Having married a very musical woman from a very musical family, I’ve come to spend many date nights seeing touring Broadway shows. I am not an incredibly musical person, but I have come to really enjoy the songs, acting, and fun of these shows. The latest one I was lucky enough to see was Les Misérables, the 1980 musical by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg based on Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel of the same name. I was particularly moved by this classic piece of theater, and found it to be chock full of themes that are still relevant today, touching on themes and topics 21st Century society still struggles with.
Les Misérables is an incredibly epic story, featuring music and sets much more grandiose than typical music theater. Its performers are typically trained differently, as opera singers, than in typical theater performances as the musical numbers are very difficult. The play takes place in early-19th Century France, and focuses its plot around both character-driven events and sweeping national events such as the June Rebellion of 1832. I’ll save you a lengthy summary here, but I’d recommend reading up on it prior to seeing the musical — the plot advances quickly and is quite complex.
Criminal justice is a topic with modern relevance addressed in the opening prologue of the film. The main protagonist, Jean Valjean, has just been released after 19 years of hard labor, first for simply stealing bread and later for attempting to escape. His yellow passport forever marking him a felon, Valjean struggles to find fair work or lodging, and he is forced to return to crime to survive. Only a selfless act of kindness from a priest saves him from further punishment, and explains the actions of Valjean during the story to follow. Even as Valjean eventually becomes a pillar of his community, he cannot escape his record as his antagonist, the police inspector Javert, hunts him for years.
Modern day America struggles with criminal justice. This is a reality understood by us all — 91% of Americans support criminal justice reform of some kind in America. President Trump recently signed a bill — the First Step Act — that had broad bipartisan support. Mandatory minimum sentences and pushes to settle cases through plea bargaining, due to an overtaxed justice system, have resulted in a nation with the highest incarceration rate in the world. Many of these prisoners are nonviolent offenders associated with harsh penalties for drug possession; 1 in 5 are imprisoned for drug violations. America’s population of prisoners incarcerated while awaiting trial also tops most country’s entire prison population!
These people also face hardship after leaving the system. Many are not prepared with the career and social skills required for a successful life outside prison. Often, they are returned to their same neighborhoods, and fall back into old habits with the people they associated with, criminally, before. This outcome is often not what they desire, but is their only choice. Furthermore, sixty percent of employers in America conduct criminal background checks during the hiring process. While these exist for a reason, they can often be incomplete, and also block people attempting to reintegrate with society from doing just that. Many job applications also require self-identification of crimes.
Further, if the objective of our prisons is to remove dangerous individuals, and punish and rehabilitate those who can return, than it should make sense that those who have paid their debts to society can re-enter as citizens. In many states, felons are either barred from voting after serving their sentence, or must undergo a waiting period and apply for their rights — they are not automatic.
These are complex issues and questions, but it just seems to make sense that our nation could do better at serving justice, caring for all our citizens, and rehabilitating, not rejecting, those who have made mistakes. All these thoughts spawn from the first 10 minutes of a play based on a novel written in 1862. If you have a chance to check out Les Misérables, you will not be disappointed.