On My Corner: Some enduring stories

Bob Casimiro

By Bob Casimiro

Les Misérable by Victor Hugo is one of the enduring classics, and an obsession of mine.

In addition to reading Hugo’s novel (1961 edition), I have Graham Robb’s biography of Victor Hugo, seen the musical/play, watched the original movie and the 1978 remake, and I play the music at home, in my truck — wherever — on CD, or view the musical frequently on YouTube.

The enduring story of Jean Valjean’s struggles to overcome adversity and eventually triumph is a continual source of inspiration for me. Valjean spends 19 years as a rower in a galley — a low, flat ship with sails and up to three banks of oars — that is used for trade and warfare. He survives through many crises and, along the way, becomes a wealthy manufacturer and mayor of the town under the alias M. Madeleine.

At the final request of a prostitute named Fantine, M. Madeleine assumes custody of her daughter, Cosette. He later rescues Marius, Cosette’s love interest, all the while evading his nemesis, Inspector Javert. The inspector ends up committing suicide as he is unable to reconcile his strict adherence to the law with the kindness the criminal, Valjean, has shown him by sparing his life.

Valjean has his own conflicting moments, too.

An innocent man is accused of being Valjean and, at the trial, Valjean “outs” himself, stating he is Jean Valjean and not the well known and popular town mayor M. Madeleine. In the 10th Anniversary Concert version this scene is powerfully sung by Colm Wilkinson in the lead role as Jean Valjean.

Valjean dies peacefully, after Marius and Cosette learn the full truth about him and are able to reconcile their differences and misunderstandings as Valjean takes his final breaths.

A story of virtue eventually prevailing and evil destroyed (unlike the contemporary political scene, where virtue is being pounded into the dust and evil is prevailing).

It is interesting to reflect on the more memorable characters in each medium. In the 1935 movie, Fredric March as Valjean and Charles Laughton as Inspector Javert are prominent; Sir Cedric Hardwicke as the priest who gives protection to Valjean is also a powerful force. In the 1978 remake, Anthony Perkins as Inspector Javert is my most memorable character.

Likewise, Javert was the standout character in the live musical I saw in Boston with my mother, brother and sister-in-law. He gives his soliloquy in an almost comical outfit simulating a toy soldier. A surprising favorite in the 10th Anniversary Concert is the wife of innkeeper Thénardier. She provides wonderful comic relief as they argue over bilking customers out of their francs.

I have never used, or thought of using, the word ‘electrifying’ in the 13 years of writing about this, that, and the other, but there are two renditions of the music of Les Mis that are worthy of a look.

The first is from the “Britain’s Got Talent 2009 Episode 1.” Susan Boyle, a 47-year-old stout English woman, not exactly dumpy, but definitely not a diva, sings I Dreamed A Dream. When she hits the first high notes, the place goes wild; one of the judges is shown in his amazement, with a dramatic arching of his eyebrows. When she finishes, she gets a standing ‘O’ from the thousands in attendance. Electric.

The second is of 17 Valjeans from around the world singing Do You Hear the People Sing? at the 10th Anniversary Concert. Each of the 17 sings a portion of the song. Truly memorable.

Of course, my favorite is Ruthie Henshall as Fantine singing I Dreamed A Dream at the 10th Anniversary Concert (YouTube Ruthie Henshall I Dreamed A Dream).

I can’t get enough of Les Mis.

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