Les Misérables is the longest-running musical in West End history! It is the brainchild of Claude-Michel Schönberg (music) and Alain Boublil (lyrics). Their inspiration? The 19th-century novel of the same name was written by Victor Hugo. Herbert Kretzmer (lyrics) was tasked with translating the original show; he also penned a third of the songs we know and love today.
The musical made its debut in the West End in 1985 and on Broadway two years later. Since then, over 130 million people worldwide have watched the pop opera.
Special concert performances at the Royal Albert Hall marked the show’s 10th and 25th anniversaries. In 2012, a film adaptation hit the big screen, garnering eight nominations and three wins at the Academy Awards.
Les Misérables is a tale told completely through song. Here are our top 13.
1. “One Day More”
“One Day More” has topped many polls deliberating the greatest musical theater song. Our list is no exception!
This group number manages to sum up all the plotlines of this complex show. Not only that, it connects them all within the context of the imminent rebellion. It kicks off with its iconic intro! Quoting melodies of earlier songs, the lead characters proceed to reflect one by one. They later repeat these parts in counterpoint (sung at the same time).
Only in two brief moments does the entire cast sing altogether. United in their cause, they march under the red flag. A breathtaking moment! Even more so in the 10th-anniversary concert, with 200 choristers and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in tow! It is the ultimate Act 1 closer, a recipient of much rapturous applause and many a standing ovation!
2. “I Dreamed A Dream”
“I Dreamed a Dream” features a lot of “overdone” or “avoid these songs when auditioning” lists. We can understand its popularity! The song is a great showcase of both vocal skill and emotional range.
Fantine, played by Anne Hathaway in the 2012 film adaptation, loses her job at the factory. As a result, she resorts to prostitution to pay for her daughter Cosette’s care. She laments the terrible cards she has been dealt.
The medium of the film serves this song. Viewers get close-up shots of Hathaway’s raw, heartbreaking, one-take performance. Her portrayal earned her several Best Supporting Actress awards.
Boublil and Schönberg are masters at writing heart-wrenching endings. The music builds to “so different now from what it seemed.” It then suddenly pares back, intensifying Fantine’s quiet resignation, “Now life has killed the dream … I dreamed.” You can hear a pin drop!
3. “Do You Hear The People Sing?”
Many believe Les Misérables is set at the time of the French Revolution. However, the backdrop to Victor Hugo’s tale is the June Rebellion. It occurred nearly half a century later! The funeral of Army Commander Jean Lamarque — a staunch advocate of the poor — marked the beginning of this insurrection of “angry men.”
“Do You Hear the People Sing?” is a rousing number led by Enjolras and his fellow students. They are preparing for the rebellion at this very funeral. As such, the music is evocative of a military march, complete with brass and snare drums. The song gets louder and adds more layers throughout, as the revolutionaries’ cause gains momentum.
The song has had a profound effect across the globe. It has been the anthem of many real-life demonstrations.
4. “On My Own”
The woes of unrequited love — a pain experienced by many! Possibly the reason why “On My Own” is one of the most famous and loved songs from the show. It remains a firm audition favorite among mezzo-soprano belters. It’s called method acting, darling!
At the beginning of Act 2, Éponine haplessly wanders the streets of Paris. She finds solace, living inside her head. In the first two verses, she fantasizes about being with Marius. Yet, halfway through, reality kicks in; the trees “full of starlight” become “bare.”
Theatergoers new to the show may feel like they recognize the song. That’s because the melody was already used in “Fantine’s Death” and the outro of “I Dreamed a Dream.” This use of repetition (known as a leitmotif) symbolizes loneliness and separation, linking two of the show’s most tragic characters.
5. “Bring Him Home”
“Bring Him Home” is a sung prayer. Jean Valjean pleads with God to spare Marius’s life (his soon-to-be son-in-law). He offers up his own life, if necessary, in exchange.
The song was added 17 days before opening night. Its lyrics are the result of a “three-hour creative burst” in the early hours of the morning. Musically, it was written with Colm Wilkinson in mind, the actor who originated the role. In an interview with Playbill, Schönberg explained, “If I write for Colm, I should write something very high.”
It is one of the hardest musical theater songs to sing. Full of octave jumps and sustained notes sung in falsetto, it requires tremendous breath control. For context, it’s the 30th number in the show. Many of the preceding songs involve a powerhouse vocal from Valjean — this role requires serious stamina!
“Stars” exists because “Roger Allam pointed out that his character, Javert, needed to express why he was so driven.” To Javert, the law is paramount; good and evil are mutually exclusive. “Those who falter … must pay the price.” The stars are a metaphor for moral order and illustrate Javert’s narrative arc.
In this song, the stars “fill … the darkness with order and light.” Later, Valjean spares Javert’s life, calling into question his rigid worldview.
In “Javert’s Suicide,” the stars become “black and cold.” Unable to receive grace nor condemn the man who saved him, Javert’s only resolve is to claim his life. At that time, suicide was deemed a sin. So as “Lucifer fell,” he too fell into “flame” (hell).
A classical music enthusiast pointed out that the accompaniment for “Stars” is reminiscent of Schubert’s “Ave Maria.” It is a well-known sung Catholic Prayer. This religious connotation is rather apt, considering Javert is so driven by faith.
