!
Fantine (in response to the false accusation):
There’s a child who sorely needs me,
Please, M’sieur, she’s but that high.
Holy God, is there no mercy?
If I go to jail, she’ll die!
And then, much more significantly, at the beginning of the musical, the Bishop tells the newly-arrested Valjean, to the same tune:
But my friend, you left so early
Surely something slipped your mind.
You forgot I gave these also,
Would you leave the best behind?
To understand the significance of these parallels, one has to understand the background behind these songs. In Fantine’s case, forced into prostitution because a sexually spurned factory foreman fired her in revenge for her unwillingness to sleep with him, Fantine was later accused by Bamatabois of attacking him when he had tried to unsuccessfully rape her. On the verge of being wrongfully indicted and thrown into jail, jeopardizing the life of the daughter she was supporting, she pleads with Javert for mercy. However, Javert, having “heard such protestations every day for twenty years,” brushes aside her pleas for mercy with a rough “let’s have no more explanations, save your breath, save your tears.” In his misguided dedication to unflinching justice, Javert was going to inflict radical injustice on Fantine. Again, later, in his triumphant proclamation about the man he had just arrested, Javert was gloating that Valjean, the ex-convict who had broken parole and whom he had been hunting for years in the conviction that wrongdoing always deserves punishment, had been found. Yet, he was wrong and misled – Valjean was standing before him, newly incarnate as the mayor of the town after remaking his life, and the poor suspect whom he had arrested who looked like Valjean, and was about to be thrown in prison, was actually innocent. In his zeal to bring justice to the condemned, Javert had brought injustice to the innocent.
The same melody, on the other hand, served a radically different situation in the Bishop’s earlier proclamation. Valjean, an ex-convict on parole, embittered by the discrimination he received everywhere he went because of his criminal status, had just been taken in for the night by the Bishop after being kicked out of everywhere else he had found. In response to the mercy shown to him, however, Valjean robbed the Bishop’s house and ran away with some silverware in the night. He was soon caught by the police, to whom he then lied that the Bishop had made a present of the silver. Not believing him, the police brought him back to the Bishop’s house to test the story, and secure Valjean’s indictment. However, instead of taking his silver back and condemning Valjean, the Bishop tells the officers that he had indeed given the silver to Valjean, and not only that, but (in the stanza quoted above), had also offered some additional lampstands that Valjean had “forgotten” in his haste to leave. In his zeal to redeem Valjean, not just in person but also in spirit, the Bishop had indeed turned the other cheek when hit on one, and given his cloak when asked for his shirt (Mt 5:39-40). Valjean, unable to comprehend this radical act of grace shown to him, throws away his old life and follows the Bishop’s command to “use this precious silver to become an honest man.” He then breaks parole and runs away to reinvent himself, becoming an upright man who contributes to the city as mayor (where he then meets Javert again, in the referenced stanza).
The significance of the fact that all of these stanzas are tied together with the same melody, which appears only in these two places in the entire musical, is tremendous. There is similarity between the situations, but there are also key differences that are emphasized as a result of the juxtaposition. All three situations that the melody serves hang on the tension of arrest, and all three situations center around deception. Yet, in the later two cases, the deception leads to a false and wrongful indictment; in the earlier case, the deception frees someone from a rightful indictment to a new hope. The first incident was an incident of grace, the later incidents were instances of persecution. With the Bishop, the deception is imposed so that Valjean’s redemption may occur; with Javert, both deceptions (against Fantine, and against the innocent scapegoat) are to be uncovered by Valjean in order that redemption for the innocent may occur.
Indeed, specifically comparing the incident with the Bishop and the incident with Javert and the scapegoat, Valjean, as a redeemed man, finds himself unable to let another man wrongly suffer in his place, and so turns himself in after years of (successful) running. In both cases, Valjean is given the chance to secure his freedom. However, because he knows that a stranger had first made a sacrifice to grant him his freedom, he too has to make his sacrifice – even the sacrifice of his freedom – to secure the freedom of this other stranger. Earlier, after being given a new life by the Bishop, Valjean declares, “Jean Valjean is nothing now! Another story must begin!” Later, in the face the news brought by Javert, on the precipice of condemning an innocent man to slavery, Valjean famously comes to the realization of his responsibility and declares, “Who am I? I’m Jean Valjean!”
In using the same musical motif to tie together the three acts of deception, and two acts of redemption – one by the Bishop for Valjean, and the other by Valjean for the stranger scapegoat – Schönberg and Boublil cause the audience to (subconsciously or not) associate the three incidents together. In so doing, they juxtapose the unjust consequences of Javert’s unflinching commitment to the law with the salvific consequences of redemptive grace. In addition, by casting the specter of the Bishop’s earlier act of grace in the background as Valjean receives news about his potential chance for freedom from Javert, the composers frame Valjean’s conflict about whether to confess or not in terms of the transformation that he had earlier experienced, when the Bishop “bought [his] soul for God.” Indeed, given that the Bishop had sacrificed so much earlier to buy Valjean his freedom, it would seem like the way for Valjean to complete the Bishop’s work in his life, to fully secure the freedom that the Bishop had bought for him, would be to let the innocent man be his scapegoat. However, in Valjean’s life, grace was not just a free gift from the Bishop, it was also a responsibility towards a new way that Valjean was to hitherto respond to life. Being pardoned and redeemed did not mean getting to throw away the past and run away from his past and his identity as Jean Valjean; it meant being changed, and being provided a new paradigm and a new hope to face this past, to face and embrace his identity as Jean Valjean.
In this way, then, the way in which the musical presents this peripeteia highlights a profound message about grace and redemption. I love the musical because each time I listen to the music, I uncover something new. But deeper than this, I love it because the message that I uncover about humanity in the world always surprises me in its profundity, and in its beauty.