Do You Hear the Countries Sing?

Utah Shakespeare Festival’s marquee production has parallels in contemporary America


Photo by Eleni Kalorkoti

Chillax. See a show. Escape the world’s head-rattling, soul-sapping ills.

Sorry. ’fraid not.

Profundity-averse theatergoers might ignore the social crosscurrents swirling through Les Misérables, instead distilling it to a chase tale—The Fugitive as operetta—but others will likely be struck by how eerily the societal roiling of 19th-century France mirrors the turbulent divisions of 21st-century America.

French revolutionaries and oppressed under class, meet American Tea Partyers and Occupy Wall-Streeters.

“It’s the story of our country right now, and it’s a little scary,” says Brad Carroll, director of the mega-popular musical drawn from Victor Hugo’s titanic 1862 novel that settles in at the Utah Shakespeare Festival for a June 23-Oct. 19 run in Cedar City. “It’s life out of balance, and it comes in so many different forms.”

Pop culture is rarely the tipping point in politics—more often a silly sideshow. Yet with the forever-awaited Hugh Jackman/Russell Crowe film version set for a December release—and the press hoopla that will surely ramp up in the fall as the presidential contest barrels toward a November climax—Hugo’s musicalized commentary could lend extra context to the debate over America’s social chasms.

Beginning in 1815, the colloquially known Les Miz follows Jean Valjean on his journey from petty thief to man of honor and climaxes with the Paris uprising of 1832, a student-led, anti-monarch insurrection. (Contrary to a stubborn misconception, Les Miz is not about the French Revolution of 1789-99.)

Propelling the plot behind Valjean is a teeming cast of characters, including: Inspector Javert, obsessively pursuing the parole-breaking Valjean; the tragic Fantine, who loses her job and resorts to prostitution; her illegitimate daughter, Cosette, taken in by the Thénardiers, the sleazy, corrupt couple who mistreat the 8-year-old and force her into labor at their inn; Marius, the student revolutionary who was raised as an aristocrat and falls in love with the adult Cosette; and Eponine, the pampered daughter of the Thénardiers who taunted Cosette but winds up poverty-stricken herself when her parents go bankrupt.

Compare their world and ours:

Economic oppression/social injustice: Poverty’s devastating impact on the poor and the harsh treatment under the law when they commit crimes to survive drive Les Miz. Beyond the suffering of Fantine and Cosette, the themes are illustrated by Valjean, i.e., “prisoner 24601.” After stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving family, he serves 19 years in jail—five for the minor theft, another 14 for attempting to escape.

Domestically, with rising unemployment and foreclosure rates rocking the United States, the media is rife with stories of sudden homelessness, small businesses in ruin and laid-off professionals with advanced college degrees settling for jobs for which they are overqualified—or can’t even obtain for that reason. Crime-wise, The New York Times reported in 2008 that America had less than 5 percent of the world’s population but nearly a quarter of its prisoners, adding: “Americans are locked up for crimes—from writing bad checks to using drugs—that would rarely produce prison sentences in other countries.”

Ruling class: Whether Hugo advocated socialism is hotly debated by literary scholars, but what’s undeniable is his outrage at the gross inequities between the classes and the societal structures—put in place by an indifferent upper class—that either encourage them or at least fail to fix them. Today, left-wing critics claim businessman and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney—net worth: $250 million, as reported by ABC News—wouldn’t empathize with less-fortunate Americans, citing his comment: “I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there.” Conversely, combatting socialism—real or imagined—has become a political position in America as some right-wingers, particularly the Tea Party, have labeled President Barack Obama a socialist for advocating governmental programs to assist hard-hit Americans.

Rising up against the ruling class: Essentially the 99-percenters of their day, the student revolutionaries of Les Miz stand up to the French monarchy. While their ire is singularly focused, two factions of Americans (mostly nonviolently) target different perceived oppressors: Tea Party activists have their gun sights on government, which they claim is intrusive in their lives. On the opposite end, Occupy Wall-Streeters rally against the wealthy who could be reined in by tighter governmental control.

Either way, their wrath is as palpable as that of the young insurrectionists of Les Miz.

Subjugation of women: In 19th-century France, women had few options to support themselves, as evidenced by Fantine, who loses her factory job after she rejects the foreman’s advances, and becomes a prostitute. Modern American women have many more choices, but sexual harassment remains prominent. Issues regarding reproductive rights—proposed laws to force women to view an ultrasound before getting an abortion and to pull funding from Planned Parenthood, plus the firestorm over employers’ health insurance plans covering contraceptives—have been attacked as “the war on women.”

Technology: Rising in society to a town mayor and factory owner, Valjean invents cheaper production methods, which invariably reduce workers’ importance and salaries, or entirely eliminate the need for them. Examples in America? Look around. Anywhere. Everywhere.

Honoring the working class: In Les Miz, Hugo’s sympathies rest with society’s lower rung while he insists that revolution—and with it, the betterment of society—can only take root among those who struggle and strive because the ruling class has no impetus to refashion a system that favors them. In 2012 American politics, you’d be hard-pressed to find one politician who doesn’t—either sincerely or as campaign rhetoric—extoll the working class as the put-upon backbone of the nation.

“Here it is 180 years later and the question in my director’s notes is: Is history repeating itself, or do some things just never change?” Carroll says. “It couldn’t be more timely and universal.”

Whether fictional French characters or contemporary American citizens, all of them—with full-throated assaults on guardians of the status quo—could find ideological sustenance from “Do You Hear The People Sing,” Les Miz’s climactic anthem: “Will you join in our crusade? Who will be strong and stand with me? Beyond the barricade is there a world you long to see? … Then join in the fight that will give you the right to be free.

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