YAA is excited to bring you a new blog column called Paco’s POV. Our wonderful Orchestra Manager, Francisco José “Paco” Cosió Marron, will be writing these every week to give you a bit more background on the production we are currently working on. Check back often to get your fill of Paco’s POV!
Les Misérables is fiction. That having been said, Victor Hugo took history seriously into account in creating the background and the characters in his work. It will be incumbent on us to know and understand the historical backdrop of the time his novel covers (roughly 1815 thru 1835,) if we are going to make sense of this story. To that end, I beg your forbearance if I now and then wander into the historical weeds to set the context.
To help us get invested in our story, let me introduce the first character:
Jean Valjean (prisoner 24601 though it should be noted that, in the novel, Hugo never refers to Valjean by a number. This only appears in the musical.) is the protagonist of our story. Hugo depicts Valjean's long struggle to lead a normal life after serving a prison sentence for stealing bread to feed his sister's children during a time of economic depression and various attempts to escape from prison with three successful escapes. In the musical, Jean only escapes from prison once (but this is the literary license taken by the French librettist and composer, Claude-Michel Schönberg and original French-language lyricists Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel. An English-language libretto and English lyrics were written by Herbert Kretzmer. We will meet these folks in a future posting.)
The base line of this story is that ex-convict Jean Valjean becomes a force for good in the world but cannot escape his criminal past. His story, in short, is - convicted for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister's seven starving children and sent to prison for five years, he is paroled from prison nineteen years later (after four unsuccessful escape attempts added twelve years and fighting back during the second escape attempt added two extra years). Rejected by society for being a former convict, he encounters Bishop Myriel, who turns his life around by showing him mercy and encouraging him to become a new man. He assumes a new identity and alias in order to pursue an honest life. He introduces new manufacturing techniques and eventually builds two factories and becomes one of the richest men in the area. By popular acclaim, he is made mayor. He confronts Javert, the police chief that originally sent him to prison, over Fantine's punishment, turns himself in to the police to save another man from prison for life, and rescues Cosette from the Thénardiers. Discovered by Javert in Paris because of his generosity to the poor, he evades capture for the next several years. He saves Marius from imprisonment and probable death at the barricade, reveals his true identity to Marius and Cosette after their wedding, and is reunited with them just before his death, having kept his promise to the bishop and to Fantine, the image of whom is the last thing he sees before dying.
The inspiration for Jean Valjean began with an incident Hugo witnessed on the streets in Paris in 1829 involving three strangers and a police officer. One of the strangers was a man who had stolen a loaf of bread similar to Jean Valjean. There are several actual events that Hugo observed that gave him the outline and some of the scenes in his books. Valjean's character is loosely based on the life of the ex-convict Eugène François Vidocq. Vidocq was a French criminal and criminalist whose life story inspired several writers, including Victor Hugo, Edgar Allan Poe, and Honoré de Balzac. Vidocq became the founder and first director of the crime-detection Sûreté Nationale as well as the head of the first known private detective agency. Vidocq is considered to be the father of modern criminology and of the French police department. He was also a businessman and was widely noted for his social (charitable) engagement and philanthropy. In 1828, Vidocq, having been pardoned from his previous life of crime, saved one of the workers in his paper factory by lifting a heavy cart on his shoulders as Valjean does. Hugo's description of Valjean rescuing a sailor on the Orion drew almost word for word on a Baron La Roncière's letter describing such an incident.
Continuing to draw from history, Hugo used Bienvenu de Miollis (1753–1843), the Bishop of Digne during the time in which Valjean encounters Myriel, as the model for Bishop Myriel.
In our next post, we will meet the bishop along with Javert, the fanatic police inspector who implacably pursues Valjean throughout our musical.
Please take some time over this holiday and the next two weeks to get the story and music in your fingers, on your lips, through your minds, hearts and souls.