1815 – Under the watch of cruel wardens, a chain-gang of hopeless convicts pushes through another day of hard labor in Toulon, France (“Look Down/Prologue”). One of the prisoners, Jean Valjean, prepares to begin his parole; he has served nineteen years as “a slave of the law” for stealing a loaf of bread, and then subsequently attempting to escape from prison. The chief officer in charge, Inspector Javert, coldly calls for “Prisoner 24601” and hands Valjean his release papers, warning him to obey the law henceforth.
Free after almost two decades of bondage, Valjean sets off to rebuild his life, hopeful that he may rediscover some trace of human kindness in the world (“On Parole”). The country townspeople he encounters, however, are wary of working beside a former convict, shunning Valjean and running him out of town. Only the Bishop of Digne takes pity, welcoming the wanderer in to take shelter and eat his fill in safety. Desperate, Valjean repays this kindness by stealing the church’s precious silver candlesticks, but when he is apprehended by the police, the Bishop again takes pity on the fugitive. Instead of sending Valjean back to prison, the Bishop implores him to use the silver to rebuild his life and begin anew as an honest man (“Valjean Arrested, Valjean Forgiven”). After so many years of terror, shame, and injustice, this mercy brings Valjean to an epiphany: his soul is not past redemption, and he must literally transform himself into a new man by assuming a false identity and breaking parole (“Valjean’s Soliloquy/ What Have I Done”).
1823 – Eight years later, the streets of Montreuil-sur-Mer, an industrial seaside town, teem with injustice. While factory workers and tradespeople struggle to keep food on the table, the urban poor scramble through the streets, fearing that they won’t survive the oncoming winter (“At the End of the Day”). Inside the factory gates, a gossiping gaggle of women count their blessings and carry on with their