The Erie Playhouse is one of four venues that have been given permission to perform “Les Miserables” – “Les Mis” – in its community debut, with the new arrival of a movie adaptation just under way.
Originally a popular romance novel by Victor Hugo first appearing in 1862, “Les Mis” drew long lines outside book stores in France and Belgium. This epic novel consisted of four volumes and was published in more than 40 countries in 10 years.
The novel was adapted to musical form in Paris in 1980, directed by Robert Hossein and has since become one of the most successful musicals in history. The English language version, produced by Cameron Mackintosh, opened in London in 1985.
The humanitarian theme that is struck by this piece of work sent the production to the Tony Awards in 1987, where a few of those cherished gems – including best musical – were in fact won by the one-time romantic novel.
Historically fictive, yet still entwining the facts of a very tumultuous era of the French Revolution – which arose from social injustice, a very common theme in history of the wealthy living high on the hog while the lowly starve – “Les Mis” will gnaw at your heart.
Jean Valjean, one of the lead roles in the musical, will be played by the Rev. Shawn Clerkin, an associate professor in Gannon’s theatre department. Valjean is a convict who can never see past that label, yet doesn’t allow that label to keep him from advocating for the good of humanity, which transcends the black and white tunnel vision of the authority in the musical.
About the character of Valjean, Clerkin said, “We see the frailty of humanity; we see the Christian compassion at work through the grace of God.
“Valjean realized that he would have a greater effect on the good of all if he accepted the office of mayor, something he really didn’t want.”
In doing so, Valjean takes on the office of scapegoat as a ruthless disconnected Javert pursues Valjean.
Valjean finds that his life is protected even when he lies and steals and when a priest lies for Valjean. When a nun shelters him, the virtue of compassion shines the light on Valjean.
After being pursued, Valjean ends up reflecting a praying Christ figure at the Mount of Olives. “Indeed Valjean is a Christ figure,” Clerkin said. “He represents the message of redemption.”
When asked about the role of Javert, Clerkin said, “The sadness is that Javert is so focused on the right and wrong – the black and white – that he is incapable of seeing what the issue really is.
“Javert represents the part of our world that deals with the ‘cookie cutter’ approach and therefore missing the multiple parts of humanity,” Clerkin said. “Javert is not evil, he is justified in his mind and his inability to see the gray areas leads to the conflict.”
That being the injustice that Hugo had originally wanted to bring to the conscience of the people. Hugo insisted that his purpose was not to have the people break the laws, only that the laws be just.
Clerkin describes the musical as “the musical of my generation and part of the invasion of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Sir Cameron Mackintosh.”
Clerkin said this is the greatest adaptation of a novel in the 19th Century, which shows the power of grace to transform lives.
He said the musical has beautiful ballads and music, and the hardest thing that he found to accomplish is that the work is all sung – only a few lines are spoken.
The new movie adaptation of “Les Mis,” which stars Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway, among others, is scheduled to debut on Dec. 14.