Tom Hooper’s adaptation is getting all the press — it’s Oscar season, after all, and Les Misérables is up for Best Picture — but years before, there was another, one might say bolder, attempt to adapt this musical classic.
In 2006, students at the National Academy of Chinese Theater Arts actually wrote a Peking Opera version of Les Mis, which you can watch in its entirety on Youku (split into two parts, both embedded here). The video was posted three years ago, but Tea Leaf Nation flagged it just now, and since Les Mis is fresh on our minds, what better time to revisit this masterpiece?
I’ve tried my best to compare the plots of the Chinese and English versions, and highlighted points of interest — possible corresponding songs, bits of dialogue, etc. It’s fascinating to see where the Chinese writers hewed to the original and where they felt the need to take liberties.
All time markers correspond with the Youku vids. Oh, and spoiler alert.
4:05: First voices. Curtains part half a minute later. Thus begins the story of Prisoner 24601, with Javert in the spotlight keeping dutiful watch.
21:30: The monk buys Jean Valjean’s soul for God and sets him on his way “forward.” (As in the original, a candelabra is presented.)
22:30: Year 1823, Jean Valjean is nothing now, another story has begun.
The musical numbers “At the End of the Day” and “Lovely Ladies” have been conflated, it seems. Fantine selling her body is depicted by a man forcing her to drink wine against her will at the 24:50 mark. Afterwards she tugs on the man’s leg and says, “Sir, you haven’t paid yet!” At which point he beats her until Inspector Jalvert intervenes. Jean Valjean, disguised as the mayor, makes his entrance as well.
29:45: The Peking Opera version of “I Dreamed a Dream” happens here, I think, in which Fantine laments her lost “home.” Although this could also be “Come to Me,” culminating in her death at 36:10.
Immediately afterwards, a call of “Danger!” “Someone is stuck under a wagon,” Valjean is informed.
“Let me see,” he declares. And with Javert watching, Valjean uses his supernatural strength to move the wagon and save the man.
“It. Is. Him,” exclaims Javert.
40:30: Valjean meets Cosette in the woods. Soon after, we encounter the Thenardiers (Master and Madam of the House), and find out that Cosette has lost the money they gave her to buy bread. (For those who don’t know, Cosette loses no money in the original.)
Eventually, Valjean buys the girl her freedom, and he is happy.
Valjean gets a long solo in which he perhaps sings (just guessing here) “Who Am I?”
60:15: Cosette breaks down in tears as her father tries to tiptoe out (to turn himself in?). “Baaabaaa,” she screeches. The following scene in which she sobs into his arms is the worst part of the performance.
61:33: It’s now 1832, 10 years later. Valjean seems to have escaped from Javert with Cosette.
As the lights come up, there’s a maiden’s dance, and then we see, at 62:20, Marius and the start of the Barricade. He gives an impassioned, patriotic speech set to the tune Ode to the Motherland, and the audience loves it (they actually applaud.) Marius comes down at Cosette’s (annoyingly shrill) beck and proclaims eternal love to her, but she storms off, upset that he is intent on going to the Barricade.
65:17: Cosette does that high-pitched “Baaaabaaaa” thing again. “Will he come back alive?” she asks, referring to Marius, the boy with whom she’s fallen in love at first sight.
“God will protect him,” Valjean answers.
72:35: At the Barricade, Javert has been captured, but Valjean cuts him free. At 73:56, Valjean says where Javert will be able to find him. He shoots his gun into the air, and Javert takes his leave.
Immediately afterwards, the battle happens in darkness. When the lights return, everyone is basically dead. Marius is shot while a woman, possibly Éponine, dies in his arms. Valjean takes the stage and tells the audience by way of exclamation that they’re in the sewers.
The two men flip their way through the sewers. Shadowy men walk about. Valjean, with an unconscious Marius on his back, then perhaps sings “Bring Him Home.” (Or not — I’d like to think they didn’t cut this song, though.)
Part 1 ends with Thenardier trying to blackmail Valjean in the sewers.
Part 2, 1:20: Wedding Chorale. Cosette, in her white wedding gown, tells her father that she and Marius will give him a home in his old age. At 8:45, Valjean reveals his secret to Marius and makes him promise to not tell Cosette.
9:18: Valjean gives a speech, accompanied by strings. He sings a song, we’re not sure which. The wedding happens.
15:45: Javert takes the stage (the chronology is completely messed up now), saying the law prevents him from allowing Valjean to go free. Valjean bows to Javert and begs for more time, saying he will not flee this time.
16:18: “Baba” again from Cosette. Valjean shouts her name but, in darkness, can’t find her. He kneels, as if dying, and wails, “My child.” He sobs.
Javert, alone in the spotlight, sings his final note. Applause as darkness falls. (It’s not his suicide scene; perhaps he performs “Stars.”)
20:03: Alone on stage, Marius sings something. I wonder if it’s “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.”
(I fast-forwarded through Cosette’s part with Valjean, because otherwise I might have to take back the previous statement about “worst scene.”) At about 22:30, ghostly ladies walk across stage. Valjean is left alone. Again, at 22:03, “Baaabaaa” rings out from Cosette (who I’m beginning to hate, if you haven’t noticed). Apparently he hasn’t gone to see her in 10 days, so she decides to be a bitch and whine about it. “Have you forgotten your daughter?” she asks.
“But I’ve come, haven’t I?” he says.
Really bad acting ensues as he asks whether Marius treats her well. It seems like the writers here are dragging this out for the sake of making it two hours.
Just past the 30-minute mark, Valjean and Javert again share the stage. At the 36-minute mark, an ailing, dying Valjean begs Javert to slap the handcuffs on him, but Javert refuses. This is the emotional climax of this production. Javert again does a solo. At 41:30, he ascends stairs, the spotlight fixed on him. (Of course a Chinese production would build to a dramatic suicide.) He slowly mounts a stage, throws up an elbow, and as the lights dim, makes a movement as if to jump. We hear the crashing of cymbals while a voice off-screen shouts, “Someone’s jumped in the river!” Valjean cries, “It’s him, it’s him!” and falls to his knees with grief. Again, Cosette bays “Baabaaa, baaabaaa.” Marius is by his side as well.
Valjean performs “Finale.” The candelabra is brought back on stage. Others join. At 53:55, the final note is sung, and applause rings out (some audience members stand). The chorus returns to do a song and dance, and the main characters appear to take their bow.