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Affirmations: Les Misérables

ECOLOGIES | Culture Is Ordinary  }

Rhian E. Jones / October 16, 2021
The musical Les Mis often serves as a shorthand for suburban ghastliness and conservatism, yet its most obvious signifiers relate to a doomed popular uprising. How to reconcile this? 1616 words / 7 min read

Photo: Manifestation du 17 décembre 2019 contre la réforme des retraites, Jeanne Menjoulet


It’s spectacularly rare to have my historical and political interests addressed directly in popular culture, and my exposure to Les Misérables both as novel and as musical was so early, and so in tune with my being drawn to 19th and 20th century histories of radical struggle and glorious defeat, that I’m sometimes unsure which came first. Of all subsequent incarnations of Les Mis, it’s the 1980 musical – by Schönberg and Boublil, please note, not Lloyd-Webber – that has the most obvious grip on popular cultural consciousness, and the musical’s most obvious signifiers, extraordinarily, are those that relate to its climactic, and doomed, popular uprising.

The centrality of the barricade and bloodshed to the story’s other, more predictably palatable heroic, comic and romantic tropes means that the musical’s appeal has always fascinated me. As a kid, I regarded a lot of the latter – certainly the hapless, sappy coupling of Marius and Cosette! – as a distraction from what really spoke to me. I could write on a multitude of aspects, from why liberal humanists like Victor Hugo can produce usefully radical art (see also Dickens), to why my early imprinting on the student revolutionary Enjolras left me ruined for all other musicals and most other men. I loved Éponine like a certain kind of miserable teenage girl always will – she’s even better, sharper and more creepy-compelling, in the book – but I also wished her musical motivations had less boy and more barricade. But it’s the sum of all these parts – plus the patina of Christian redemption which, like the Bishop’s silver candlesticks, you can take or leave – that gives the musical such surely uniquely wide and lasting attraction.

The centrality of the barricade and bloodshed to the story’s other, more predictably palatable heroic, comic and romantic tropes means that the musical’s appeal has always fascinated me.

I enjoy pastiches and parodies of my favourite things, and am usually pleased to see Les Mis lampooned because this is almost always done with an awareness and appreciation of why the musical works in the first place. Unlike satires, the best of which tend to benefit from viciousness towards their source material, Les Mis pisstakes tend to work best when they’re clearly affectionate. The first three that come to mind – of variable comedic quality, dramatic stakes, and probable underlying politics, but all of which understand the appeal of their material and all of which, crucially, are deeply, unreservedly silly – are from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Orange is the New Black, and South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut. All of these draw specifically on the mass, momentum and melodrama of the musical’s rebel songs, ‘Do You Hear the People Sing?’ and the precipitous cliff-hanger ‘One Day More’, both of which centre on cross-class popular defiance and feature the flourishing of an enormous red flag. For all of its undoubted attraction for certain demographics, you don’t get that with CATS, do you?

Taking a step back from the stage and screen, ‘Do You Hear the People Sing?’ in particular has been absorbed into the modern repertoire of real-life popular contention, cropping up at protests and rallies from Hong Kong independence to Make America Great Again. Its resonance here is helped by the song’s deliberate vagueness when removed from context; even in the musical, the red flag is the only thing that really lends any particular political sharpness to what is otherwise the broadest possible juxtaposition of an insurgent ‘the people’ against an opposing oppressive force that the song leaves largely unexamined. All of which is fair enough: it’s a rallying-cry, not a manifesto, and its articulation of popular solidarity has the same energy as Corbyn’s use of Shelley’s “ye are many; they are few”, or, from what seems like a lifetime ago, the slogan “We are the 99 percent”.

The appeal of “Les Misérables: The Musical Sensation” is, these days, more or less self-sustaining; it’s become entrenched as part of the day-trip, day-out furniture, something to see because it’s there. I’ve been trying to articulate why the tension between this and the fact that it remains, at heart, a tale about an uprising against intolerable socio-political conditions in which no sector or individual, no matter how disparate their subplots and storylines, can avoid taking part, seems worth thinking about. Noel Coward’s line “Extraordinary how potent cheap music is” almost fits here but doesn’t quite.

