To See the Face of God

Director Trevor Nunn said that Les Misérables is a show about God. And it is.

It's also a show about the nobility of the human spirit, faith, redemption, and other spiritual concepts. Religion and spirituality -- as well as the distortion of it and the lack of it -- informs most of the action of the show.

Jean Valjean sings in Act II, “To love another person is to see the face of God.” Valjean and Inspector Javert both believe fervently in God, but they believe in very different Gods. Javert believes in an angry, vengeful, Old Testament God, in the absolutes of right and wrong, good and evil. He believes that Valjean broke the law (which he did) and must be punished according to the law.

In “Stars” Javert sings:
And those who follow the path of the righteous
Shall have their reward.
And if they fall as Lucifer fell,
The flame, the sword!

And later in the song:
And so it has been,
And so it is written on the doorway to Paradise,
That those who falter and those who fall
Must pay the price.

Though he is a man obsessed, he believes in the law, both man's and God's. How many people today would accept that some criminals shouldn't have to be punished according to the law? We can look back now and say that the law of the time was too severe, but Javert has sworn to uphold the law, and how can we condemn him for that? Yes, Valjean was poor and starving; but is that justification for breaking into someone else's home and stealing their food, and then later, breaking parole (remember that Javert is pursuing Valjean not for the theft but for breaking his parole)?

Javert is trapped by the strictness of his own beliefs, so that when Valjean turns those beliefs upside-down by releasing him in Act II, Javert believes he has no alternative but to kill himself. He sings:
And must I now begin to doubt,
Who never doubted all these years?
My heart is stone and still it trembles.
The world I have known is lost in shadow.
Is he from heaven or from hell?
And does he know
That granting me my life today
This man has killed me even so.
. . .
There is nowhere I can turn.
There is no way to go on!

Javert's world, his convictions, the rules by which he's lived his entire life, are called into question, and because of the single-mindedness of his existence, he now has nothing left to live for. It's hard to say he was a bad man; after all, he was upholding not only the laws of man, but the laws of God as well.

For the most part, Javert is the villain of Les Misérables, but it's not that simple. His sin lies in his extremism.

He sees the world in black and white. He sees the divinity in the world and believes it is his duty to preserve it. In his song, “Stars,” he sees the night sky as a symbol of the immutability of the universe. The stars represent God and the natural order of things, “filling the darkness with order and light.” Valjean has violated Javert's view of what the world should be. There is no question that Valjean is guilty of the crime with which he was charged. Like his descendant, Detective Gerard in The Fugitive, Javert doesn't care whether or not the law is fair; it's the law.

In contrast to Javert, Jean Valjean believes in a benevolent, forgiving, New Testament God. He believes in redemption. When the bishop in the prologue not only lies to the police on his behalf, but also gives him the silver candlesticks, Valjean sees that he's being given a second chance, a chance to live life according to God's dictates (“My soul belongs to God, I know,” he sings later). He has broken the law, has repented, and has been forgiven (by God, anyway).

He has received redemption.

Valjean aspires to goodness and he achieves it; the audience identifies with his desire to be a good man and lead a good life -- and also with his past transgressions. He risks his life to find and protect Cosette. He actually offers up his own life to God in exchange for Marius, so that Marius and Cosette can be together.

English lyricist Herbert Kretzmer sees “Bring Him Home” as Valjean's final transformation from selfishness to genuine altruism. The song is literally a prayer, and perhaps more than any other moment in the show, invokes the spirituality that lies beneath the entire musical.

When Colm Wilkinson, the original Valjean, first sang the song in rehearsal, a hush fell over the company. Trevor Nunn said, “See? I told you this show was all about God.” And one of the company members said, “Yes, but you didn't tell us you'd engaged Him to sing it.”

In contrast to all that, Thénardier doesn't believe in God at all. He is completely amoral, living only by the rules of survival. He believes that it's every man for himself, and looking at his life it's no surprise that he feels that way. Again, it's hard to say he's a bad person; he lives outside the realm of right and wrong. Thénardier and My Fair Lady's Alfred P. Dolittle are cut from the same cloth, not immoral so much as amoral. In My Fair Lady, when Col. Pickering asks, “Have you no morals, man?”, Dolittle replies, “No, I can't afford 'em, Governor.”

We impose our middle class morality on Thénardier without a practical consideration of the difficulty of his day-to-day survival. He sums up his life in “Dog Eats Dog.” When Thénardier sees the chaos, the injustice that runs rampant through the streets he can come to only one conclusion:
And God in his heaven,
He don't interfere,
'Cos he's dead as the stiffs at my feet.

If there was a God, Thénardier reasons, He would not allow a world as black and unforgiving as this one. The Thénardiers steal not only from the rich, but from the poor as well. It is truly a dog-eat-dog world.

So many morally ambiguous situations are scattered throughout the show -- Fantine turning to prostitution in order to make enough money to support Cosette, the Thénardiers taking more of Fantine's money than they need to keep Cosette, the Thénardiers' looting of the dead bodies after the insurrection, even arguably the insurrection itself. So many of these situations have no clear right or wrong, and perhaps the message of Les Misérables is that people are basically good, that they do what they have to do to survive, that ultimately good always triumphs, and that we are judged not by each other, but by God.

Though Sweeney Todd might disagree...

And really, is that what Les Miz tells us...? Considering the fates of the lead characters, maybe the Big Takeaway here is that the Thénardiers' way is best, not to be constrained to the morality of other people half a world and two thousand years away, not to be tied to ancient mythologies that often have very little relevance to the everyday struggles of real people.

The Thénardiers share a lot with Captain Macheath in Threepenny, when he sings:
What keeps a man alive? He lives on others;
He likes to taste them first, then eat them whole, if he can;
Forgets that they’re supposed to be his brothers,
That he himself was ever called a man...

That's some dark shit, but that's what Les Miz is really about -- the darkness of human existence and how we as humans respond to it. Both Valjean and Javert respond with dogma, while the poor respond by accepting (embracing?) that darkness. Maybe what we're supposed to take away from this story is that all human paths and choices are difficult, but the best we can do is shine some light on the darkness. And that's what Valjean does -- he responds to acts of darkness with acts of light.

A lesson we need today in 2018 more than ever before. There is great darkness in the land, and the only way to kill it is with light.

I'll leave you with a quote from Next to Normal:
We need some light.
First of all, we need some light.
You can't sit here in the dark.
And all alone, it's a sorry sight.
It's just you and me.
We'll live, you'll see.

Night after night,
We'd sit and wait for the morning light.
But we've waited far too long,
For all that's wrong to be made right.

And when the night has finally gone.
And when we see the new day dawn.
We'll wonder how we wandered for so long, so blind.
The wasted world we thought we knew,
The light will make it look brand new.
So let it shine.

Day after day,
We'll find the will to find our way,
Knowing that the darkest skies
Will someday see the sun.
When our long night is done,
There will be light.

Long Live the Musical!