Les Misérables – Still relevant 156 years later

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.

31 comments on “Les Misérables – Still relevant 156 years later

  1. Thank you for the review! I love the touring Broadway shows as well.

  2. I loved the book and the movie…and the “Wolverine” that played Jean Valjean. 🙂 There is definitely a need for criminal justice reform. The same crime occurring in different states will receive as many different sentences. There should be more half-way houses run by people that truly care to help rather than for a high wage. More NGO’s should be encourages as well as faith-based charities.

    Like healthcare, there are things that have been talked about for years that have yet to be agreed upon and implements by Congress. The trouble is, there isn’t enough money in it for politicians to be real advocates. They just want talking points.

    For once, it seems that we may have an administration that is making politicians and government either mad enough, or motivated enough to begin to act. Whichever it is, I hope it continues. Thanks for your article, Tyler.

    • susanjh01

      Great comment, Susan. Some very thought-provoking points.

      • Thanks Susan H. I just get so tired of hearing the same things from the same people year after year after decade without them actually dealing with it. All they care about is their next re-election, it seems, with a few exceptions. I really respect Trey Gowdy, for one.

        • georgehand

          Trey Gowdy is one of my favorite people on the planet. Sometimes I sit and listen to him speak for hours on YouTube.

          • Still can’t make the like button work, Geo. But I definitely liked your comment. Have you read the book he and Tim Scott wrote together. It was really a great read.

  3. susanjh01

    Thank you for the very thoughtful article, Tyler.

    Les Miserables is a very powerful piece of theatre – I very much enjoyed the movie with Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman.

    • Tyler Jones

      The film was my first exposure to Les Mis. I liked it at the time and it got me interested in the story. It doesn’t compare to live theater and real Broadway talent though.

  4. I have never been to a Broadway type theatrical musical or production. I need to broaden my horizons. Thanks Tyler.

    • susanjh01

      Mason, I highly recommend the movie I referenced in my comment above, with Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman. It’s worth checking out.

  5. Hey Tyler-Great job on this. I’ve seen the play a couple of times. It’s a treat live but also great in the movies. I have some mixed feelings about this topic. I’ve heard some possible exceptions to mandatory sentencing that made me scratch my head. But I honestly haven’t looked at the final bill. I assure you I will. People forget that these sentences really came about during the Clinton administration. Crime and drug abuse were rampant. The sentencing guidelines were supposed to be some kind of deterrent. I think the politicians thought it would actually help low income neighborhoods and citizens that lived there if crack was somehow off the streets. Three strikes got multiple time offenders off the street. Unfortunately, criminals can’t apparently count to three. If the law were a deterrent wouldn’t most criminals stop at two? I don’t think the laws were racially motivated. But they had racial consequences. Non-violent criminals? Hard to define. I am for the program that takes the box off job applications for the question “Have you been convicted of a crime?” If sentences have been served, they’ve paid the price. Recidivism would slow down if they can get a decent job.

    • That’s a good point, LPD. Being able to get a job and feel productive would certainly help. We need to encourage (but not enable) and give a hand up (not handout).

      • Susan-There’s a campaign out called Ban the Box. Interesting to me is that early supporters are the Koch Brothers who are often vilified as mean-spirited right wingers. Truthfully they are really Libertarians in many ways. David is the biggest supporter of the arts in New York. At the same time they have the largest private company in America.

        • I fully support Ban the Box. I understand some jobs need and should do back ground checks, but if you have served your time and now you are trying to get back into the working world you should get that chance. I know people who served their time, cleaned up their act and now can’t get a decent job. There should be a way to get a second chance to have a better life.

          • LPD and Joni: In my neck of the woods, there are no great reform efforts like Ban the Box. We do have some very successful recovering addicts that went through our Teen Challenge program. They gathered support and now have opened 3 half-way houses for those leaving prison or a drug rehab with the aim of re-establishing the residents with skills and jobs. They have been very successful.

            They want to continue expanding the program to more and more areas. Lots of other faith-based/non-faith based local charities are adding their support. I love that it’s a community thing rather than government.

            I’m sure they have heard of the Ban the Box movement but it hasn’t got off the ground here yet, I don’t believe. I will check it out. Maybe I can find a way to get behind it myself.

            • Susan, I don’t know that Ban the Box has made headway in getting that box banned from job applications but I am aware of the effort to do so. I think the work being done in your local community is wonderful. I believe in second chances and maybe even third chances. If we can give people a chance to better their life, I think it’s worth the effort. Restoring a person’s dignity and self worth is a challenge. Doing small things like removing a check box on a job application or providing clothing to go to a job interview can be the next step to turning their life around. As long as the person is putting forth an effort to change their life around, I think they deserve a hand up.

    • georgehand

      “Unfortunately, criminals can’t apparently count to three.” LOL!!

      • Geo-Out of the country checking in. We brought a bunch of school supplies to kids here in Puerto Rico that were very excited. I’m out of touch for a couple days but you are really doing yeoman’s work on this site and I’m loving it.

        • susanjh01

          Awesome work, LPD. It must be wonderful to see the kids’ excitement when they see what you’ve brought them.

    • LPD – LOVE your insights, as always. People often talk about criminal justice reform as though it’s new, or has never happened before, but it’s an ongoing process, a bit of a swinging pendulum as laws are written and the intended & unintended results play out over time. It’s a tough balance between protecting the public (potential victims), bringing actual victims a sense of justice (however temporarily) so they don’t seek retribution outside the law, and ensuring that criminals get the message that life isn’t a free-for-all for hurting others with impunity…. while still giving them a genuine opportunity to fix their mistakes and change for the better. Courts are forever updating their own rules and interpretations of statutes based on what they see come through the door. Prosecutors and defense attorneys, families of victims and families of the convicted are routinely providing state legislators real-life examples of why laws should change to be more merciful or more strict and protective, and the statutes are getting tweaked or scrapped and re-written all the time. It’s complicated, because every crime, every criminal, every victim is unique, and what’s “fair” is so incredibly subjective depending on where you stand.

