"I don't know if it will be read by everyone, but it is meant for everyone," Victor Hugo wrote, famously, of his novel Les Misérables. The same could be said of the stage musical, which plays in Tempe through July 21, and which, with global box office receipts exceeding $1.8 billion, makes a fair claim to universality, indeed.
The novel, Hugo maintained, was inspired by a street scene: the encounter between a beggar and a beautiful society woman, whose opulence the beggar regarded with amazement, who remained oblivious to the scrutiny. Such is the stuff of revolutions, and Hugo, who published Les Misérables in 1862, wrote in an atmosphere of political turbulence -- when liberty, equality and fraternity suggested considerably more than a coed college campus. Appearing at a time when class distinctions were particularly poignant, the book was a popular triumph (and so, predictably, a critical flop).
Of course, contemporary theatergoers -- who pay between $19.75 and $57.75 for tickets -- may respond less to the story's social lessons than to the story itself, which, gripping and grandiose, is a coup of a different kind. It follows the ordeals of escaped convict Jean Valjean, primarily his pursuit by Inspector Javert, the policeman who defines "dastardly." Naturally, Valjean is the hero -- although only by virtue of an epiphany that occurs early in the event sequence. Previously, we understand, he was a conflicted but essentially criminal guy.
There's a love story, too. It centers on Cosette, the girl whom Valjean adopts from a fallen woman (and the forlorn urchin represented in the show's logo). As a young woman, she falls headlong for Marius, a student. But Marius' life is threatened by his political activism, and his affections are threatened by the interloper Eponine.
The touring production stars Randal Keith (Valjean), Stephen Bishop (Javert), Diana Kaarina (Eponine), Stephen Brian Patterson (Marius) and Stephanie Waters (Cosette). Interestingly, the cast also includes a father-son team: Greggory and Eddie Brandt. They're the first such pair to appear in Les Mis, although a mother and daughter have acted together in previous productions.
Written by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, Les Misérables the musical was adapted from the French by Herbert Kretzmer and features additional material by James Fenton. If nothing else, their production deserves its numerous accolades -- 50 major awards internationally, including Grammy and Tony awards -- for the scope of its ambition. Boublil, Schönberg and Kretzmer did something akin to condensing into two hours a year's worth of soap opera story lines. Some of it even rhymes.