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Revolutionary Retelling

Set in a grimly realist France, "Les Misérables" is based on Victor Hugo's 365-chapter novel that explores history, law, politics, religion, and ideas about justice, guilt, and redemption.

Gina Conroy
August 28, 2019

Though the French words “Les Misérables” have a beautiful lilt to them, don’t let that fool you. Translated “the miserable ones,” Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel, from which the musical is based, is undoubtedly weighty and dark.

Filled with despondent characters such as students fighting for change, a prostitute fighting for her child, and a thief fighting for a second chance, these miserable souls cling to hope in a world that often leaves them hopeless. Despite all the darkness, it’s the light they allow into their lives that makes this musical so beautiful, poignant, and popular.

Affectionately known as Les Mis, the musical has been thrilling audiences for over 32 years and is still breaking box-office records. Holding the title of one of the world’s most popular musicals, Les Misérables is also the fifth-longest-running Broadway show of all time. In addition to the Oscar-winning movie version, 120 million people in 52 countries and 22 languages have experienced this musical.

Les Mis was the first Broadway show I saw when I was 12 years old,” says Jimmy Smagula who plays the innkeeper Monsieur Thénardier. “I knew in the middle of watching it that this was what I wanted to do the rest of my life; to be an actor in theater, musical theater, and film.”

As a teen, Smagula always envisioned himself playing the lead Jean Valjean. “I loved his character. He had so many wonderful songs. The most famous one, and my favorite being, ‘Bring Him Home’ in Act II, It’s a beautiful prayer song,” says Samgula. “I’ve been singing that song most of my life.”

If you are one of the few to have never experience Les Mis in any of its art forms, don’t despair. This month, Tulsa audiences can see this powerful and poignant musical with new spectacular staging and breathtaking reimaged scenery, inspired by the paintings of Hugo.

Set in early 19th-century France during the French Revolutionary war, Les Misérables follows Valjean, who after stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s sick child, is sentenced to five years in prison, but serves 19 years of hard labor for trying to escape. When he is paroled, Valjean is determined to leave his former life behind and lead a good life. Unfortunately, he can’t seem to escape his past.

Obsessed with punishing Valjean for skipping parole, Inspector Javert, who was Valjean’s guard in prison, pursues him at every turn. Javert won’t let him forget where he came from or who he is.

Les Mis works on so many different levels because there’s something for everyone to explore in their own life,” says Smagula. “And the story is timeless.”

With a cast of wounded characters and a title like Les Misérables, one would think the story would leave you feeling hopeless, but in fact, the opposite is true. Underneath all the stories of love, rejection, sacrifice, and hopelessness, one theme stands out above them all: redemption.

“One lyric at the end of the show speaks to what the show is about,” says Smagula. “’To love another person is to see the face of God.’ That lyric is what I think the entire show is about.”

Smagula is quick to point out that though many of the characters receive their redemption, Monsieur Thénardier and his wife, Madame Thénardier, are miserable, wretched souls who remain so until the very end. “We’re crooks and thieves and terrible people, but we’re hilarious at being terrible,” says Smagula, who says the audience has a great relationship with his character. “He’s layered and dark, and I have lots of fun doing it.”

Amid all the dark themes, Smagula loves hearing the audience laugh at his character. “I love that I get to be funny being miserable.”

Redemption isn’t the only theme of Les Misérables. Audiences can see elements of social justice, human rights, and class conflicts, especially in the powerful scene where the students are singing, fighting, and dying on the barracks.

“The French Revolution and the students revolting and fighting for what they believe in is an extremely relatable theme for our time right now in our country,” says Smagula.

In between the fleeing and fighting, the light shines through, and some even get to experience love. Cosette, Jean Valjean’s sister’s daughter, and Marius Pontmercy fall in love. “My daughter, Éponine, is also in love with Marius,” Smagula explains. But Marius doesn’t return her love. “Her song ‘On My Own’ is a song of unrequited love we can all relate to.”

“Audiences are still going crazy for Les Mis,” says Smagula, who has done seven Broadway shows in his career. “It’s a show that will change you when you go to it. Those are the kinds of shows as an actor you hope to be in.”

Being in the show that inspired him to become an actor is a 32-year-dream come true. “I used to sing these songs in my childhood bedroom, and now I’m doing it in front of 500 people a night, so it’s incredible,” says Smagula.

However, there was a time Smagula thought this dream of performing in Les Mis would never come true. When he was 26 years old, he came close to understudying the role of Jean Valjean, but not getting the part didn’t deter him from his dreams of performing.

“As an actor, you’re always rolling with the punches because most of the things you audition for, you’re not going to get,” says Smagula. “When things don’t work out, it’s challenging, but it’s a mistake for any actor to pursue one job or dream show. It’s a mistake to say, ‘Well, I’m going just to try to get into Les Mis’ when there are four million other jobs for you to do as an actor.”

Over Smagula’s career, he’s done 25 television shows, movies, voice-overs, and commercials. “I don’t think I gave up on Les Mis at 26 years old, but I certainly was like, ‘OK, I’ll go on to the next thing.’”

Because he was always auditioning for the next thing, Lady Luck might have shined on him again when he landed a role in The Phantom of the Opera, another childhood dream come true. “I remember being in the theater with my aunt when I was 13 years old seeing The Phantom of the Opera, and then being in the show on the stage in the same theater,” says Smagula. “I would look out at the same seat I sat in when I was 13.”

Smagula knows his dream-come-true career experiences are not the norm for most actors, and he doesn’t take them for granted. “I’ve been insanely lucky,” he says.

Of all the shows he’s been in, Smagula considers it a gift to be in Les Mis. “I’ve done a lot of shows, and you don’t get the opportunity too often to be part of a show that changes people, and this show changes people,” says Smagula. “It changed my life.”

Les Misérables
Tulsa Performing Arts Center
110 E. 2nd St. | Tulsa
Sept. 24-26: 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 27: 8 p.m.
Sept. 28: 2 p.m., 8 p.m.
Sept. 29: 1 p.m., 6:30 p.m.