Part 5: Les Mis, white optimism, and Autumn 1985

The musical as a form relies on a relatively straightforward dramaturgical structure, broadly used in the majority of musicals, where a set number of characters, usually relatively small in number, go through some kind of conflict or experience and their story is resolved by the end of the show, ideally with some kind of happy ending. The happy ending in Les Mis might be fairly thin on the ground, but there is some kind of hopefulness. In this part I’m going to explore how the musical is structured, and consider what does this have to do with Autumn 1985, and narrative whiteness?

In Les Misérables the character progression in this musical is primarily one of emotional and spiritual growth in extreme circumstances, with the climax of the spiritual finale sequence of the ‘Epilogue’. Jean Valjean, the protagonist, is now an elderly man and is on his deathbed surrounded by his loved ones; his adopted daughter Cosette and his son-in-law, the dashing Marius.

Valjean delivers the key spiritual message of the musical that to love others ‘is to see the face of God’[i]; while being summoned to heaven by the ethereal presence of Cosette’s long dead mother, Fantine, who returns to commend him on looking after her daughter as he promised. After he dies, a ghostly chorus returns, many of whom we last saw dead on a barricade: the chorus reprise the rousing anthem ‘Do You Hear the People Sing?’ in acapella choral unison.

The chorus of the song is changed, placing the reward of the protest not in a changed tomorrow but in the context of a biblical heaven, their freedom will come ‘In the garden of the Lord’[ii] The final words of the musical ‘tomorrow comes’[iii] promise a hopeful resolution, just not yet and potentially, not here.[iv]

The Epilogue of Les Mis

This emotional ‘Epilogue’ sequence has been addressed by several academics who have tended towards reading it as a site of collective struggle or an uplifting rallying cry, but in fact it offers very limited chance of any real social progress.

Kelsey Blair notes that its peaks of feeling establish solidarity between the audience and characters and as a result, the audience ‘feel[s] part of something. It feels inspirational – as if we could join in and rise up together.’[v] Others have noted the way the musical delivers optimism in the Epilogue: Jessica Sternfeld notes this final ghostly ensemble is made up of the ‘formerly miserable, now hopeful people’[vi]; similarly Jenny Hughes notes that chorus ‘imagin[e] a better world in the face of a dispossessing order, eerily evoking the defeated industrial classes of Thatcher’s Britain.’[vii]

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But the better world is the heavenly garden, and whatever an individual’s audience member’s potential religious beliefs, the idea that poverty can only be alleviated through death is pretty meagre comfort (or it would be, if the audience were in any way primed to notice that that was actually happening). Olaf Jubin suggests that for a contemporaneous audience:

With the miners’ strike about to collapse, Hugo’s passionate diatribe against selfishness and a society where the powerful and the ruthless build their name and fortune by trampling over the weak must have seemed both fascinating in its radicalism and quaint in its optimism.[viii]

Jubin

Though it might seem pedantic to note that the miners’ strike had been finished in March, long before audiences walked into the Barbican, the slip calls attention to Jubin’s positioning the musical as ‘quaint in its optimism.’ What is it Les Misérables is being ‘optimistic’ about in the autumn of 1985, and more specifically, who could feel such a gap between the optimism of the show and the real world outside of the theatre? 

Nicholas Nickleby and the RSC

In Theatres of Memory, Raphael Samuel considers at some length the Royal Shakespeare Company’s (RSC) earlier epic stage-adaptation of Charles Dickens’ novel Nicholas Nickleby in 1980. He explores the relationship between the production and the prevailing politics, in particular, how history and heritage were being both employed and interpreted by audiences. Samuel argues that the two-part Dickens adaptation, also directed by the team which staged Les Misérables (Trevor Nunn and John Caird) can be read as intimately related to the contemporaneous popularity of so-called Victorian ideals.

