Milwaukee and Madison audiences will have the chance once again to “dream the dream when hope was high and life worth living” when “Les Miserables” returns.
The show, celebrating its 25th anniversary year, will return to the Milwaukee’s Marcus Center for the Performing Arts in April and Madison’s Overture Center for the Arts in May.
This special production of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s legendary musical promises new staging and scenic designs based on some of author Victor Hugo’s original paintings. The re-imagined sets have drawn rave reviews, with several of them praising this “Les Miz” as the best ever.
But it’s the classic story line that will draw audiences back, predicts out actor Cole Burden, who plays Courfeyrac, one of the students who defends the barricades during the show’s signature scene.
“‘Les Miz’ is enduring because Victor Hugo’s story is enduring,” Burden says. “As long as there is conflict, as long as we have to make the choice as human beings to do the right thing, we can always relate to ‘Les Miz.’”
Based on Hugo’s two-volume novel, whose title translates literally to “The Miserable Ones,” “Les Miserables” was first pub lished in 1862. Some scholars consider it the greatest novel of the 19th century.
Chronicling the 17-year period from 1815 to 1832, the narrative focuses on the struggles and redemption of the character Jean Valjean, released from prison after 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving sister and her family. Now a hardened man known by his prison number 24601, Valjean steals silverware from the kindly bishop who takes him in, only to be caught by police with his spoils. The bishop convinces the police that the silverware was a gift and Valjean is let go. The bishop adds two silver candlesticks to the loot, but makes the ex-convict promise to lead an honest life.
“We see Valjean struggling from the beginning of the show, but is the bishop’s gift of freedom that inspires him to change his life,” Burden says. “Based on this one encounter he chooses to be a compassionate man. It’s a beautiful example of the effect we can have on each other.”
Valjean moves to a new town, assumes a new name and invents a manufacturing process that makes the entire town prosperous. He is declared mayor, but he cannot escape his past once Inspector Javert, a former prison guard and now a policeman, discovers his true identity. Valjean, hounded by Javert, continues to struggle among the poorest and most miserable of society, giving Hugo’s narrative dramatic license to examine the nature of law and grace, politics and morality and other compelling social issues of the day.
As fans of both the novel and the show know, good triumphs over evil, and Valjean isn’t the only one redeemed. But the narrative’s overriding themes, including the conditionsthat eventually led to the French Revolution, remain relevant for readers and viewers, Burden says.
“We’re living in an era where there are rapid shifts, both socially and economically,” Burden says. “Like the students in the play, it’s important for all of us to stand up and fight for what we believe in, to be passionate about the time we have here on our planet.”
Does the theme of freedom and compassion have special meaning for gay men, even those not involved in the show? Burden is moved by the story, but doesn’t limit his response only to his sexual orientation.
“Freedom speaks to me as a human being,” he says. “Everyone should be entitled to know the feeling of loving who they want to love. It also speaks to me because I feel the need for us all to break free from stereotypes and be allowed to follow our hearts.”