      • Also, while I get the ban the box mentality and deeply value second and third chances (even for the slow-to-reform), I also recognize that potential employers are thinking about their own liability as they do background checks and decide whether to risk their businesses and other employees with someone who has already proven not to care about rules that govern the willingly civilized. It’s a nuanced issue that unfortunately falls prey to political sound bites and broad brush strokes.

        • Hey Miche-Just got back from an out of country excursion. I spent some time with a former Asst. US Atty from Baltimore that specialized in drug and gang crime. She had some interesting perspectives she shared. Pretty much every crime she prosecuted was violent. When it came to the average Baltimore resident living in the drug and gang infested inner-city neighborhoods of Baltimore, we agreed that those just trying to live a life with no drugs or gang affiliation were often the terrorized victims of those “non-violent” drug offenders, some of whom will be released potentially. But then again, both of us have dealt with the lowest of vermin which may give us a slightly biased attitude in defining “non-violent”. Seen through the eyes of a 75 year old lady that had lived in her home in the neighborhood and had to walk to the corner store scared of being harassed, beaten, raped, or robbed or had already suffered the same, it is an interesting thought. That’s who needs and welcomes the cops. Just an interesting ponderment……

          • LPD – I hope your out-of-the-country excursion was restful and fun! I just got back from one of those myself (although mine was more educational than restful… still fun though!)

            I like your insights and will thoughtfully add that to my pondermenting. Compassion and empathy are important, particularly if we can manage to not be one-sided about it and try to see the whole picture as much as possible. We have a long way to go to perfect our man-made system of justice and mercy.

  6. Tyler Jones

    Thanks for reading! I think changing our mindset to be reformative and restorative concerning justice rather than purely punitive would go so far to making our society better.

    • Cheezewiz

      I have mixed emotions about this topic. My state is working on Criminal Justice Reform, yet they try to bundle everything together. They view heroin as the same as Marijuana. I don’t think the lawmakers really have a grasp on it. The different classifications of the drugs is very important and the resulting punishment.

      Then there is the exorbitant profit being made by drug companies and the mindset of hospitals treating addiction. Drug companies are profiting off getting people hooked, then creating another medication to treat it. Hospitals in turn push more medications. Take a person addicted to heroin. They are really a nuisance and harm to themselves and others while they are actively using. Then they wind up in a hospital, where they are treated with another round of medications, and likely then move to something like suboxen or methadone (which provide less of a high, but enough to satisfy the urges). They also have the neutralizer Narcan which revives a person from an overdose. These medications all have huge price tags….. It seems to be a tangled web of medical profiteering, a medical industrial complex.

      Faith-based recovery, half way houses, NGOs seem to be more effective (and less expensive) than the purely medication route.

      Drugs and drug related crimes are the major reason for the amount of prisoners, so this obviously needs to be addressed and corrected. An integrated Criminal Justice-Medical-Recovery-Community Support Structure may be an answer.

      There is also the factor of the career criminal who will not change their ways. There is a line from one of the songs where Rusell Crowe (the face of Criminal Justice) chants “Men like you never change” while Hugh Jackman (the fugitive) explains his situation and actions. This is true for some of the, and those individuals should be identified and incarcerated. The others should be given the opportunity to right their course.

  7. I’ve never seen the Broadway show or the movie but am familiar with the story. I call it Shooting the Wounded”. It’s applicable to many scenarios. Church is where I first heard it but I think it applies to this situation. Not all criminals are life time criminals, but we make it so it they almost have no other choice. They continue to pay for their crime long after they paid the official price. We continue to shoot them down. I know the bill passed may not be perfect, but it’s a start. I’m glad to see it passed.

  8. georgehand

    Well done, Ranger! I have seen Les Miserables in the last year at my daughter’s request to watch it with her. It was the move. I think Hugh Jackman was Jean Valjean and Russel Crow was Javert. Yes, the plot was complicated and warrants another viewing.
    geo sends

    • George…if you can, look up the Cliff’s Notes or a good synopsis of the book first. You can miss a lot of the deeper meanings when you just catch the flick. Even if you watch it twice. 🙂 (Geez…come to think of it…do they still make Cliff’s Notes? I have no idea. lol)

  9. I love the play. I haven’t seen the movie or read the book yet. Interesting take on criminal justice reform–I hadn’t made that particular connection with the story. I was more intensely interested in the themes of who each person in the story chose to be and why. The laws were just the laws and didn’t really serve as anything other than a backdrop. Javert isn’t just mindlessly carrying out the law–he is vindictive and hateful and pursuing “justice” far beyond what is required of him. For him, the laws are merely his justification for his own personal revenge. Myriel thoughtfully weighs religious laws that forbid stealing and also require forgiveness “until seventy times seven”…. and he, too, chooses what path to take, how to best implement the laws he feels bound to uphold. Jean breaks laws because he sees only one path to survival (possibly legitimately so) and escapes the full punishment, but also goes above and beyond what is required of him as a human being to make life better for others. It’s incredibly and beautifully complex. Laws and subjective ideas of “fairness” don’t dictate who we choose to become. These laws, other laws, no laws at all leading to anarchy and chaos…. regardless of the system we operate within, we still choose how to go about it and how our character develops over time as a result.

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