I never got the sex talk from my mother, but I did get the whore talk. I was 11. Not coincidentally, this was around the same time I fell in love with Les Misérables.
It was the 1995 10th anniversary “dream cast” concert of the Cameron Mackintosh musical that sucked me in. My hometown PBS station seemed to rebroadcast the performance weekly throughout the winter of fifth grade, and I spent hours genuflecting before the TV, memorizing every line, singing along, wishing despite my almost-total tone-deafness that I could be up on that stage. My 8-year-old sister, Sarah, followed me down the rabbit hole, and my parents encouraged us—they loved the show, too. Although I do wonder if my mother had second thoughts when she found herself explaining to her preadolescent daughter, “Well, honey, a ‘whore’ is, um, a lady who gets paid to, uh, keep men company.”
For years I figured the Les Mis thing was just another quirk of my childhood, like my unreasonable fear of The Berenstain Bears and the Bad Dream or my crush on Gunther Gebel-Williams. But a few months ago, when trailers for Tom Hooper’s upcoming film adaptation popped up online, my Twitter and Facebook feeds suddenly boiled over with all-caps reactions from real-life friends and Internet acquaintances, all in their mid-20s to early 30s, who had clearly been harboring similar fixations for decades.
Judging from a recent Vogue profile, even the stars of Hooper’s film are among our kind. Anne Hathaway, who plays the fallen grisette Fantine, first saw the musical at age 8, when her mother appeared in a touring production. “I just sat there sobbing,” she told Vogue. “I’ve been in love with the show ever since.” Amanda Seyfried and Eddie Redmayne, cast as Cosette and Marius, had similar tales. I might’ve brushed it off as prepackaged PR babble if it didn’t so eerily echo my own life.
As a matter of chronology, this all makes sense. Whatever you call the generation born along the Gen X/Millennial fault line, we were the first to have the chance to fall in love with Les Mis before we even reached puberty. The musical debuted in London in 1985 and exploded on Broadway soon after; touring companies criss-crossed the globe, and upon its 10th anniversary in 1995, the show declared itself, not inaccurately, “the musical that swept the world.” For a kid from a certain kind of PBS-pledging, middle-class family, early exposure to Les Mis was perhaps statistically inevitable.
But sheer ubiquity doesn’t account for the show’s stickiness. On paper, it’s decidedly un-kid-friendly: The sets are stark, the costumes drab, the source material a 1,500-page novel in which Victor Hugo details everything fetid and frightening about early-19th-century France. In Les Misérables, as in reality, the smallest humans bear the cruelest burdens of poverty and injustice and disease. The adult characters fare better, but not much. The show is buoyed by the unflagging refrain of “One Day More,” but the moments of triumph are only a salve, never a cure. “Lovely Ladies” and “Master of the House” are two bawdy bright spots, but the darkness is so dark.
What explains it, then? To untangle the roots of this painfully niche cultural phenomenon, I conducted a highly scientific email survey of friends and friends-of-friends who’d loved the show as kids and still love it now. When asked to explain their own early fixations, the secondary reasons given ranged from omnivorous theatre-geekery to early-onset Francophilia. But it became quite clear that what unites all of our childhood love of Les Misérables is the deep feelings of the show, and the feelings those feelings made us feel.
“I think what initially drew me to Les Mis was the extreme to which I and my friends just felt everything,” says Devon Maloney, a writer pal from the Internet. “It was no coincidence that my bedroom walls sported a gigantic Les Mis poster side by side with all my emo/pop-punk/Warped Tour memorabilia.”
Indeed, there’s not a single major character in the show, from Jean Valjean on down, who isn’t straining or scrambling toward some unseeable future. To tweens—terrified of the future even as they reach desperately for it—that sounds awfully familiar. The ABC student revolutionaries are understandable as perennial childhood favorites: young, passionate rebels willing to fight and die for their freedom! What could appeal more to a kid on the cusp of middle school, that most oppressive of human institutions? Perhaps only Éponine, the stage’s most tragic third wheel, the patron saint of square-peg girls in love with their oblivious best friends the world over. Reports of kids weeping the first time they saw the show live are not uncommon, and it’s usually the fault of “On My Own.”
It’s thanks to Claude-Michel Schönberg’s walloping score that what hits viewers first is the show’s overwhelming emotional bigness. But it’s that score working in tandem with Herbert Kretzmer’s aching libretto that’s responsible for the production’s wild popularity—and it may explain, too, why many of Les Misérables’ once-young fans still genuinely love the show long after other childhood fixations have settled into the realm of pure nostalgia. Once all the fatty bombast is chewed over, what’s left are the sturdy bones of the story and its characters—complex enough, deeply human enough, to sustain a relationship over decades or more.
I’ve now loved Les Misérables for nearly two-thirds of my life—far longer than I loved Gunther Gebel-Williams—and I (we?!) recently passed a strange milestone. As a kid, I never quite connected with the character of Fantine; she appeared early in the show and it was easy for me to forget her amid all that followed. But something snapped in me while I was watching a trailer for Hooper’s movie. In one clip, Hathaway-as-Fantine—who, in order to feed her daughter, has already become a prostitute and now has sold her hair—sings and weeps as her head is shorn. It’s a moment of raw intimacy the stage show could never quite accomplish. I might as well have been watching the scene for the first time.
After years of ambivalence, I was suddenly consumed by Fantine’s plight: the desperation of a young mother entering the pits of hell to save her child. At 28, I don’t have or particularly want a child of my own, but I’m theoretically closer to motherhood than I’ve ever been, closer to that heart-wrecking love, closer to that possibility of being willing to give up every last shard of my soul for another small human. That abrupt deluge of empathy convinced me of something I’d been loath to accept for a while: I am now a grown-up.
And in one way or another, “growing up” is what Les Misérables has always been about for me. At 11, my cultural tastes were pretty firmly in the kid-stuff camp: I had just torn through the Little House book series; I loved Avonlea and SNICK and the Peter, Paul & Mary tape my dad gave me for my birthday. My parents were careful about what movies my sister and I were allowed to watch, pausing even their PG-13 Blockbuster rentals when one of us scurried through the living room. It wasn’t some oppressive rule, but I was led to believe there was some vast divide between “kid stuff” and “grown-up stuff.”
So when I discovered Les Misérables it was as if I’d found a peephole into the future that lay beyond my childhood. I was doing a thing that adults did, watching this show about adults doing what adults have to do. And what I saw there was terrible and beautiful, filled with sadness and love and pain and hope—the world about to dawn, the night that ends at last.