When Sarah Whitfield was offered the chance to pitch a book for Routledge’s Fourth Wall series (a collection of short accessible introductions to plays and musicals), Les Misérables was the musical that struck her first. What was it about this show that people connected to and why did audience members – including her own Dad – love it so much?
Whatever you think about Les Misérables, it is undeniably one of the most successful musicals of all time. It’s filled with rousing choruses that still make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, however many times you might have heard it before. The sweeping story and epic scale of the piece are matched by intimate musical moments.
As the audience, we want to join the revolution and climb the barricades, but we also end up moved by Fantine’s love for her child, or heartbroken at Cosette bidding her father not to die.
For my new book, I began to look at what it was about this show that people loved and connected to. And I had a more personal connection too because my Dad – a stern prison governor who would not immediately strike you as someone who would like musicals – loved this show. Dad was a rather gruff chap (on the surface at least), but he had four cast albums of Les Mis and the T-shirt, which he proudly wore when he could.
As I went through my cool mid-teenage phase of ‘‘I don’t like musicals” (it’s okay, I teach musical theatre for a living now, I got over it), I was so embarrassed that Dad would go and see this musical whenever he got the opportunity: “Can’t you just see something else?… A play…?” Dad’s love for this show carried on for decades.
By the time the possibility of writing the book for Routledge came up, he was retired, and I got chatting with him about what it was that he loved about it. And that gave me the idea to talk to more people about why they loved it too – and so the proposal for the book came together. It would be about why this show is so beloved by its audiences, and what it means to its fans and, of course, my Dad.
But life tends to intervene. Shortly after the contract came through and I was celebrating the chance to get talking with fans about the musical, my Dad was diagnosed with late-stage cancer; it had spread to his lymph nodes. He didn’t want to ask about the odds, but it was plain that they were not good; words like ‘incurable’ and ‘delaying’ got used a lot. As he embarked on the chemo which would give him more time, everything seemed to be going well. But he suffered a very rare reaction, partly to the chemo, and partly just one of those things that drop out of nowhere. Over an unimaginably difficult week, we lost my Dad, far too soon. He was 61.
It was not an easy decision to carry on with the book, but I really felt that I had to – by that point I had already started interviewing and asking fans to respond to questions about what it was about the show that they loved. The answers were moving, and often hilarious, and I began to realise just how many people have a lifelong connection with this particular musical.
When we listen to it we are reminded of all of the different times in our lives we have listened to it before. For me, I am reminded of myself at 13 and my Eponine phase (teenage unrequited love feels pretty close to her ill-fortune), of the embarrassed 17 year old who wanted her Dad to see some Sondheim for a change, of the musical theatre lecturer who meets young people every year who still love this show, and, yes, of my own experience of sitting by my father’s bedside at the very end.
The book is the story of those who love Les Mis, and I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to write it and share those stories. We love this musical because it helps us connect with our own stories, with who we were and are, and because of all those feelings we experience every time we see it again.
- Sarah Whitfield’s Boublil and Schönberg’s Les Misérables is published by Routledge