Epic musical still delivers after 40 years

Wouldn’t Victor Hugo be amazed to learn that a musical based on his 1862 novel “Les Misérables” is still as popular as ever?

That was my thought as I looked around at a completely full Buell theater for the Broadway tour of “Les Mis,” which returned to Denver July 25 and runs through Aug. 5. With its debut now 40 years in the past, it’s worth asking what keeps this show on the road.

Any great work of art is always going to be appealing to those who’ve never seen it before, as well as those who’d like to see it again. As a musical, “Les Mis” is a grand production of the old school with a big cast, enormous sets, soaring music and overwrought emotions belted out by a cadre of immensely talented singers. Visually and musically (there’s very little dialogue), it’s a huge show that’s bound to impress.

At the same time, it’s not a show for everyone. “Les Mis” is dark and dreary in parts, and many of the characters end up in hopeless positions. What keeps people coming back to hear the story is the baseline narrative of good and evil that’s examined in depth in Hugo’s novel and reproduced in condensed form in the musical.

The story of a man seeking redemption after 19 years in prison, Jean Valjean’s path from a wretched thief to a noble friend and father is a complex one. Set mostly during the little-known “June Rebellion” in 1832 Paris, Valjean’s journey is littered with a colorful cast of thieves, whores, con artists, merciless soldiers and police and a few diamonds in all that rough — notably the young girl Cosette he adopts when her mother dies.

As Hugo himself once said, the story isn’t only about good and evil but the progression from “injustice to justice, from falsehood to truth … from hell to heaven, from nothingness to God.” With a story built on such universal themes and told with the power of a full musical, perhaps it’s no wonder “Les Mis” remains popular.

Valjean’s integrity, empathy, guilt and redemption may seem to stand in stark contrast to what we sometimes see in our own time, and watching characters on stage embody what we’d like to see in the real world is always going to draw an audience.