When looking at both a musical adaptation and its source material, I try to let each be its own thing, to not judge them by each other’s standards, but look at how they coexist. This is typically easier if I am familiar with the musical first, since I usually already have affection for it, and source material is rarely expected to “live up” to what has been created from it, unlike the other way around. For the past few months, I have been very slowly making my way through Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables,” the thousand-plus page novel that is the basis for one of the most beloved pieces in the history of musical theatre.
For the most part, I have been impressed and amused seeing how the writers of the musical (Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg, Jean-Marc Natel, Herbert Kretzmer, Trevor Nunn, John Caird, and James Fenton) condensed and streamlined the massive story. Two characters, though, have stuck out to me as having made unnecessarily imperfect translations to the stage. I believe the musical version of “Les Mis” would be better if Javert and Éponine’s big numbers were cut.
This is where I let readers who might not want to know the ultimate fates of Javert and Éponine know that those fates are precisely what I will be discussing. If you are one of the few who have not even heard the cast recording of this musical, you may not want to continue. Everyone else, allons-y.
I will start with Javert, since I have a feeling erasing ‘Stars’ from the score of “Les Mis” will be more palatable than my other suggestion. ‘Stars’ is my favorite song in “Les Mis,” the only one I have ever performed as a solo. It is beautiful, haunting, almost a lullaby, and is one of few songs that stands out as uplifting in an otherwise harsh and grounded score. It is completely out of character for Javert. And not just Javert from the book, who is, especially without ‘Stars,’ a much more rigid and focused character than his stage version. But the stage version does capture his straight edge persona, mostly through his interactions with Jean Valjean, his foil.
Through those interactions, we learn Javert’s background and motivation, we learn his strict adherence to the law not just of the state but of fate itself, and we witness his cold, reasoning mind. Without ‘Stars,’ stage Javert is a shark, moving through France, doing his job, never ceasing, as he is in the book. Then, when we get to his suicide, when the goodness of Valjean has finally broken him, then he can sing all by himself, alternately raging and contemplating and shaking with fear. ‘Soliloquy,’ which uses the same music as Valjean’s first big solo (answering the lyric, before it arrives, “It is either Valjean or Javert”), becomes the burst dam at the end of Javert’s arc, appropriate, since the novel describes the water level of the Seine, into which he throws himself, as swollen. The audience should not see him showing softness before this moment. It’s more shocking if he has not been anything but unflinching.
Like Javert, Éponine has more sharp edges in the novel. She is a neglected street urchin, feral even in her civility. She has emotions and desires, but no idea how to express them. In her final moments, she says, “And then, do you know, Monsieur Marius, I believe I was a little in love with you.” It is the first time in the hundreds and hundreds of pages the reader has spent with Éponine that her feelings for Marius are made explicit, though they are hinted at, in her awkward behavior more than her words, because she doesn’t have the words. Book Éponine could never come close to bursting out into ‘On My Own,’ another of my favorite songs in the show, especially as sung by Lea Salonga. Throughout the show, she sings things like “If he asked, I’d be his,” and “What a life I might have known, but he never saw me there.”
These are in keeping with the character from the book, who is always at arm’s length from what she desires, because no one ever taught her what desire means (her parents are the Thénardiers, so she is only versed in greed), and perhaps she does not even believe she is worthy of getting what she wants. ‘On My Own’ says all of these things explicitly and poetically, and tells the audience what she feels instead of showing it, which the rest of her stage time does very well. The hints are all there, and if she doesn’t get a love song before ‘A Little Fall of Rain,’ then that moment of finally, at the end, getting to express herself, and briefly feel what she has wanted all along, to be in Marius’s arms, before death, is all the sadder and more poignant, like it was in the book.
And let’s be honest, “Les Mis” could stand to lose seven minutes. I love the show, but the biggest criticism I hear over and over is that it’s little more than one character after another being spun into place by a turn table to take their turn at an aria. There are other songs that could be cut. I haven’t finished the novel, but so far the Marius I know wouldn’t sing the survivor’s guilt ballad ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,’ and, really, who in the audience cares more about the outcome of the June Rebellion than getting him back to Cosette. Yes, Cosette, who does not get a song of her own, despite being a more consequential character than Éponine (well, the adult version doesn’t). She sings most of ‘In My Life,’ but it is ultimately about her relationship with Jean Valjean, who joins in, and her introduction to Marius by Éponine, who both help her finish it. And that’s okay. The audience gets to know Cosette more in the way that it would get to know her in a play, without big songs of explanation for each character.
“Les Mis” could use more characters like that, and Javert and Éponine are the prime candidates, being the most conflicted (practically all of Marius’s character development from the book is left out of the musical, but it’s not missed). I don’t think I have all the answers for fixing musicals, especially these days (I may sometimes act like I do, but I don’t), but I think it would be an interesting experiment to do “Les Mis” without these songs. Maybe it has been done, somewhere in the world. There are certainly abridged editions of the novel, so there’s precedent. At the end of the day, it’s a friendly suggestion.
Aaron Netsky (@AaronNetsky on Twitter, @aaron_netsky on Instagram) is a singer, writer, actor, and all-around theatre professional who has worked off and off-off Broadway and had writing published on AtlasObscura.com, TheHumanist.com, Slate.com, StageLightMagazine.com, and ThoughtCatalog.com, as well as his own blogs, Cantonaut (http://cantonaut.blogspot.com) and 366 Musicals (https://366days366musicals.tumblr.com), and his Medium account.