Les Mis isn’t cheap in the sense of the current price of theatre tickets, but in terms of popular cultural currency – which seems to mean it’s also frequently regarded as both vulgar and middlebrow, conservative, normie, inherently laughable. A poster for its Broadway production turns up repeatedly in Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, partly as part of the novel’s ubiquitous-in-the-80s set-dressing, but beyond that, as some weird signifier both of mawkish and superficial sentimentality and of the protagonist’s sublimated yearning for emotional connection. (Though even that’s mostly a sneer: Patrick Bateman, with his impeccably bad pop-cultural tastes, also achieves an existential breakthrough watching Bono emote onstage.) There’s a similar default attitude displayed in a glimpse from Moffatt and Gattis’s BBC Sherlock, where the musical serves as a shorthand for suburban ghastliness as Mycroft seeks to evade his parents, in London for the day, who insist on taking in the show. From this perspective Les Mis is sentimental, rather than tragic, and inherently provincial or suburban as set against metropolitan sophistication. (You could even argue for its appeal as a triumph of pathos and ethos similar to certain parts of Leave rhetoric, as against the alleged logos of Remain, if you really wanted to go there.) It’s something your relatives come to the city to treat themselves to or to tick off the must-do list, after traipsing round the Trocadero and before the coach -trip home.

‘Home’ is a significant concept here, given I’m also still thinking about what the 2019 general election unveiled about the sheer depth of division not just between city and country, or city and town, and between young and old, precariously employed and comfortably retired, but also the materially enforced crossover between all these categories. Raymond Williams that “the contrast of the country and city is one of the major forms in which we become conscious of a central part of our experience (and of the crises of our society)”,1 but the current declared split of provinces vs metropolis works to complicate country vs city in both of its stereotypical framings. The right-wing claim of a nobly downtrodden ‘left-behind’ hinterland, against a city-dwelling elite supposedly swimming in welfare beneficence and gold-plated public-sector salaries, ignores the degree of both urban poverty and shire affluence. Meanwhile, the emerging left idea of post-industrial towns having filled up with comfortable Tory retirees and ‘boomers’ to the exclusion of the ‘real’ working class is odd if you take account, for instance, of the out-of-town supermarkets, warehouses or call-centres that now populate these places. The idea of cities as repositories of progressive radicalism, while undoubtedly valid, also has to work around their growing gentrification and rock-solid concentrations of wealth. The legitimate argument for London as a working-class city should not discount or disparage the number of manual and precarious workers, and the amount of poverty and inequality, that still exist outside it.

The emerging left idea of post-industrial towns having filled up with comfortable Tory retirees to the exclusion of the working class is odd if you take account of the supermarkets, warehouses or call-centres that now populate them.

Both of the above frameworks also ignore that one classic trajectory for creative or radical (or simply bored) working-class individuals was to move from the stifling convention or prospectless stagnancy of the countryside or small town to the liberated potential of the city. Made far easier in the 1960s as a result of expansion in higher education and greater working-class access to cultural platforms, this flow of working-class youth to cities looks different and difficult today, disrupted by gentrification, the changing nature of the creative industries and the difficulty of sustaining work within them without the support of independent wealth. As was drawn out in this useful and clarifying thread from 2019 which touches on the wider theme of “Corbynites going back for Christmas”, for those of us with one foot in both the country and the city, these are developments and dynamics we have to recognise and work with, not exclusively but importantly.

Kristin Ross’s Communal Luxury, a book which explores the uses of imagination around the 1871 Paris Commune, also talks briefly about the importance of communication when building and defending a transformative project.2 Ross notes the gulf and eventual crisis of communication between insurgent communards in Paris and workers and peasants in the surrounding countryside, when common material and ideological interests might otherwise have been articulated and alliances formed. I won’t descend any further into on-brand self-parody by arguing that Les Mis the musical might be a point of metropolitan/provincial, millennial/boomer connection (even if Jean Valjean is probably the most instant point of cultural bonding I still have with my dad), but, like many things these days, it’s an interesting thought.

For “Culture is Ordinary”, in each edition we will be running a column “Affirmations”, in which writers talk about culture that is important to them.

New Socialist £5 and above subscribers can get 50% off Rhian E. Jones’s (co-written with Matthew Brown), Paint Your Town Red: How Preston Took Back Control and Your Town Can Too or another book from Repeater Books.


  1. Raymond Williams. [1973]. 2016. The Country and the City. London: Vintage. p. 415. 

  2. Kristin Ross. 2015. Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune. p. 132. 


Author:

Rhian E. Jones (@rhianejones)

Rhian E. Jones writes on history, politics, popular culture and the places where they intersect. She is co-editor of Red Pepper and writes for Tribune magazine. Her books include Clampdown: Pop-Cultural Wars on Class and Gender (zer0, 2013); Petticoat Heroes: Gender, Culture and Popular Protest (University of Wales Press, 2015); Triptych: Three Studies of Manic Street Preachers’ The Holy Bible (Repeater, 2017) and the anthology of women’s music writing Under My Thumb: Songs That Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them (Repeater, 2017) and Paint Your Town Red: How Preston Took Back Control and Your Town Can Too (Repeater, 2021).