7. “The Confrontation”
In many sources, Director Sir Trevor Nunn is cited as saying Les Misérables “is about God.” This theme is most evident in the show’s two leading men. Valjean and Javert are both religious. Their faiths play out in different ways.
Reformed convict Valjean is merciful like the New Testament God. Inspector Javert is legalistic like the Old Testament God. Hence, from curtains up, we witness the relentless pursuit of the former by the latter. It is a battle of justice versus redemption, and it all comes to a head in “The Confrontation.”
Valjean pleads with Javert. He asks for three days to take care of Cosette, fulfilling a dying Fantine’s wishes, before turning himself in. Javert doubles down. He refers to Valjean as 24601 (his convict number). An epic section of counterpoint ensues. Dramatic drone notes and chords on every beat, underscore the tense exchange.
8. “A Little Fall Of Rain”
Another moment in the musical when you must have your tissues at the ready! What starts out as a duet finishes as a solo. Éponine breathes her last breath in the arms of the love of her life, Marius.
After fulfilling her selfless mission, delivering a note to Cosette on Marius’ behalf, Éponine is shot upon return to the barricade. In “A Little Fall of Rain,” she reveals her love to Marius and comforts him.
Living on the streets and with parents such as the Thénardiers, her life has been full of misery. She sings, “A breath away from where you are, I’ve come home from so far.” It is heartbreaking to think that only in death does she have a little taste of happiness.
9. “Master Of The House”
“Master of the House” provides some much-needed levity in this very heavy musical! It takes place in the inn owned by the Thénardiers — a truly detestable duo! Despite overcharging Fantine, treating her daughter as a slave, and preying on dead men’s pockets, they still manage to bring the comedy factor.
Monsieur Thénardier begins by professing to be a consummate landlord. Yet he later goes on to reveal how he scams his customers. The music reflects that all is not what it seems. It sports an off-kilter “oom-pah” rhythm, dissonant (clashy) chords, and chromatic saxophone fills (which feel sleazy).
The choruses hark back to the raucous, music hall sing-alongs of old. They are played much faster. The highlight, though, has to be Madame Thénardier’s contribution, where she roasts her husband.
10. “Empty Chairs And Empty Tables”
Marius is the only survivor of the barricade. He returns to the ABC Café where he and his friends planned the revolution. Surrounded by “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables,” it is evident he is struggling with survivor’s guilt. The lyrics are littered with classic signs. He recalls flashbacks and seeks forgiveness.
The song uses a leitmotif from an earlier song. The tune is the same as that sung by the bishop in “The Bishop.” “I have saved your soul for God,” he explains to Valjean after the latter stole from him. In turn, Valjean saves Marius’s life at the barricade.
Again, this song translated very well from stage to screen. The acapella (without music) first verse, choked-up vocal, and close-up shots of a tearful Eddie Redmayne made for a very moving performance.
11. “Who Am I?”
Earlier in the show, we learned that Valjean has gone from convict to Mayor. However, this turn of fortune gets threatened when Javert mistakenly arrests another in his place. Valjean faces a dilemma: “Who Am I?”
Should he speak up to free an innocent man or continue to live under an “alibi,” not abandon his “hundreds of workers,” and enjoy freedom after he “struggled for so long”? At the end of the day, his “soul belongs to God,” who gave him “hope when hope was gone.”
Opting for the narrow path, trusting it leads to life, he defiantly declares to Javert that he is “Jean Valjean … 24601!” The impressive top B — or top A in this blog’s accompanying video — alone secures this song’s place in the top 13!
12. “At The End Of The Of the Day”
“At the End of the Day” really paints a picture of the hardships experienced by the poor. In the first four stanzas, you can tangibly feel the civil unrest. The lyrics “one day” feature three times. It foreshadows the song “One Day More,” when the time comes for the “reckoning … to be reckoned.”
The music creates a sense of urgency. Whirring strings, frenetic brass fanfares, and the fast tempo (speed) depict the utter desperation. It also drives the action forward.
Fantine is introduced. Her rejection of repeated advances from the foreman has rattled her coworkers, who experience his wrath as a result. They seek revenge by trying to get her sacked after learning she has an illegitimate child. A fight ensues, and Valjean breaks up the commotion. Dressed a lot sharper, he has gone from convict to “mayor of this town.”
13. “Little People”
Ending on a lighter note, “Little People” is a song sung by the delightfully cheeky and endearing street urchin Gavroche. It might seem an odd choice, being such a small snippet of the show. Nevertheless, Gavroche is one of the reasons why the musical exists at all, which just “goes to show what little people can do.”
In an interview with the LA Times, Boublil regales watching a production of Oliver! the musical in London. The Artful Dodger reminded him of Gavroche. He said, “I started really to see two shows on that stage. One was “Oliver playing in front of me, and the other … I was seeing Valjean, Javert, Cosette.” He immediately started researching Les Misérables the next day.
Summing Up Our List Of Les Misérables Songs
There you have it, our top 13 songs from Les Misérables, a show full of heartbreaking ballads, tackling themes of unrequited love to shattered dreams. A musical with rousing anthems that speak of rebellion. Unlucky number 13 seems a befitting total!
Unlike the characters, the musical has had enduring success. This year (2023), the show reached an impressive milestone. A whopping 15,000 performances have taken place in the West End. Keep this up and we can look forward to the 24,601st performance at the Royal Albert Hall. According to our calculations, that will be roughly … 23 years from now!