The Problem with Les Miserables
I’m going to start this post by saying that I LOVE Les Miserables. I love the music, I love the characters, it’s one of my favorite musicals, and I was thrilled when I got the chance to see it on the West End last week.
That said, boy does this musical lack good female characters.
Sure, Fantine and Eponine have great solos. And who hasn’t angstily empathized with Eponine and wished Marius would just see sense already? As far as I’m aware, her unrequited love makes her one of the most popular female characters in any musical.
But every female character in Les Miserables is consumed by male characters. Eponine sings of almost nothing but her unrequited love and then dies in that man’s arms after running errands to enable his relationship with Cosette. Cosette herself has spent life locked away, falls in love with Marius at first sight, and spends the rest of her time swooning over him and desperately wanting to be with him. Madam Thenardier is a fun double act with her husband, but no one would deny that Thenardier himself is the main comic relief character and that his wife is an accessory in his scenes. And although Fantine comes the closest to being an independent character, she sings about her wish that Cosette’s father would return to her, and her story is framed entirely by Jean Valjean — him ignoring her plight at the beginning, and then him rescuing her and promising to care for Cosette when she dies.
It’s pretty bleak, when the musical has so many complex and compelling male characters. Jean Valjean struggles with how to be a good man. Javert has a similar struggle on the other side of the fence in his dogged pursuit of a criminal. The students are all passionate about politics and freedom. The bishop shows unexpected goodness. And even Marius gets time to be loyal to his friends and care about revolution along with his longing for Cosette. Yet the female characters are all about romance, or accessories to the male protagonists in some way.
The portrayal of all female characters (bar Mme Thenardier) as helpless and weak even makes the male characters look worse. Are we supposed to call Jean Valjean a hero for taking sympathy on a dying Fantine, or think him a good person for keeping Cosette locked away her entire life? Can we like Marius, when he agrees to lie to Cosette about where her father has gone, and only brings her to see him when he learns that Valjean saved his life? He keeps them separate as long as Valjean only means something to Cosette, but once he realizes that Valjean is important to him as well, he reunites them. And this is sympathetic?
Of course, the musical is constrained by the plot of the original novel, and as I haven’t read the book, I can’t comment the material that the writers of the musical had to work with. But even the basic plot would have allowed for more depth and interaction between female characters, if someone cared to give it to them. Eponine gets a couple of lines about how she remembers Cosette, but it would have been far more interesting to see the two interact, given their history. Perhaps female characters could have had more to say about the revolution, besides mourning the dead. What was Eponine’s opinion on it? And how does Eponine feel about her family? Does she want anything in life beyond Marius? And Cosette: what does she think of her mother? We could easily hear more about how she’s frustrated at being kept in the dark, an idea that is introduced in In My Life. And yet we don’t. It’s all men, all the time.
And that’s incredibly disappointing in a musical that gets so many other things right.