I first caught the musical “Les Misérables” back in 1987, when it made its U.S. debut on Broadway. My lasting memory of the Tony Award winning production, which enjoyed the third-longest run on the Great White Way after “Cats” and “Phantom of the Opera,” is that much of the audience wept through Act II.
As “Les Miserables” appears this holiday season on movie screens throughout the country, featuring the vocal talents of actors Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway and Amanda Seyfried, among others, I now think the musical decidedly spiritual entertainment.
It’s not that “Les Miz” has changed since it moved from stage to screen; that the storyline, which is based on Victor Hugo’s classic novel, has been reworked to appeal to Christian evangelicals, in a crass Hollywood attempt to capture the movie-going audience that made Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ” a box office sensation.
No, what has changed in the 25 years since I saw “Les Miz” on Broadway is that I am today a “re-born” again Christian. Indeed, in my young adult years, I ventured away from the faith life of my childhood and early adolescence. But after getting married just before the turn of the millennium, I restarted my walk with the Lord.
I see in the story of Jean Valjean, the hero of “Les Miz,” a journey of redemption with which all of us can identify who have strayed from The Way, only to be rescued from our sin-sick lives by Christ, our Savior.
After his parole from prison, to which he originally was sentenced for stealing bread for his starving sister and her family, Valjean is provided food and shelter by a kindly bishop. The ex-con returns the kindness by stealing the bishop’s silver.
Valjean is caught by the authorities and brought before the bishop. But rather than confirm the ex-con’s theft, the bishop tells the authorities he gifted the silver to Valjean.
That act of Christ-like grace persuades Valjean to become an upright man. So he changes his identity and starts a new life, eventually building a successful business and even ascending to mayor of the town in which he leads an exceedingly abundant life.
But that is not the end of the story. Valjean does not live happily after. As every Christ follower knows, just because we are born – or re-born – again does not mean there will not be times that try our souls.
In Valjean’s case, when he changed his identity, when he began his life anew, he violated his parole. He was hunted through the years by a determined police inspector, Javert, who vowed to find and re-imprison Valjean.
As it happens, Valjean learns that a man believed to be him has been arrested. It presents an opportunity to “M’sieur le Mayor” to be free of Javert once and for all. It is the kind of snare Satan often sets before us to get us to fall away from our Christian principles.
Valjean struggles with what to do.
“Who am I?” he asks himself, in one of the best-known musical numbers from “Les Miz.” “Can I condemn this man to slavery? Pretend I do no feel his agony? … Must I lie? How can I ever face my fellow men? How can I ever face myself again?”
In the end, Valjean makes the hard choice; the right choice.
“My soul,” he sings, “belongs to God, I know. I made that bargain long ago. He gave me hope when hope was gone. He gave me strength to carry on.”
So what else could he do? Valjean revealed his true identity, saving an innocent man from wrongful imprisonment.
Valjean’s act of self-sacrifice was extraordinary. But to those redeemed by the blood of the Lamb, the extraordinary is made ordinary.