Samuel notes that even though Nicholas Nickleby was a product of experimental theatre which drew on Brechtian theatre practices and a radical counter-culture, it still produced ‘a Victorian morality, and one moreover of a decidedly conservative hue.’[ix] To be clear, Samuel explains it is not that the plays celebrate these values ‘in Mrs Thatcher’s sense of the term – it is too respectful of Dickens for that – but it could be said in some sort to exemplify them.’[x]

The musical as a form in the 1980s can definitely be seen to exemplify what might be called period values: most notably a connection to Thatcherism: Michael Billington has called 1980s musicals ‘Thatcherism in action’[xi]. Amanda Winkler’s consideration of The Phantom of the Opera (1986) reads it as a ‘commercial repackaging of the past, a synthesis of the twin Thatcherite values of traditionalism and capitalism.’[xii]

‘Thatcherism in action’

Michael Billington on 1980s musicals

The funding structures at work during this period also link to the greed is good mantra, not least, their abilities to reap such eye-watering profits. Such success is often in sharp contrast to the precarious financial state of British subsidised theatre; Thatcher’s oft-quoted response to Peter Hall when he complained about underfunding of the National Theatre was ‘“Look,” she said with menacing, jabbing finger, “at Andrew Lloyd Webber.”’[xiii]

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Funding the proeduction

The West End transfer of Les Misérables was funded through what was then a fairly unique collaboration, a three-way split between Mutual Benefit Life Insurance who split up their third into $10,000 units; the RSC another third; and other Mackintosh backers making up the final amounts. By July 1987 the Mutual Benefit investors were reported as having made a profit of ‘$6,710 of each $10,000 unit so far – and the show is expected to run for years.’[xiv]

Trevor Nunn pictured below in 1985:

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In 1988, Trevor Nunn wrote that the income Les Mis brought to the RSC of around £1 million a year was vital to the theatre’s work.[xv] But the RSC’s involvement brought prolonged public scrutiny from all sides: for getting involved in musicals, for working in commercial theatre, for not getting a good enough deal from commercial theatre, for devaluing its artistic product, or for accepting money from the private sector in the first place. In 1990, Michael Billington called it the RSC’s ‘biggest mistake’: it resulted in what he saw as a compromised identity.[xvi]

Morality of the decidedly conservative hue

The staging of revolution in Les Misérables is the key location of the ‘morality of the decidedly conservative hue’ that Samuel identified in Nicholas Nickleby. Baz Kershaw notes in his consideration of theatre as a social practice, that theatre operates both an institution which must confirm ‘more or less to the disciplines of the market’, while having the ‘potential for a radical critique of the social (and its economics) as a disciplinary apparatus.’[xvii]

Les Misérables conforms to the disciplines of the market while resisting any form of radical social critique: it presents social justice as only really accessible to the poorest as a heavenly reward, thereby undermining the potential threat of social revolution while simultaneously celebrating it. This is achieved through an emphasis on Christian spirituality as the key dramatic thrust of the musical: Grossman and Stephens note that the creative team had originally ‘veered towards a radical political tone, no doubt in tune with the political unrest in Britain [but] eventually decided that a notion of God was more important to the work’s meaning.’[xviii] The notion of God is explicitly Christian: the Bishop’s Christian charity prompts Valjean’s resurrection and rebirth, and Valjean’s dedication of his new life to God, and his ultimate spiritual transcendence to heaven.

In the context of autumn 1985, such visual representation and conservative values are associated with a series of tropes which replicate whiteness and white supremacist structures. The original Barbican cast of the musical was entirely optically white – the creative team similarly were exclusively made up of white people.[xix] While the focus here is on the West End production, it is worth noting that the original Broadway cast in 1987 was also made up of entirely white principals.[xx]

Seeing how whiteness and white supremacy is replicated in the musical requires an end to what Dreama Moon calls the discourse of ‘whiteness-evasion [where] whites ‘do not “see” that issues of race, racism, racial formation, or the power relations surrounding race as related to their lives’.[xxi] In his landmark study on white people’s possessive investment in whiteness, George Lipsitz notes that to understand the working of whiteness ‘gives us essential information about the nature of inequality in our society, about how privilege is created and sustained but protected from political critique.’[xxii]

In the next part, I’ll look at how Les Misérables performs tropes that affirm its characters as-white, using tropes which have been read by cultural theorist Richard Dyer as specifically serving the construction of whiteness.


[i] Claude Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, “Les Miserables: A Musical” Vocal Score (London: Cameron Mackintosh Limited, 1987), 396–97.

