Last night Robyn and I went to see Les Miserables at the Crown Theatre in Perth. Unintentionally we found ourselves at the front seats, close enough to see the expressions on the conductor’s face as he led the amazing orchestra and cast. It was a wonderful production – much better than the movie adaptation, I have to say.
Les Miserables is based on Victor Hugo’s 19th century novel that tells the story of a ticket-of-leave convict, John Valjean who finds himself treated as an outcast, and steals some silver from the Bishop who had given him shelter for the night. He is arrested by the police who take him back to the Bishop who, surprisingly, lies to the police in order to save the man. In fact, he gives him a couple of silver candlesticks and tells the man, in front of the police, that he had given these to him, but he must have forgotten to take them. After the police have gone, the Bishop tells Valjean to use the silver to make an honest life for himself.
The story that follows tells of the effect this act of grace has on his life as he seeks to protect and save the lives of others.
Reviewer Benedict Nightingale describes the impact of the story like this:
Our increasingly cynical world finds it near impossible to believe that goodness exists, let alone that it can be a compelling passion. But Les Mis take the opposite view, presenting us with a bitter, brutalised criminal who is converted by another man’s generosity in to someone who tends the weak, needy and outcast, is prepared to sacrifice his own safety and happiness to others, and refuses to hurt his most unforgiving foe when he has him in his clutches; the show has the imaginative thrust and the emotional authenticity to make you believe that this could be true. Perhaps that’s the reason that I don’t just like Les Mis, as I like the score of other great musicals. I love it.
While Nightingale simply describes Valjean’s change of heart as the effect of another man’s generosity, the grace of God is clearly evident in that act of generosity and in Valjean’s attitude thereafter. When he is faced with choice between revenge or forgiveness he says:
How can I ever face my fellow men?
How can I ever face myself again?
My soul belongs to God, I know
I made that bargain long ago
He gave me hope when hope was gone
He gave me strength to journey on.
The grace of God is so powerful and so restorative that, when received, can be paid forward in ways that are beyond our natural human capacity.
If you get the chance to see Les Miserables on stage, don’t just look out for great acting and amazing music, look out for a brilliant script that tells the story of grace-at-work.