[ii] Schönberg and Boublil, 398–99.

[iii] Schönberg and Boublil, 401.

[iv] Though the book ends with Valjean’s death and an untypically short epilogue about Valjean’s unmarked and unremembered grave, Hugo’s original readers in the 1860s were acutely aware of later successful revolutions (and indeed the installation of Napoleon Bonaparte III as Emperor in bringing some of those freedoms to a close).

[v] Kelsey Blair, “Broomsticks and Barricades: Performance, Empowerment, and Feeling in Wicked and Les Misérables,” Studies in Musical Theatre 10.1 (March 2016): 55–67, at 64.

[vi] Sternfeld, 205.

[vii] Jenny Hughes, “The Theatre and Its Poor: Neoliberal Economies of Waste and Gold in Les Misérables (1985) and Road (1986),” Theatre Journal 67.1 (2015): 1–19, at 15.

[viii] Robert Gordon, Olaf Jubin, and Millie Taylor, British Musical Theatre since 1950, (London: Methuen Drama, 2016), 177.

[ix] Raphael Samuel, Theatres of Memory: Past and Present in Contemporary Culture (London: Verso, 2012), 424.

[x] Samuel, Theatres of Memory: Past and Present, 751.

[xi] Michael Billington, State of the Nation: British Theatre since 1945, (London: Faber & Faber, 2009), 284.

[xii] Amanda Eubanks Winkler, “Politics and the Reception of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera,” Cambridge Opera Journal 26.3 (2014) doi:10.1017/S0954586714000093, 271–87, at 279.

[xiii] Michael Billington, “Margaret Thatcher Casts a Long Shadow over Theatre and the Arts,” The Guardian, 8 April 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2013/apr/08/margaret-thatcher-long-shadow-theatre, accessed 10 February 2017.

[xiv] Brooke Kroeger, “Raising a Million for ‘Les Mis,’” The New York Times,19 July 1987, http://www.nytimes.com/1987/07/19/business/raising-a-million-for-les-mis.html, accessed 19 September 2017.

[xv] Trevor Nunn, “The Nunn’s Tale,” The Stage, 29 September 1988, https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0001180/19880929/078/0014, accessed 17 February 2019.

[xvi] Michael Billington, “The RSC Betrayal,” The Guardian, February 13, 1990.

[xvii] Baz Kershaw, “Discouraging Democracy: British Theatres and Economics, 1979-1999”, Theatre

Journal; 1 Oct 1999; 51.3 2, 267 – 283, at 270.

[xviii] Kathryn M Grossman and Bradley Stephens, “Les Misérables: From Epic Novel to Epic Musical,” in The Oxford Handbook of the British Musical, ed. by Robert Gordon and Olaf Jubin, (New York: OUP USA, 2017), 381–99, at 386.

[xix] The original program on John Napier’s website, the set designer, demonstrates this: John Napier Stages, “Les Misérables – John Napier Stages,” n.d., http://www.johnnapierstages.com/shows-plays/les-miserables, accessed 12 February 2019. The casting is further documented in director John Caird’s photo gallery of the original production: John Caird, “Les Misérables photo album”, http://www.johncaird.com/images/musicals/les_miserables/album/Les%20Miserables%20West%20End/index.html, accessed 17 February 2019.

[xx] While beyond the scope of this study, casting practices in the musical deserves much further unpicking, since it has tended to reinforce inscribe whiteness in the dominant ‘good’ roles, while featuring diverse actors in ‘bad’ characters (as Javert) or characters who die early on (Éponine). The first black actor to play Jean Valjean on Broadway was Kyle Jean Baptiste, in 2015. This is thrown into sharp relief by the Dallas Theatre Center’s 2014 production which radically reimagines the world of the musical.

[xxi] Dreama Moon, “White Enculturation and Bourgeois Ideology: The Discursive Production of ‘Good (White) Girls’,” in Whiteness, The Communication of a Social Identity,ed by. Thomas Nakayama and Judith Martin (Newbury Park: Sage, 1998), 177-197, at 179.

[xxii] George Lipsitz, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006), 106.

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